How Low Will He Go?

It’s already autumn in the brilliant career of boy soprano Adam Benkendorf. At the age of 13, the Clarendon Hills Middle School eighth grader is a veteran of seven Lyric Opera productions and a raft of other classical gigs including two lead roles with Chicago Opera Theatre. He’s the hottest property of his type in town, the go-to kid when the libretto calls for a pro who can play down to age ten and sing in any language. His colleagues have included the likes of Jane Glover and Maurice Sendak, who found him the perfect Pepicek (the boy hero depicted in his illustrations for the book inspired by the opera Brundibar). But over the next few months audiences at COT, the DuPage Opera Theatre, and a half dozen other venues will hear what are likely to be his final high As. Any day now, Benkendorf’s going to wake up with a different voice.

Three centuries ago, there would have been another option: a warm bath, enough pressure on the jugular to put him out, a couple quick swipes of the knife, then a long apprenticeship with a singing master and the potential for a life of fame and fortune as a castrato. In these more enlightened times, Benkendorf will take what comes–perhaps a beautiful tenor, perhaps an unmanageable croak.

What’s come so far is no accident. Benkendorf is the younger brother of another phenom, singer Sarah Benkendorf, who left a four-year, 700-performance run in the American Girl Place musical Circle of Friends to enter college last year at age 15. When their parents divorced 12 years ago, Sarah and Adam came to live in the Oak Brook home of their grandparents, Arlene and Lee Benkendorf. Since then, the ebullient Lee has nurtured their talent, closing the Benkendorf Collection, the antique-clock business he ran for years on Oak Street and, later, at 900 North Michigan–to be their primary caregiver and full-time manager.

When four-year-old Sarah wanted to play the piano, Lee gave her a pint-size keyboard and found a young teacher willing to take on a preschooler; when she was six and started to sing, he had her busking in London’s Covent Garden. By the time she joined the cast at American Girl Place playing Swedish immigrant Kirsten, she was a seasoned soloist. Over the next few years Lee and Sarah developed and produced 36 episodes of Lights, Camera, Kids, a public-access program about children in showbiz. Before long, Adam was joining Sarah on concert dates and approaching strangers in restaurants, asking if they wanted to hear him sing in Italian. No one in the family had a strong interest in music before these kids came along, but the elder Benkendorf doesn’t venture lightly into anything: along with the gilded castrati-era clocks and crowds of competitive singing trophies, there are now three grand pianos in the house.

Lee says the origin of his grandkids’ talent is a mystery, but admits to being “the push” that keeps them moving. Adam has given up every activity except Boy Scouts and does his homework in the car on the way to and from rehearsal; Arlene, a retired high school math teacher, shares in the thousands of hours of chauffeuring. Carolyn Brady, who started teaching Sarah nine years ago, still comes to the house weekly to give the kids voice and piano lessons, and both youngsters now take semiannual tutorials with Kenneth Bozeman, head of the voice department at Lawrence University’s music conservatory.

Adam says he’s motivated by the applause and the chance to meet people like Glover and Sendak; he finds the life of a boy soprano “not so much hard as time-consuming.” He’s booked through next July with dates that include the title role in three different productions of Amahl and the Night Visitors, including DuPage Opera’s mounting of the show next month. He’ll solo in Leonard Bernstein’s Chichester Psalms with two different orchestras and play Harry in Roosevelt University’s production of the Benjamin Britten opera Albert Herring. In February, when Chicago Opera Theater opens at its new home in Millennium Park, he’ll play Amore in Monteverdi’s L’incoronazione di Poppea.

“If I could, I would choose that this happen when he’s 18,” Lee says. “His voice would have changed, and he’d be embarking on a professional career.” As it is, Lee says they’ve “been working his upper range, trying to keep it as strong as possible.” Adam–who says he privately “freaked” when he first stepped on the Lyric Opera stage at age eight but toughed it out–is keeping his cool. “For all I know, it could change tomorrow, but I don’t think it’s going to discourage me. I’ll keep on singing.”

Says Lee: “He may be singing in the shower.”

Tragedy Prevention

Security expert Paul Gerlach says people’s eyes don’t glaze over anymore when he talks about the need to develop plans to deal with emergencies at events. Gerlach–whose company, Safety Service Systems, devised security for the Bears when they played in Champaign and for a Harley-Davidson centennial party that drew 135,000 to a Milwaukee park–says smaller venues used to shrug him off: “They’d say, ‘Nice, but we’re not paying for that.'” Then came 9/11, E2, and the Rhode Island nightclub fire. Now there’s a move to establish safety standards that go beyond city codes. Gerlach is one of the speakers lined up this weekend for a Chicago Bar Association-sponsored seminar that includes lawyers, city officials, and representatives from Chicago venues including Metro and the Lyric Opera House. “A Primer for the Entertainment Community: Legal and Practical Issues About Venue Safety” runs from 9 to 4 Saturday, October 25, at the Chicago Hilton and Towers; it’s $50 including lunch. Call 312-554-2056 or register at the door.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Cynthia Howe.