David Benesty: “The minute you think that you know it all, you’re finished”

From Los Angeles to Buenos Aires, year after year, David Benesty undertakes the same journey. He walks slowly through the streets of Buenos Aires, and his grim appearance looks transformed when he visits some of his favorite places: the Teatro Colón, the used bookstores and the classic bars. However, not many know that this man has an extensive career in the performing arts as a lyrical singer and concert artist. A virtual search yields some important data. On the cinephile platform IMDB he appears as a child actor in two television productions of the 50s. Nothing indicates that those were part of his appearances as a member of the Roger Wagner Chorale and that he stood out as an actor in the theater, being part of the cast of Tennessee Williams’s The Rose Tattoo during its West Coast premiere.
An article published in the Los Angeles Times in 2019 gives more accurate information. Benesty, part of a first generation of Jewish Turks who emigrated to the United States, is an accomplished artist, former child star, longtime music teacher, and heavy reader. Precisely the reason for the article in The Times had been the imminent closure of the legendary used bookstore “Sam: Johnson’s Bookshop” in Mar Vista, Los Angeles of which Benesty was its last manager. It was focused on his work at the store, something that does not define him as a person, according to the newspaper. As the bookstore no longer exists, gathering more information about its last visible face is an unsuccessful task. In 2020 this restless soul artist undertakes a new trip to Buenos Aires, although this time it is only through the phone.
Reluctant to give interviews, he explains that the fact that it is a website from Argentina is the only reason why he agrees to speak. However, in his words there is a certain desire to be vindicated, to recover the place that truly belongs to him. Always much closer to music than to the bookstore, although inseparable from reading, his career is closely related to the composer Bernard Herrmann, one of the glories of classic Hollywood. Herrmann was the creator of the soundtracks of Psycho, Vertigo, Citizen Kane, and The Devil and Daniel Webster, for which he won an Oscar. He was also the mentor of Benesty, who still refers to his teacher with absolute devotion, which makes him return at the times when he was a student, to that childhood and early years of youth where they had a great number of successes together.
Even being a demanding teacher and with a great erudition, his disagreement was more than his complacency, which helped him to grow more, to continue knowing, learning, traveling. That is why trying to investigate more about him can be an endless task, not even his 48 tattoos can define him. Because David Benesty is also a man who is looking for himself, since he understands that in this journey that is life, even at his 80 years old he has much to discover.

What were the greatest achievements in the first years of your music career?

I work with three of the biggest musicians and composers in Hollywood: Franz Waxman, Alfred Newman and Bernard Herrmann, who was the greatest of them all. I was in the first CinemaScope documentary called The Roger Wagner Chorale. I was a boy soprano at this time. The singers that were picked for this CinemaScope documentary were the finest in Los Angeles. There was only one solo and it was given to me. I don’t know what’s happened or if that short is lost but was a documentary featuring Roger Wagner Chorale, which later became Los Angeles Master Chorale which is now know by. But my highlights with unfortunate ended on the cutting room floor was when I made my debut with Paul Newman in a dreadful film called The Silver Chalice (1954), and I have two and a half minutes solo in which I sang. The finest musicians where in the orchestra, and these are people that are spoken with reverence today, The Hollywood String Quartet which was a world famous group and we rehearsed it once and the musicians put down their instruments and clapped. That is the greatest compliment to an artist and I was a child, I believe I was 15 years old. It was right before my voice changed. And that was the only singing that I have ever done that I was truly pleased with. I was very highly critical of myself. Years later, Franz Waxman came up to me, threw his arms around me and said, “David, you don’t know how I fought to keep that”. 60 years later, I’m sitting in the bookshop and all of a sudden I’m listening to this boy out and I’m saying, “why this music sound familiar?”. It was me. Some how they have managed to save one of the two track of sound for the film and this rare publishing house of CDs put out all the music to The Silver Chalice, including the one track of my solo which was a two-track. I thought what was permanently lost and the only thing I cared for and found it completely by mistake.
I was a cantor for many years at one of the services where I sang modern Jewish music. Gregor Piatigorsky was the greatest cellist in the world. He used to play with Jascha Heifetz and Arthur Rubinstein and they would play trios together. I had performed these songs and I was not pleased with the way I did them. I was embarrassed and I started to walk away. He followed me and I heard him clapped his hands. He said to me: “Bravo, young man, you have a beautiful voice”. This coming from the greatest cellist on earth.

Many fans of the Hollywood classic also know you participated in the television special A Christmas Carol (1954).

