Rising Stars: An Interview with Ben Edquist

The following interview of Ben Edquist, creator of the lead role of Edward Kynaston in Carlisle Floyd’s  opera “The Prince of Players”, took place in the administrative offices of the Houston Grand Opera, whose facilitation of this interview is deeply appreciated. (Although the interview was scheduled to be posted a few days ago, the destruction that Hurricane Harvey wreaked on the State of Texas delayed its final edits.)


[Below: Baritone Ben Edquist; edited image from a publicity photograph from benedquist.com.]

Wm: I usually begin an interview with questions about one’s early musical and dramatic influences. When did your interest in vocal performance begin?

BE: My interest in singing started when I was in the children’s choir of our church at Chapelwood United Methodist Church in Lake Jackson, Texas. The only thing the director of our children’s choir really cared about was that you sang out, so my yelling was appreciated early on.

When I was seven years old, David Hill, who was the director of the church choir and a voice teacher, suggested  that I audition for the children’s choir for performances of Jerry Bock’s “Fiddler on the Roof”, which was being performed by Brazosport Center Stages (BCS), the local community theater.

From ages 7 through 19, I did shows with BCS and did a bunch of different roles, so I grew up in theater. I did musicals for years and years.

When the company performed Lionel Bart’s “Oliver”, Matt Edquist, my dad, played Bill Sikes and I was in part of the chorus of orphan kids. My dad and I also did the “Wizard of Oz”, “Guys & Dolls”, and many other shows together.

[Below: Ben Edquist (left) as Nathan Detroit and Matt Edquist (right) as Big Jule in the Brazosport Center Stage production of Loesser’s “Guys & Dolls”; edited image, based on a personal photograph from Ben Edquist.]

One of these shows is a madrigal feast that Brazosport Center Stages puts on every other year. My whole family took part in these shows at some point, but my father has been “Father Christmas” in these Madrigal Feast since 1998, and continues to reprise his role to this day

Wm: Obviously, you come from a family in which music is a big deal? What kinds of musical influences did your parents have?

BE: My mom took  piano as a child, and sang in the chorus at Brazosport Center Stages with me many times. But my Dad is a musician in his own right. In high school and college (University of Texas), my Dad and his friends had a band, and one of dad’s big musical claims to fame is that the singer-songwriter Robert Earl Keen (who composed the hit country song, The Road Goes on Forever) opened for his band back then.

[Below: Father Christmas (Matt Edquist, second from right) joined by Ben Edquist (left) and other members of the Edquist family.]

Wm: Did your parents encourage you to pursue a career in vocal performance?

BE: My father is an attorney and a very practical man, so I had always assumed that he would see a degree in vocal performance as a waste of money.

When I made Texas All-State Choir, in my junior year of high school, my mother suggested to me that I should think about doing music in college. She knew I wanted to do musical theater but had many people tell her that I should get a  get a classical voice degree, instead of a musical theater degree, to have the right technique to sustain a potential Broadway career.

[Below: Brazoswood High School image congratulating Ben Edquist on his acceptance in to the All-State Choir.]

So I ended up applying to three schools. The University of Texas was the first because state schools in Texas have guaranteed admission if you are in the top ten percent of your class. I had good grades in high school and was accepted into the University of Texas Plan II liberal arts program, where I intended to just take voice lessons on the side. The two other places I applied to were Rice University in Houston and Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee, both of which had the option to double major in voice and something else.

Vanderbilt ended up offering me a full academic/vocal scholarship, so it became the obvious choice. At Vanderbilt I was majoring in both mathematics and music, but very quickly found that music was too appealing, so I ended up dropping the math major.

Wm: Was it at Vanderbilt that you became interested in opera performance?

BE: It took a while for me to buy into opera, but because Vanderbilt was an undergraduate only music program, I got to perform multiple, large operatic roles as an undergraduate, including Sir John Falstaff in Nicolai’s “Merry Wives of Windsor”, Guglielmo in Mozart’s “Cosi fan Tutte” and Charlie in Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers”.

Then in my junior year I did the American Institute of Musical Studies [AIMS] in Graz, Austria. It’s an expensive program, but I was awarded a scholarship through Vanderbilt.

Wm: Previously, I interviewed your fellow Texan, tenor René Barbera, for whom AIMS was a career milestone. What happened after that?

BE: The year after AIMS was a big year for me for many reasons. I auditioned for and was accepted into the Wolf Trap Studio, I auditioned for a number of grad schools, and I met Jake Heggie while working on “Three Decembers”.

