Big, booming and back home – opera star Ben grants me an audience of one
When it comes to Cornish personalities, they don't get much bigger than Ben Luxon. A baritone superstar who worked with the likes of Benjamin Britten and Leonard Bernstein, he has sung in most of the world's great opera houses, from Covent Garden to La Scala.
A CBE, Bard of the Gorsedd and winner of numerous awards, this giant of classical music has tackled all of the major opera parts – Britten even composed Owen Wingrave specifically for his voice. But despite hitting the right notes in the world of opera, it is to Cornwall that Ben looks when he thinks of home.
And it was home he came for three months this year to play a leading role in Miracle Theatre's production of a new play called Tin. Although swapping these shores for America a dozen years ago, Ben makes frequent forays to the homeland – though never usually long enough to properly reacquaint himself with the old country. So it was clear he relished being given the opportunity for a longer spell. Redruth-born – though a Camborne man through and through – Ben's story is both beguiling and inspiring. I met him during a break in rehearsals.
On a personal level the encounter was poignant as it was held in the former Redruth Grammar School's old music block. The last time I'd been there was for one of Mr Skinner's music classes and I recalled how difficult it must have been to engage 13-year-old boys far more interested in T Rex and Mott The Hoople than Tchaikovsky and Mozart. It was 1972, after all. Arriving at the granite and brick building to meet Ben brought mixed feelings – a combination of lost youth and regret at failing to grasp the gift of education.
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Inside, this great man of Cornish song settled down with a mug of tea for a good old yarn about his latest endeavour, Camborne boyhood, schooldays at Truro, studying at Guildhall School of Music and his meteoric rise in the world of opera.
Thinking about his early days and suddenly remembering that in Cornwall old rivalries persist, Ben started laughing. It was a deep, bellowing sound, full of joy and warmth.
"Here I am back in Redruth, where it all started," he boomed. "I've had to wander around the world all these years of my life with 'Redruth' on my passport. Being a Camborne man, this is not a happy situation."
Ben, who celebrated his 75th birthday during the five-week tour of Tin – which had been commissioned by the Cornish Mining World Heritage Site – was unable to contain his excitement at being invited by Miracle director Bill Scott to come home for a decent length of time.
"It's great to be back in Cornwall – but then it's always great to be back in Cornwall," he said. "I love being here.
"This play means a great deal to me, not just because it is such a good story, but because it touches me as a Cornishman. It's so important to celebrate our Cornish heritage. My mother's side of the family are all American Cornish – cousin Jacks and Jennies. My grandfather came from Crowlas and my grandmother was a Uren from Carnhell Green. All this to-ing and fro-ing was amazing and I suppose it's what I'm still doing."
It was a delight to share a cuppa and listen to Ben's tales. And it wasn't only me who was thrilled to meet this Cornish legend. The affection Cornwall has for Ben was palpable from Sterts in the east to Botallack in the west, where fans turned out in all weathers to see him perform.