Posted February 26, 2020
Acclaimed tenor Benjamin Butterfield has enjoyed a near 30-year career in opera both in Canada and abroad, in a wide-ranging repertoire from Baroque to Contemporary, encompassing opera, concert and recital. Since 2006, while continuing his singing career, Benjamin has been teaching voice to the next generation at the University of Victoria, where he became a full professor in 2016.
Born in Halifax, Nova Scotia, Benjamin grew up in Victoria, where his family relocated when he was just a year old. Growing up with three brothers and a sister in a musical family, Benjamin played the violin and a bit of piano. When he was seven years old, his violin teachers were Sydney Humphreys and Murray Adaskin, and the VCM was based at Craigdarroch Castle. “It was always exciting to be there,” he recalls, “with hundreds of kids running up and down the creaky staircases. There was always a buzz in the air there.”
Voice lessons with Selena James
Benjamin attended Brentwood College for high school and studied music there. When he was 18, he had his first voice lesson at the Victoria Conservatory of Music, with legendary opera singer Selena James, who joined the VCM’s faculty in 1973 and taught many of Canada’s leading opera stars.
“Selena was a wonderful teacher because she did not impose stuff on you, but made you discover it for yourself,” Benjamin remembers. “I remember one occasion when I had been criticized by another teacher for how I was breathing and I wondered aloud if Selena was teaching me the proper technique. She asked me to show her the line of Bach I was having trouble singing and asked me: ‘when you are walking from A to B, do you look down at your feet and watch where you are going, or do you look ahead of you to your destination? Just look ahead at where you are going with the line.’ To my amazement, I sang it perfectly. That was how Selena taught and it inspired me always to want to go back and discover more of myself – that was how it felt.”
He went on to study with Selena James at the Banff Centre’s Theatre Studio Ensemble. Selena James passed away in 2019, at the age of 96. James always pushed her students to spread their wings, leaving them with the impression that “she is eternally with us, even though we wouldn’t have seen her for months or years at a time,” Benjamin said. “There isn’t a day that goes by when I don’t invoke her words to my students. My advice to students is to listen to your teachers. Truly, stop and listen and do what you are told. Yes it is important to listen to yourself and know your own path, but if you have great teachers, take the lessons from them. It may save you some time.”
Pursuing a career in music
Fellow VCM alumnus and acclaimed tenor Richard Margison was the inspiration for Benjamin deciding to pursue a career in music, “when I heard him sing Lensky in Eugene Onegin with Vancouver Opera in the early ‘80s. He was an early role model,” Benjamin remembers. Benjamin went on to make his professional debut as Monsieur Triquet in Onegin with POV and Tim Vernon, in 1991, just after graduating from McGill University. Three years later, Benjamin won the role of Tamino in The Magic Flute at New York City Opera which launched him internationally.
Since then, Benjamin has become known for his performances throughout North America, Europe, in the Middle East, Asia, New Zealand and Ukraine. He has performed with many of the world’s most recognized conductors in some of the most recognized venues such as Carnegie Hall, Roy Thompson Hall, Royal Albert Hall, Het Concertgebouw, Kennedy Centre and the San Carlo in Naples. Professor, Head of Voice, and Music Graduate Advisor for the School of Music at the University of Victoria, Benjamin was the 2015 recipient of the UVic Craigdarroch Award for Excellence in Artistic Expression. He has served as guest faculty for Opera Nuova, the Amalfi Coast Music Festival in Italy, the Victoria Conservatory Summer Vocal Academy, Vancouver International Song Institute, Yellow Barn and Orford Musique. In the autumn of 2018, Butterfield was made a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada, the country’s highest academic honour and in 2019, Benjamin was named a distinguished honouree of Opera Canada, receiving a “Ruby” award for his exemplary contributions to the industry through his performances and teaching.
“Having experienced learning at the Conservatory and the University, I believe both institutions offer music students key learnings at different times in their development and both are critical for the development of artists,” Benjamin said. “The foundations of what I experienced at the Conservatory helped me to move forward at the University. These are different but complementary institutions and both are necessary to help students be where they need to be on their journey.”