Ben Bliss and Lachlan Glen
Pianist Lachlan Glen and tenor Ben Bliss are co-founders of the millennial-focused arts presenter MISE-EN-SCÈNE STUDIOS (MESS) and our co-Artists of the Month for November. On December 11, NYFOS will join MESS for an updated performance of our annual holiday tradition: A Goyishe Christmas to You!
How did the two of you meet?
BB: Lachlan and I met during our stint in the Lindemann YADP at the Met in 2013. In fact Lachlan played my audition for Mo. Levine that got me into the program. (Thanks Lachlan!)
Ben, you worked significantly in another field before returning to opera. How did you make the decision to change your career path?
BB: Three years working for Dr. Phil is enough to make anyone question their life choices… But in all seriousness, a choir scholarship to Chapman University allowed me to afford my dream of studying film production in Southern California. The caveat was that the Music School Dean & the man who ended up as my voice teacher twisted my arm into taking voice lessons, being in two choirs and auditioning for the opera. I ended up singing Tamino & Albert Herring and adding a music minor. After graduating & working in production at Paramount Studios/Dr. Phil for 3 years I really missed music & didn’t see a path forward in Hollywood that appealed to me. I started studying again and auditioning for EVERYone. An audition at LA Opera landed me a spot in their YAP which was where I ‘caught up.’ After 2 years I joined Lindemann finish my prep for a career and off I went!
What musical experiences, onstage or as an audience member, have stayed with you or felt most significant to your development?
LG: I was born and raised in Sydney, Australia, and when I was 15 years old the Vienna Philharmonic came to Australia on tour, with Gergiev conducting. I can’t overstate how rare an occasion this was—it is prohibitively expensive for an orchestra to tour to Australia, especially one of the Vienna Phil’s quality, and it almost never happens. I went online and bought one of the few remaining tickets, which happened to be the front center dress circle at a price of something like $400. To this day I have never spent a better $400. The program included Tchaikovsky’s 5th symphony, and I was totally enraptured. They performed about 5 encores, all of them waltzes and polkas, and the audience was on its feet, roaring. I have never experienced a more exhilarating and inspiring concert in my life!
BB: My favorite operas I’ve seen were Die Frau Ohne Schatten with the indelible Ms. Goerke in the Met’s jaw-dropping production, and an amazingly elegant, effective production of Turn of the Screw at LA Opera in 2008(ish) with a mentor of mine, Bill Burden. As a performer, I must say that stepping on stage to sing Belmonte in Die Entführung aus dem Serail at the Met with Mo. Levine smiling up at me from the pit was an extraordinary feeling. I think it was Spring 2016. I had celebrated the 5th anniversary of the day I left Paramount during the rehearsal process for that show.
You founded the performing arts organization MISE-EN-SCÈNE STUDIOS together in 2016. What drove you to take the time out of your performing careers to create this organization?
BB: The short answer for me was to 1) create the job I wanted and, 2) to show my peers how awesome classical music can be. To expand on that, I wanted a job with financial and creative continuity that allows me to stay in one place and lead a somewhat normal life, kind of like a European Fest. And I KNOW a lot of my friends would love to experience classical music if it was affordable enough to experiment with and if it was a social, fun night out. MESS is a perfect combination of those two goals, and, as a bonus, we built a platform to do those things that is completely financially sustainable. The business end of classical arts production is as due for a re-think as the rest of it in our eyes.
LG: Meeting Ben in List Hall at the Met in early 2013 was one of those very lucky collisions. We of course connected immediately at a very intrinsic musical level and became close friends. But we also connected at another level of finding the model of classical arts presentation very outdated and with little hope for the future, and wanting to do what we could to try and change its course. Ben’s passion was to make the lives of artists more sustainable, so that artists could connect more deeply with their local communities and not have to travel constantly, or to start at Page One with every creative team for every project. My passion was to transform the business model which, in its current state, had very little hope to my mind. I felt there was a fundamental conflict of interest within the traditional business model, where companies had minimal incentive to create their product for their ticket buyer. I believed it was possible to transform the model from one that had a 70:30 ratio of contributed to earned revenue—and generated the majority of its earned revenue from single ticket sales—to one earning 75%+ of its revenue from earned sources, predominantly subscriptions (which we call “Membership” so as not to confuse it with the traditional idea of a subscription, with which our model has very little in common other than securing cash from consumers upfront). Furthermore, I strongly believed that Millennials, at saturation point with social media and instant, shallow gratification, and with some extra cash to spend due to the strong economy, jobs growth and rising wages, were ripe and ready to be introduced to the classical performing arts, and would pay upfront for access to social events curated around world-class music. So, it was all these factors that drove us to create MESS: a Millennial-focused, Membership-based classical arts production company with a mission to entirely reinvent the post-conservatory young artist economy and create a sustainable, earned revenue-based model for the presentation of world-class performing arts. (NB: Although after one year we have over 200 paying MESS Members with an average age of 35 years old and are well on our way to achieving this sustainable model, we are still heavily reliant on donations in this capital-heavy start-up phase, and are a 501(c)(3) tax-exempt organization. If you are reading this and thinking “Wow, that makes so much sense!” PLEASE help us out by making out a check to “MESS” and mailing it to PO Box 30905, New York, NY 10011. Your support is critical to our future!)