I had applied to several music schools for graduate training and had hoped to be accepted, but didn’t know  what kind of scholarship I could hope for.  I was accepted into the music programs at Juilliard, the Cincinnati Conservatory of Music, and my eventual school of choice, Rice University’s program, where Dr King was on the faculty. Once again, I was offered a full scholarship at Rice, so that seemed like the obvious path to take.

Unbeknownst to me, Jake Heggie had recommended me for the Houston Grand Opera Young Artists’ Vocal Academy (YAVA) So, after sending in a recording and an application, I was headed to YAVA, a week-long program designed for university students, where I got to learn a ton about the Houston Grand Opera Studio. So I had the amazing experience of YAVA, a wonderful summer in the Wolf Trap Opera Studio, and then was on my way to Rice.

Wm: The first time I saw you perform was at the 2014 Glimmerglass Festival as Jigger Craigin in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” [Review: Ryan McKinny Stars in Affectionately Mounted “Carousel” – Glimmerglass Festival, July 18, 2014].

[Below: Ben Edquist as Jigger Craigin in the 2014 Glimmerglass Festival production of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival.]

I performed the role of Jigger and covered the role of Harlequin in Richard Strauss’ “Ariadne auf Naxos”. At the end of the summer, Michael Heaston, who ran the Glimmerglass Festival Young Artists program, asked me if I would learn some of the role of Papageno in Mozart’s “The Magic Flute” to sing for him. He had me learn one of Papageno’s arias and the Bei Männern duet, and, after another audition in the fall, I was offered the role for in the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival production.

[Below: Papageno (Ben Edquist, left) discusses male-female relationships with Pamina (Jacqueline Echols, right) in the 2015 Glimmerglass Festival production of Mozart’s “The Magic Flute”; edited image, based on a Karli Cadel photograph, courtesy of the Glimmerglass Festival,]

Wm: So you were announced for a major summer festival role even before you formally began your training with the Houston Grand Opera Studio? What was the experience of Papageno at the Glimmerglass Festival like for you?

BE: Papageno was a blast. It was my first time doing the role and the cast was super solid.

Wm: You were accepted into the HGO Studio Artists in 2015. What was that experience like?

BE: The HGO Studio was amazing and kept me quite busy. My first year, I  participated in seven of Houston Grand Opera’s ten productions, singing roles in the Main Stage productions of Puccini’s “Tosca” and Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin”.

I participated in the chamber opera “O Columbia” about the lost spacecraft Columbia as part of HGO’s Song of Houston, an initiative promoting new operas on Houston-area themes. Although the show lasted only an hour, I was singing for 30 minutes of that hour, so it felt like quite the undertaking.

[Below: Ben Edquist (right) with Megan Samarin (left) and Pureum Jo (center) in a Houston Grand Opera production of Gregory Spears’ chamber opera “O Columbia”; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

I sang performance of the Pilot in Rachel Portman’s “The Little Prince” and did Jigger in “Carousel” again. It was a crazy amount of stage experience.

Wm: Whatever happens to your operatic career, you’ve made opera history by creating the lead role of Edward Kynaston in Carlisle Floyd’s latest opera “Prince of Players” [World Premiere: A Triumphant “Prince of Players” for Composer Carlisle Floyd, Baritone Ben Edquist – Houston Grand Opera, March 5, 2016]. How did that opportunity come your way?

BE: It was actually Jake Heggie, once again, who recommended that Carlisle Floyd meet me.

[Below: Edward Kynaston (Ben Edquist, right) has become an object of interest of Miss Frayne (Pureum Jo, left) and Lady Meresvale (Megan Mikailovna Samarin, center); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

Wm: Let’s go back a step. How did you first come to the attention of Jake Heggie?

BE: Gayle Shay, who runs the opera performance program at Vanderbilt University mounted Heggie’s chamber opera “Three Decembers” in my final year at Vanderbilt. I was cast in the role of the son, Charlie,  and Dr Shay invited Jake to come work with us.

Jake recommended me for YAVA that same year and I tried to keep in touch with him as much as possible. Then, in my second year at Rice, Jake tells me that Carlisle Floyd had asked him about baritones for his upcoming show and Jake had put my name forth.

[Below: Theater impresario Thomas Betterton (Federico de Michelis, left) counsels Edward Kynaston (Ben Edquist, right); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

This resulted in a mainstage audition for Carlisle and Houston Grand Opera’s music director, Maestro Patrick Summers. I had no idea whether I had the role or not until I was accepted into the studio, though a completely different audition process, and Edward Kynaston was listed on my contract for the next year.

