Playing villains and visionaries, geniuses and every-man, the two-time Oscar winning Sir Ben Kingsley has graced our movie and television screens for decades. Yet to see Kingsley, a classically trained Shakespearean actor, perform live is a rare occurrence. Taking star turns in our movie theaters so often has left him little time to take the stage, and in 2013 he announced he would no longer be doing theater.
Yet, thanks to the Houston Symphony, music-lovers have a chance to see Kingsley in person, for one extraordinary night only, as he narrates Sergei Prokofiev’s Peter and the Wolf with the Houston Symphony led by music director Andrés Orozco-Estrada.
I recently had the chance to speak to Kingsley before his trip to Texas to make his Houston Symphony debut for the opening night concert of the symphony's 103rd season. I soon found out find why the stage still calls to him, especially when he shares it with a world-class orchestra.
For Kingsley, his love of working with big orchestras seems connected to his deep admiration for what other artists do.
“Because I’m locked into a particular discipline, the discipline of the actor, I find other disciplines absolutely fascinating, be it athletics, be it music, be it the sculptor, the writer who gets up at six in the morning and writes for hours,” he explained. “So if I can enter into a different discipline as I have done with orchestras on several occasions, I find just watching other people work in a coordinated, collaborative way is so exciting.”
When I asked him if being such an integral part of a live stage performance leaves him nostalgic for the theater, he admitted it has become something of a substitute.
“It gives you that particular injection of that particular brand of adrenaline that’s only related to a big, live audience and a big, live event. I’m not saying that adrenaline isn’t present on the film set. My goodness, it is. But it’s in those sprints between ‘action’ and ‘cut,’ and that’s the integrity of the moment. On stage, I recall it so much being about the integrity of the event, the two hours, the whole event,” he said.
By taking on these occasional types of live performances, Kingsley doesn’t feel the need to pare down his film schedule to return to theater.
“I don’t miss it because I allow myself these injections of adrenaline that only come under these unique circumstances. It’s a chance to appear in front of a live audience with an orchestra, having to get it right in front of everybody and with everybody for the conductor and the audience,” he explained.
This will not be Kingsley’s first go at the beloved Prokofiev composition. He recorded Peter and the Wolf with the London Symphony Orchestra in the mid-'90s and joined a rather diverse group of actors, musicians and a U.S. president who have narrated the piece, including David Bowie, Sir Richard Attenborough (who directed Kingsley in Gandhi), Bill Clinton and even Eleanor Roosevelt. When I asked Kingsley what quality of Prokofiev’s music and tale draws such an illustrious but odd group of storytellers, Kingsley said it’s all about the simplicity.
“It’s so pure and simple. It’s not allegorical. It’s not pretending to be anything. It’s a little like Jungle Book, which I recently completed. A little boy out in amongst nature with some animals that are predatory and could kill and other animals that are sweet and are his friends. It’s the same beautiful narrative with a child at the center.”
Kingsley is no music novice. He sang and composed songs as a young actor, but chose classical theater over possible pop stardom long ago. He does sometimes find opportunities for a melody like his turn as the the jester Feste in Twelfth Night and the studio cast recording of The King and I with Julie Andrews. Music has remained with him throughout his career, and in interviews has stated it is that “musical ear” that guides him in his journey into a new character.
“Every single acting project I do, every portrait I create of a character, I bring to life with timbre, with accent with rhythm, so my musical ear guides me through and changes print on paper into someone with a voice and emotions, with arguments he needs to communicate.”
But using that “musical ear” to help him bring a character to life, doesn’t mean he can’t occasionally break out into song himself, even if it’s someone else singing. In fact, after he leaves Houston the Knight Bachelor will embark on a journey west to participate in an epic battle for performing honor, a Lip Sync Battle, that is, as he’s scheduled to guest star on the hit reality show. He wouldn’t give me any hints to what songs he would be doing, because he might get angry phone calls from Los Angles, only that they would be “two really cool, beautiful songs.”
If Houstonians can’t wait for that, they just may have to spend Saturday night at Jones Hall listening to Sir Ben tell of another battle, a battle of cunning between a boy and a wolf.
Andrés Orozco-Estrada conducts the Houston Symphony opening night concert with guest Sir Ben Kingsley Saturday, September 17.