Kids, as we all know, love to doodle. If you give a child some paper and pencils, sooner or later, there’s going to be something on the page, whether it’s a graphite zoo, or just some zany scribbles.
Some kids, like Tenafly’s Benjamin Wenzelberg, are a little different. When he would draw, his scribbles made a bit more sense.
“It was very interesting for us as parents because you know how kids will sit and draw? Well, he would sit and doodle, but he would doodle notes,” said Jaime, Benjamin’s mother.
After showing his mother his musical creations, Benjamin would sit down at the piano, and play what he had just drawn. He was composing music. Benjamin can actually think in music, and at 14, he’s already been all over the world, showcasing his talents. This semester, he’s taking classes online to focus on some of his performance roles, including Mustardseed in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream. It’s his fifth season as a member of the Met’s Children Chorus, which was a goal that Benjamin set for himself a few short years ago.
“Lincoln Center is kind of my home away from home,” he said with a smile that never seemed to leave his face.
Performing and composing music is what Benjamin loves to do. His parents are following his lead, rather than the other way around.
“He’s very proactive in what he wants,” his mother noted.
It all started at a young age for Benjamin. His parents would listen to Broadway soundtracks, and Benjamin would hum the tunes of Les Misérables in the car ride to preschool. When he was four, Benjamin started taking violin lessons. His teacher would accompany him on the piano, and then when she would talk scheduling with his mother, Benjamin would sit down at the piano and start playing. He has perfect pitch and can sight read. Music, he says, just came to him.
Benjamin soon began taking piano lessons, and then performing. His first performance was at a performing arts camp at the JCC, and his career took off from there.
Benjamin’s beautiful voice has filled the halls of place ranging from Carnegie Hall and Avery Fischer Hall to the Brooklyn Academy of Music’s Howard Gilman Opera House, Arthur Ashe Stadium, Atlanta, and even Israel.
At BAM, Benjamin played Miles in New York City Opera’s production of Benjamin Britten’s The Turn of the Screw. His performance drew raves.
In Israel, Benjamin had the opportunity to sing in Jerusalem, right by the Western Wall. His schedule is always jam-packed. Just days before going to Israel, Benjamin and his family were in Colorado for a music festival. They got a call about the opportunity, and boarded a plane, spent a day at home, and then took off for Israel. Benjamin turned 12 while abroad.
“I go from place to place, and sometimes I don’t even know where we’re going. I’m just like ‘Alright, let’s do it!’” he said.
In 2012, he starred as Charlie Bucket in the Atlanta Opera’s production of the original opera The Golden Ticket, which is based on Roald Dahl’s classic children’s book Charlie and the Chocolate Factory.
That opportunity came out of Colorado as well. One of the pianists who Benjamin and his family knew from the festival got a job with the Atlanta Opera. A year later, they contacted Benjamin and said they wanted him to audition. He got the part, and had to learn a 400-page score in two weeks. He lived in Atlanta for six weeks, and met Dahl’s widow, who signed his copy of the book.
“It was amazing,” Benjamin said of the experience.
Benjamin has been taking composition and conducting classes at Juilliard’s pre-college program since he was only nine years old. When he was 11, he conducted his first show, when a group of kids sang an excerpt of Mozart’s The Magic Flute.
Perhaps most ambitiously, a few years ago, he began composing his own opera. The Sleeping Beauty is his baby, and back in July, Chelsea Opera put on a production of a portion of the first act that featured singers, a small ensemble and a piano.
“The complexity of what he’s written is so incredible. It’s really impressive,” said Lynne Hayden-Findlay, the co-founder of the Chelsea Opera. Hayden-Findlay and Leonarda Priore, the other founder of the opera, have been working with Benjamin since he was nine years old.
“It’s like working with a colleague,” said Hayden-Findlay.
From the moment he started performing with the Chelsea Opera, Priore could sense Benjamin’s excitement. “You could feel that he was enthralled to be there,” she said, adding that he always behaves like a perfect gentleman.
Benjamin sang one role in his opera: the role of the frog. After the performance, he was able to get feedback from professionals in the business, which he loved.
“Their comments were very to the point and they were helpful, and they really make a difference,” he said. He’ll no doubt put the feedback to good use in January, when there will be another performance of selected excerpts of his opera.
“He is constantly listening to reason,” said Priore, noting his level of maturity.
In some ways, Benjamin is following in the footsteps of his maternal great-grandmother. Her name was Pauline, and she too was a great all–around musician. In 1950, she conducted at Carnegie Hall. One day, her custom-made piano—ivory keys and all—was waiting for Benjamin when he came home from school. He’s been playing it ever since, and named it Pauline in his great-grandmother’s honor.
When he’s not working on The Sleeping Beauty, taking classes at Juilliard, performing at the Met or just traveling all over for wherever the next performance may be, Benjamin likes, well, loves, one other thing: roller coasters. On a few occasions, his height wouldn’t let him ride a few, but now it’s no problem.
“I almost made my mother throw up more than once!” he said with a laugh. His favorite? Storm Runner at Hershey Park.
Unlike with a roller coaster, Benjamin’s ride seems to be going in only one direction—up.
“The world is his oyster right now,” Priore enthused.
College is down the road, and Benjamin is already way ahead of his parents on that front. He’s incredibly humble, and thankful for all of his coaches and mentors, people who have become friends as well. Given all the highs, Benjamin has a hard time choosing a favorite moment. It’s been quite a ride so far, but this is just the beginning.
“I’ve had a lot of happy moments, and all of them have been amazing.”
Justin Davidson, a regular contributor to BC THE MAGAZINE, is also contributing editor of Talk of the Town magazine and editor of Occasions.