In the first part I’m the little kid with the solo quartet. Then I’m on the coach. So you see me there but that’s the only time that I’m seen. The actor, who plays a Tiny Tim who seemed to be near death, appears singing «Dear God of Christmas». That it is myself also, I dubbed his singing voice. And also at the very end, I start the first phrases and then the choir comes in. They later credits the actor who did but he is not singing. And anyone who hears me at the beginning knows that it’s the same voice. We’ve tried to rectify that for years and haven’t been able to. The first day everything went wrong. All the singers were in bad shape and I was terrible. Herrmann said: “Let’s scrap it, we can’t use it”. We came back the following day and things changed but I was still not pleased. Still not pleased with that.

A Christmas Carol (1954)

What was it like to work with Bernard Herrmann?

I was part of Bernard Herrmann’s The King of Schnorrers, which was a test pressing. That’s when my voice changed. I had to sing eight different roles, and I asked Bernard Herrmann. I would never call him by his first name, though he would have allowed me to I would not have done that. I had too much respect for him as an artist and a great musician. I said: “Mr. Herman, how much time do I have to learn this?”. And he said: “Ten days”. That was alright until the last song. I was exhausted by that time and I did it. He would have torn the singer apart but was most kind and understanding to me when he said: “David, you can do better than that”. Did it again and it went much better.
Hermann was known to have the mouth of a sailor. I don’t use that four letter word, but he would use it at the drop of that. He had a big bark but no bite [laughs] . He was very kind to me, and I was a stupid kid that made the most outrageous statements. And he would correct me. It was perhaps one of the most important parts of my life because he had such trust and faith in my work and so did his wife. I shared with Herrmann many important things. The person that wrote a major study on Bernard Herrmann didn’t even bother to interview me. He was a mentor and weekends I would go to his home out in the Valley.

How did your career as an opera singer develop?

I sang with various companies and probably the best achievement there would be when I got a note from the conductor. Milton Katims like me very much. He did a lot of work with Toscanini and Pablo Casals and he later became a conductor. I was singing in Carmen in Seattle Opera House, which was just built. I got a note and I was sure it was gonna say that I was fired or something like that because he was very difficult. And the note said: “You do exceptionally well, and I want to invite you to a champagne gathering this evening”. He and his wife congratulated me on the work that I was doing up there. I was suppose I was hired for one role and they gave me two.
I also want to mention that my idol was Giuseppe Di Stefano and I was privileged to sing in two performances of Tosca with him. Pavarotti even said in an interview that the greatest tenor was Di Stefano.

Carmen (1964)

Was there any role you weren’t comfortable with?

I refused to do two roles. When I sang with the Seattle Opera a gentleman came backstage and said: “We are doing an outdoor production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream of Shakespeare and I want you to do Puck”. I said: “A hundred and seventy five pound Puck? You must be kidding”. I was in the army at the time, so I had a very good shape but I had a singer’s chest, which made me look big. Not obese, but big. The other role I turned down was when I was offered Fagin in Oliver. And if there’s one book I hate, it’s Oliver Twist of Charles Dickens because of its virulent anti-Semitism. So I would turn to it on grounds that and again, they said: “But you would be perfect in the role”. I said: “I won’t do the role”. For Bernard Herrmann, Franz Waxman and Alfred Newman I would have done anything because I knew that if they asked me to do something it would be something wonderful and certainly not Fagin or Puck in A Midsummer Night’s Dream.

What can you tell me about your classes as a music teacher?

I have two students that should be singing at the Teatro Colón. There are wonderful. It’s interesting because they are a married couple, both are tenor’s and they have magnificent voices. And I’ve told both of them that have better voices than I did but they don’t have the art beyond the art. Do you know what I mean by that? Maria Callas had the arts beyond the arts. You listen to singers and your mind wanders, when you listen to Callas your mind does not wander. And that is what they don’t have as yet, and very few singers today do have. You were not born during the second golden age of opera. We thought it would last. Well, it didn’t. There are only maybe two or three singers today that one could name alongside a Victoria de los Ángeles, Maria Callas, Franco Corelli, Mario Del Monaco, Giulietta Simionato, Jussi Björling, Cesare Siepi, Nicola Rossi-Lemeni, Robert Merrill, Ettore Bastianini and Cornell MacNeil. We just don’t have these types of singers any longer.

And what is the best advice you can give them to reach that kind of perfection?

Although one could come close, there is no perfection in singing. The best advice that I give is: “You do not listen to yourself because you only hear 10 percent of your voice”. Of course they all do. And that’s dangerous because if you have a role in an opera and you listen to yourself, you get caught on the note. You would have to think of the last note in that run. Nothing but the last note. And the other advice is “Assume things that they have the voice to begin with”. Now, ninety five percent is breathing correctly and five percent is intelligence. Toscanini used to say singers have resonance with their brains ought to be. And unfortunately, it’s true of many world class artists. Today’s world class artist, many of them are truly second.

You were always an avid reader. What are the books that impacted your life?

