The KC-Based Singer is a Tenor in Demand, Who Performs Globally and is Heading Out on His Second U.S. Recital Tour
In 2011, Ben Gulley walked onto the stage of the Muriel Kauffman Theatre at the Kauffman Center for the Performing Arts and sang the first notes that ever graced the finished space. He performed “Nessun Dorma” from “Turandot” with then Lyric Opera of Kansas City artistic director and conductor Ward Holmquist, accompanying.
“We performed it three times while the acousticians walked around the space,” Gulley says. “It was such an honor to stand center stage and cast the first sounds into that hall. Looking out and seeing the beaming faces of the Kauffmans and Helzbergs is an unforgettable moment for me. I saw how proud they were of their incredible investment in the arts, an investment that would echo for many generations to come.”
Since that day, Gulley has become a tenor in demand. His singing has taken him all over the globe, from Germany, to Italy, to Egypt, to Carnegie Hall. He sang at Kate Spade’s funeral in June. He has released a solo album, “In Between,” which features all original music written by Gulley himself. The upcoming season will see him traversing the States during his second national solo recital tour, as well as treading the opera boards from Sarasota, to Idaho, to South Dakota.
An international career for a kid who grew up in the Midwest.
Gulley was born in Omaha, Nebraska, but grew up splitting time between a family farm in Tina, Missouri, and attending school in Blue Springs, Missouri. His family was chock-full of active amateur musicians; his grandfather played saloon guitar and piano. His mother plays the organ, clarinet and piano. His sister played the flute. Gulley learned about classic rock and Jim Croce from his dad, Elvis and Perry Como from his grandparents, and show tunes from his mother, who often sang along in a tuneful soprano.
“The variety of music I learned and loved growing up taught me that the variant genres of music are essentially all musical stories using the same 13 notes,” Gulley says. “Beethoven to Coldplay; just variations in intricacy, theme and color.”
Gulley went to Blue Springs High School, where, during his freshman year, he was cast as the Wolf in Stephen Sondheim’s “Into the Woods.”
“After that, I was ‘bit’ by the theater wolf. Pun intended, of course,” Gulley says with an impish grin.
Gulley was awarded several scholarships to attend the Conservatory at the University of Missouri-Kansas City, where he was one of two freshmen to sing in the prestigious Heritage Chorale.
“Making music next to graduate- and doctoral-level musicians was a trial by fire and made me a much better musician,” Gulley says.
In 2009, Gulley won the Metropolitan Opera’s National Council District & Regional Competitions and was a National Semi-Finalist. That year he was also named an apprentice for the Lyric Opera of Kansas City. But he still struggled with what he calls “musical ADD.” He was a music minister. He was cast in the stage adaptation of Stephen Schwartz’s musical “Gepetto & Son,” taking the role of Stromboli when Brett Spiner, Star Trek’s Data, left the production. He was one of three “American Tenors,” the SONY/BMG Masterworks recording group. He collaborated with David Foster and Natalie Cole. He wrote and recorded his own original music.
But opera always took the biggest piece of Gulley’s musical pie.
“For me, opera always was, and always will be, paramount,” Gulley says. “I found opera in college, learning the tools I needed to sing it and the artistic mettle it demands. As I discovered, understood and empathized with artists like Corelli, Tibaldi and Caruso, it struck me that opera was my calling.”
Gulley’s schedule keeps him on the road most of the time, but he still calls Kansas City home. He performs here as often as he can, sits on the UMKC Alumni board, and is a founding board member of Opera 180, Kansas City’s newest opera company.
“The city is bursting at the artistic seams with all genres of the arts,” Gulley says. “It’s a vibrant place to be.”
But that’s not the only reason Gulley has put down some roots here.
“There’s something about that Kansas City kindness and charm that is good for the soul,” Gulley says. “KC pride in its modesty and kindness is something I try to carry with me everywhere I go. I’d like to think I spread KC’s particular brand of charm wherever I wander.”
Above: Photo of Ben Gulley by Jim Barcus