Wm: Interestingly, I had interviewed Carlisle in San Francisco a year before [Dean of American Opera Composers: An Interview with Carlisle Floyd] when decisions were still being made on the production and cast.

[Below: Carlisle Floyd (front row center, third from left) accepts the ovation of the Houston Grand Opera audience as Ben Edquist (second from left) and Maestro Patrick Summers, front row, right) share the applause; edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

You subsequently took part in a Jake Heggie world premiere, “It’s a Wonderful Life”, playing one of the four angels that travel between heaven and earth [World Premiere Review: Jake Heggie’s Celestial Transformation of “It’s a Wonderful Life” – Houston Grand Opera, December 2, 2016]. Much of the time you are suspended in air on wires. Heggie obviously has no problem in creating roles for opera singers that require aerial acrobatics.

BE: “Its a Wonderful Life” was quite the whirlwind experience. I actually wasn’t originally supposed to be one of the angels, but the original baritone angel had a fear of heights. So when the show got into tech week and they started lifting people into the air, I got a call asking me to learn the role and show up for rehearsal that night.

[Below: Ben Edquist is an angel (top row, right) in the world premiere performance of Heggie’s “It’s a Wonderful Life” with William Burden (George Bailey, seated left) and Anthony Dean Griffey (seated, right), Talise Trevigne (Angel Second Class Clara, standing left) and Joshua Hopkins (Harry Bailey, standing center); edited image, based on a Lynn Lane photograph, courtesy of the Houston Grand Opera.]

So I started that process a week and a half before the show premiered, with a score in hand, being led around stage. My second rehearsal I was in the air. Flying isn’t the most comfortable thing in the world, but being a part of a Jake Heggie world premiere was on my bucket list, so it was well worth it.

Wm: Earlier, I reviewed your reprise of the role of Jigger Craigin in the Houston Grand Opera mounting of “Carousel” [Review: Houston Grand Opera’s Convincing Case for “Carousel” – April 22, 2016]. For me it was another example of why classic American musicals belong in the repertory of opera companies.

BE: Oh, I totally agree. And, unfortunately American opera companies are the only places with the budget to support the original orchestrations. Rodgers and Hammerstein shows are almost always seen with a reduced orchestra unless you’re in an opera house. But, yes, I’m a huge fan of the advent of opera companies adding Golden Age musicals to their repertoire.

And performing Jigger in Houston was a great experience, because it was an opportunity for me to sing and act a big role on HGO’s Main Stage with a phenomenal cast, including Duncan Rock, Andrea Carroll and Stephanie Blythe.

Wm: You have performed roles in two operas – “Fall of the House of Usher” and “The Juniper Tree” – by another contemporary composer, Philip Glass, at the Wolf Trap Opera in Vienna, Virginia. Much of your early career has  yourself as a performer of contemporary works and classic musicals. What roles are you preparing for the future and what roles interest you?

[Below: Ben Edquist (left) is William and Jonas Hacker (right) is Roderick Usher in the Wolf Trap Opera’s 2017 production of Glass’ “The Fall of the House of Usher”; edited image, based on a production photograph for the Wolf Trap Opera.]

BE: I’m a huge fan of new works. I think opera companies are finally starting to make them a staple in their seasons, and opera audiences are starting to get excited about seeing them. I also feel that the skills I learned in the theater growing up aid me in contemporary opera, because the shows tend to be very character- and acting-heavy and are in the language that I’ve performed in since I was seven years old.

As far as classic musicals go, I would love to perform Billy Bigelow in “Carousel”, Emile de Beque in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “South Pacific”, Anthony Hope in Sondheim’s “Sweeney Todd” and even Sweeney himself one day. I would be interested in many other Sondheim works as well.

[Photo: Ben Edquist (center) is the father, Madison Leonard (left) is the daughter, and Annie Rosen (right) is the stepmother in Glass’ “The Juniper Tree”; edited image, based on a Scott Suchmann photograph for the Wolf Trap Opera.]

Of the 20th century operas, I hope one day to do the title role in Britten’s “Billy Budd” and Joseph De Rocher in Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking”.

I’m currently preparing the lead role of Older Thompson in Tom Cipullo’s “Glory Denied” with HGO. It’s a fantastic new show that I’m really excited to work on. I’m also preparing for two other contemporary works, one of which is a world premiere, with Atlanta Opera and Garsington Opera. But I unfortunately can’t give any details about those shows just yet.

Wm: Thanks, Ben. I look forward to your future performances. 

BE: Thanks!