In the 1970’s and 80’s one of the most versatile and gifted operatic Baritones was Benjamin Luxon. The British singer sang all over the world, and in almost every genre of music. In fact, Tanglewood audiences may remember Luxon more for his folk singing than his operatic prowess. But Luxon’s career was cut short in its prime by every musician’s nightmare - acute hearing loss. These days he lives in the Berkshires. WNPR’s Ray Hardman has this profile of Benjamin Luxon, who still entertains audiences, only now instead of Opera, it’s the spoken word.
Gifted with a rich, effortless Baritone, I first heard Benjamin Luxon’s voice as a music student in the 1980’s, specifically his interpretation of Ralph Vaughan Williams’ Song of the Vagabond.
Benjamin Luxon was born in 1937 in Cornwall, a part of Great Britain Luxon says has a rich tradition of music making:
"There was a huge amount of singing. Pretty much everyone sang. And so therefore I was no exception. I was quite a famous child soprano. So the drive was there. It was like breathing. It was second nature to me."
As a young man Luxon moved to London to train to become a teacher, but fate stepped in. A well known local Soprano heard Luxon sing, and directed him to the Guildhall School of Music. It was there that he was assigned to take lessons with Walter Greuner. Luxon recalls his first lesson with Greuner:
"Anyway, he came back to me and he said “listen –I must know before you leave this room, what do you want to do? Because I am convinced that you could make a very good living as a singer.” And I said, I want to be a singer! It was totally a knee jerk reaction. I hadn’t thought about it before. But faced with it, and so that’s how it all began."
And just like that his career began to take off. His first assignments were singing in countless concerts and recitals throughout Great Britain. Luxon says the pace was hectic, but eventually proved to be beneficial:
"I think it was baptism by fire. And so one was hired, and it was afternoon rehearsal, before the concert. There was no messing around. You delivered or you didn’t. What happened was very interesting. The English singers were very successful in Europe for that very reason."
By the 1970’s Luxon’s career was in full swing – he was singing in all of the major Opera houses of the world, giving acclaimed recitals, and making recording after recording. But that all changed in 1988- when perhaps the cruelest affliction for a singer struck Luxon in his singing prime – profound hearing loss:
"Well I began to have strange things happen to my hearing. I remember singing at the Paris Opera, and I went into rehearsal, and the piano, I thought oh my God the piano is out of tune. And the next thing I know the piano is sounding like a hurdy gurdy. The orchestra sounded like a lot people down in the bottom of the deep pit banging on iron pipes. I went from one person to another, and I thought what’s going on? In the meantime I was trying to hold myself together and keep up doing the performances. So eventually I went to a man, and he said I know what this is."
It turned out to be a rare, unnamed auto immune disease that Luxon says attacks either the eyes or the ears. Luxon struggled through his engagements, until a disastrous New York City recital in 1992-
"So I made an announcement. I said to the audience something’s happening with my hearing, I don’t quite know what is going to happen. So we started right, I couldn’t sing a second song. I had no idea where to pitch. I sang the third song. I could see from people’s faces that something was wrong. After about ten minutes of this I said listen I’m sorry but I can’t put you or myself though this. I have to stop. That was on a Friday; by Sunday I was deaf. My hearing was gone. Vanished."
After a year of intense steroids and chemotherapy, his hearing, though far from perfect, did come back a little, enough for him to resume his career.
"And I went back on a very reduced schedule, because now people were very nervous of me, they didn’t know what to expect. I stuck in there for another two to three years, but now I was scared. I was never a scared singer. Now I was scared. What I felt about it is I just have to stop this because I’m scared. There was no pleasure. What’s the point in it?"
With some hearing ability, Luxon threw himself into Opera directing and giving masterclasses. But the hearing loss has become more profound through the years. Luxon now hears with the help of a cochlear implant. He lives in the Berkshires, and the performing bug eventually came back – Now Luxon performs in plays, and recites poetry, including an upcoming recital of Victoria Era poems and songs with fellow Brit and Neighbor, author Simon Winchester.
"Fortunately, I am not a person who yearns, or longs for what was. I don’t long for it. I don’t miss it. I don’t miss the life. My life is great now, apart from the fact that I am getting old. That’s always a struggle."
Benjamin Luxon performs VICTORIA AND HER EMPIRE: An Evening of Words and Music …Saturday night at the Sandisfield Arts Center in Sandisfield Massachusetts. For WNPR, I’m Ray Hardman