Don Quixote de la Mancha by Miguel de Cervantes and Tolstoy’s Anna Karenina would be the two books that influenced me most. Don Quixote has everything on: wisdom, humor, sadness. And it’s so beautifully put together. I wish I knew Spanish so I could read it in its original language but there have been several wonderful translations. Anna Karenina ends the way it starts. And I don’t quite know of any other books that does that. You have the train station at the beginning. The tragedy. You have the train station at the end. The tragedy. And it gives you wonderful psychology in to these various people. Anna Karenina is the catalyst, the book is really more about Levin, who is very good to his serfs and who loves his land. It is perhaps one of the most perfect character studies in all of literature.
I love literature, but as I am getting older, I’m reading more about History and to a lot of books on musicians that are not all that well know. And I realize as I read, how little I know [laughs]. Every morning I get up and say: “David, you are the stupidest person on the face of the Earth. What can you learn today?”. You must learn something new everyday. The best advice I can give to young people: “The minute you think that you know it all, you’re finished”.

Somehow your passion for reading led you to work at the legendary Sam: Johnson’s Bookshop in Los Angeles. How was your experience working 27 years as a bookseller?

It’s not exactly the term I would use. I only was there maybe twice a week for many of those years. So it was more of an acquaintance then than really working for the bookshop. I helped build the quality books for the shop. Books that I bought in London, in Buenos Aires, in Istanbul. But the bookshop was not mine thing. It became so when one of the past directors of the bookshop died and then the other one started to have dementia. So if was the last few months where I had to make the decisions. I managed the shop, but in a way that it never stood in anything that I wanted to do. In another words, I had complete freedom with music and if I wanted to go on a trip, I just went.

However, thanks to the Los Angeles Times article, your name is now strongly associated with the bookstore.

The Los Angeles Times article was not supposed to be about me. I said to them. It’s supposed to be about the story of the bookstore. And they turned it. I frankly was upset, except that when this happens we were averaging between twelve to fifteen hundred dollars a day, and before if we made four or five hundred dollars a day, that was very good. So we tripled and quadrupled for about a month what we had been making. So for that reason fine people came in and wanted my autograph. But I guess if people asked me to do an interview here, I wouldn’t do it. I’m not that important.

Final chapter for a Mar Vista bookstore (Los Angeles Times)

I read in Los Angeles Times article that you traveled to Buenos Aires to find yourself, is this true?

When I was 18 years old, a woman that used to read palms said, “you will find yourself when you go to South America”. And years later, I went to South America and I found part of myself. I think I became a better person. I think I became a lot more understanding person. The last time I was in Buenos Aires I almost died. I had a bug. They sent me to the German Hospital and they misdiagnosed everything. They totally misread the x ray, gave me an antibiotic that was poisonous to my system and that I’d taken one more of them I probably would not be speaking to you. There were four people that really saved my life in Buenos Aires: Fabián, who is the owner of the CD Shop Casa Piscitelli and his wife Graciela, Damián that is Graciela’s nephew and Javier that is Fabian’s nephew who works in the shop. Damián came from school and watch me because I could not stop shaking, I could not hold a glass of water. I was in a very bad state and had it not been for these four people I would not be here. This happens after the article in Los Angeles Times. Even though I became deathly ill this last time, something very good and important came from my visits there.

What do you like most about Buenos Aires?

I’ve been all over the world and I love your city very much. I like the people and I love the music. I love your Opera House. It’s has the finest acoustic of any opera house. It’s beautiful, expensive [laughs]. I’ve been to the Colón at least twenty five times. It’s a main attraction but there’s so much to see in Buenos Aires. I find the people very distant until they get to know you. But when they get to know you, they’re very friendly. I feel at home there. My favorite foreign cities are Istambul. Cairo and Buenos Aires.

The Silver Chalice (2007)

How do you see the used book market in Los Angeles compared to the one in Buenos Aires?

You have wonderful used book shops in Buenos Aires.You have superb bookshops. The used books are not expensive. The use bookshop in Los Angeles are all going under because we’re getting people that do not do a thing about books and you have Amazon. Sam Johnson’s was an institution. It was one of the great bookshops.

If you had to choose the profession of your life that defines you the most, what would it be?

I can tell you right down it was the singing as I sang for over 50 years but I was never pleased with my singing. I could had a bigger career if I had chose to do but I never felt that I did as well as I should of save for that one time when I sang that solo with a 65 piece orchestra in The Silver Chalice. Paul Newman made his debut in the film [laughs]. We both made a debut film. He went on to have a few better things. But I’ve had a very good life. I constantly I’m learning constantly and I told pupils: “Never be too critical on yourself”. I was. On the other hand: “Don’t puff yourself up grandly because no matter how well do you do something, could have been better”.