What do you see as the biggest challenges to working as a musician in America today?
LG: Simply a lack of well-paying, artistically fulfilling opportunities for young artists. It is crazy to me that so few opportunities exist, but in my opinion it is simply because society has changed monumentally and the presentation of classical arts hasn’t adapted significantly enough to hold real value to a young 21st century audience. In my opinion, people shouldn’t be buying tickets to operas because they feel like they should support the organization. I know most people probably don’t, but I also know that I frequently do and many of my friends do. On the one hand, I think this is commendable on the audience’s part; but if we want to survive we are going to have to provide true economic value to consumers, whereby they are purchasing a product that has equivalent or greater value to them than the money they’re parting with. Part of the overarching question here is the non-profit model, which discourages innovation and shields us from real market forces—but that’s the subject of a future conversation. 😉
BB: If only this job was just singing and acting! For me it’s the other parts of the job that can wear me out. Travel, being away from loved ones, learning music while trying to perform other music at a high level at the same time… not to complain though! It’s a great life!
Many people now write about the need for artists to embrace an entrepreneurial mindset and that’s certainly something each of you exhibit. What specifically would you recommend to young musicians trying to balance all the different skill sets that now seem necessary to cultivate a career in the arts?
BB: You said the magic word: Balance. Prioritize the work that’s important first, start early and find time to do the other things that feel important, whether it’s promoting your social media, finding an opportunity to fund & work on an idea, shaking hands with donors, etc. But balance it all out. And don’t forget to ‘balance in’ some time for yourself to relax! I also can’t recommend the experience of working outside of the music world highly enough. That perspective is so useful.
LG: My main piece of advice would be: Don’t be afraid to pivot, and/or fail. We put far too bright a spotlight on instant success, and if you are going to create something really unique—whether that is your own voice as a performer, or a company with an industry-challenging business model—you need to be ready for it to take time and even ultimately bear very little resemblance to what you thought you were creating in the first place!
Also, money and financial management are important, and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Don’t be afraid or ashamed to work jobs that may seem menial at best in order to put yourself in a sustainable financial trajectory. Very few young artists are lucky enough to be without personal debt, but you will have much more freedom in your entrepreneurial endeavors if this debt is gradually but consistently going down rather than up.
How would you describe your partnership? What is the dynamic like when you work together as the directors of an arts organization?
LG: Honestly, it’s fantastic. Somehow we each complement the other and it works really well. We have a small but immensely talented team who are the ones that really make each of our events a success; Ben and I are focused on developing long-term strategy (Ben more on the artistic side and myself more on the business side) and ensuring financial resources so our team can do their work, which means a lot of big calls to donors at this point to secure the significant operating capital we need to continue building and scaling this model.
BB: I was really lucky to bump into Lachlan. His musicianship is beyond compare as is his entrepreneurship and work ethic. We have so much fun collaborating both musically and in business. And both seem to be rather fruitful thus far!
Do you still have opportunities to perform together?
LG: Yes, thankfully! Any chance to perform with Ben is a breath of fresh air for me. I only wish it could happen more frequently!
BB: I agree, it’s not as often as we’d like to, but this fall we’ll be doing a full recital together in Pennsylvania!
Are there any projects coming up that you are particularly excited about?
BB: I’ll let Lachlan tell you about IES…
LG: I am conducting two completely unique programs of opera scenes at MESS on November 15 & 16 with nine of the most talented young singers I’ve ever known, directed by the incredible Paul Curran and accompanied by a chamber ensemble, featuring everything from Werther to Wozzeck and even Corigliano. Get your tickets now—these are going to be unforgettable events!
What was the last music you listened to before answering these questions?
LG: A friend of mine recently introduced me to NC-based electronic duo Sylvan Esso, and I have been listening to them on repeat. Check them out!
BB: My local jazz station in Seattle! Been listening to a lot of Lake Street Dive, Unknown Mortal Orchestra & (as always) Led Zeppelin though…
When you aren’t making music, what is your favorite way to spend your time?
LG: I love spending time outside—walking, reading in the park, or watching my partner play tennis! I also love to cook and bake, and actually had a baking business when I was a teenager back in Australia…
BB: being home! And when I’m home, working on my house. I’m obsessed. Installed a built-in shelf & some new lights/switches/circuits this week!
What is your favorite song? (Qualify your answer to this possibly impossible question as needed.)
BB: Darn good question. I don’t think I have a shot in hell if answering it, so instead I’ll tell you my 5 favorite movies (in no particular order):
Children of Men
Tree of Life
The Big Lebowski
LG: Probably “Breathe” by Pink Floyd. I listen to the entire Dark Side of the Moon album frequently and it’s like a healing balm in the midst of a life that is very busy and often stressful. The lyrics to “Breathe” are words I live by:
Breathe, breathe in the air
Don’t be afraid to care
Leave but don’t leave me
Look around, choose your own ground
For long you live and high you fly
And smiles you’ll give and tears you’ll cry
And all your touch and all you see
Is all your life will ever be
Run, rabbit run
Dig that hole, forget the sun
And when at last the work is done
Don’t sit down, it’s time to dig another one
For long you live and high you fly
But only if you ride the tide
And balanced on the biggest wave
You race towards an early grave