It's a Night at the Opera
April 14, 2004
I have spent a number of years studying Oklahoma history and this bit of information came to me as
a complete surprise. One day I was spending my leisure hours, as I often do, strolling among the history
section of the library when I saw, laying on a table, a book entitled Oklahoma Tenor. I picked it up and learned all about the fascinating world of Joe Benton.
Benton, Joseph, (1898). Oklahoma tenor; musical memories of Giuseppe
Bentonelli. Norman, University of Oklahoma Press.
It's a night at the opera this week on the Oklahoma Audio Almanac.
Hello, I'm Steven Knoche Kite.
For almost twenty-one years opera lovers in the know knew of Giuseppe Bentonelli. The famous tenor
began his training in Nice in 1923 and made his first debut a year later in the same city appearing in
Mozart's Don Giovanni. For the next twenty years Giuseppe Bentonelli traveled in the most elite of opera
circles. From 1925 to 28 the young tenor studied Italian diction and performance under the principle conductor
at La Scala in Milan. Following his debut in Italy Bentonelli subsequently appeared in more than 500 productions
around the world.
In 1930 and again in 1934 Bentonelli actually created two leading tenor roles in the debut of the operas:
The Vassal and Cecilia. In these productions he
set a standard of excellence that others to this day view as a benchmark in operatic performance. In 1934
Bentonelli re-entered the United States as a member of the Chicago Opera and in 1936 made his debut with
the Metropolitan Opera in New York. This position for the tenor led to his crowning achievements as lead
tenor in a company that traveled the world.
Celebrity though he was Giuseppe Bentonelli had no problem telling stories on his self. Like the time
as a struggling student of voice in Europe he saved his money and starved in order to purchase a hat that
was in fashion at the time. Only to have the shoddy chapeau fall to pieces in the rain moments later with
the cheap dye staining the only good clothes he owned. Or the time in a performance where as a swashbuckler
at the most crucial moment on a ladder, wooing a wife to be with his back to the audience, his suspenders
broke causing his tights to fall down around his ankles. The undaunted Bentonelli continued the scene
holding up his tights with one hand; he made the curtain call in the same manner and brought down the
Giuseppe Bentonelli as famous and honored as he was never allowed himself to stray too far from his
roots as a common person or his beginnings as a child on his families farm. No matter what stage he was
on or in what royal court he was appearing the lessons from his less than glamorous childhood stayed with
him. His connection with his past helped Bentonelli in his later years, when after retirement from the
world of opera, he began to teach voice at his old alma mater The University of Oklahoma. Giuseppe Bentonelli,
or Joe Benton as his parents called him grew up in Sayre, Oklahoma before moving to Norman to attend school.
It was in this week that the world of opera as well as Oklahoma said goodbye to the renowned tenor, Giuseppe
(Joe) Bentonelli (Benton) passing away this week in 1975.
The Oklahoma Audio Almanac is a joint production of Oklahoma's Public Radio
and the Oklahoma State University Library.