Finding Her Voice

February 24th, 2011

In Selfless Fundraising

Madeline BenderMADELINE BENDER ’93 is the singer, the patron, the inspiration, for rallying members of the opera world to support the Global Family program of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC).

To those who follow opera, Madeline is known as leading lady Violetta in “La Traviata” with the Vancouver Opera. Or as Eurydice in the cutting-edge Paris production of “Orphée et Eurydice,” conducted by John Eliot Gardiner. Or as Helena in “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” with the acclaimed Glyndebourne Festival Opera in England (and also with the Pittsburgh Opera and La Monnaie in Brussels). Her list of major operatic roles as a soprano is pages long – just Google “Madeline Bender.”

Less visible in the opera world is her Mennonite background. One has to dig to discover that before she entered graduate school at the prestigious Manhattan School of Music, she earned a bachelor’s in music at Eastern Mennonite University.

Madeline spent her early childhood among her mother’s folks in the Harrisonburg area, and her middle-school and high-school years in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. She is the daughter of Jon Scott ’62 and Nancy Shank Bender ’64, both public school educators. Madeline and her two sisters graduated from Lancaster Mennonite High School.[1] Neffsville Mennonite is their home church (earlier, it was Trissels Mennonite in Broadway, Virginia).

Madeline came to EMU intending to be a pre-med major. “I thought I could be of service if I was a doctor. It goes back to this wonderful Mennonite undercurrent that service is so important. I loved to sing, but I thought it was a self-indulgent thing.”

She enjoyed taking anatomy and physiology under an “astonishingly great” science professor, Daniel B. Suter, but she hit a wall with organic chemistry. Meanwhile, she felt alive every moment she stepped on stage, as she did under the direction of theater professor Barb Graber and under music professor Kenneth J. Nafziger[2] with the
Chamber Singers.

Madeline Bender performing at the Vancouver Opera in La Traviata (2004). Photo by Tim Matheson.

Feeling confused to the point of paralysis, Madeline went to Nafziger and asked him, “Should I do pre-med, or should I do music?” She recalls receiving an unequivocal answer: “You need to be a singer.” Madeline credits Nafziger with giving her permission “to let go of feeling that I had to be of service in a direct way.”

Madeline had struggled with “justifying something I love to do” when that “something” is an art form that seems impractical and maybe even frivolous.

In the eyes of many, “putting on a wig and an 18th century corset and big bouncy dress doesn’t really serve a purpose other than putting on a good show,” Madeline says. “Opera singing is like being a little girl playing dress-up, it’s like Halloween, it is like becoming another person.”

Yet she has come to appreciate that truths emerge through telling good stories. “Sometimes the most truth comes through the arts. It’s somebody’s expression. It’s not their brain getting in the way. It’s a conduit or something. I always latch onto the expensive perfume being dumped on Jesus’s feet – it seemed wasteful to the disciples but Jesus said it wasn’t. It expressed love, beauty and giving. To me, that’s the Bible story that ties it all together.”

Madeline says that Ken J. Nafziger helped her to understand, in her words:

Sometimes you need to dump the perfume. It’s part of living in a civilized culture, of reaching higher. It feeds the soul. It’s part of being a sentient being. We aren’t animals. We don’t just need food and tuberculosis shots. We do need to feed our souls, and we do that through the arts.

The quality of the art you drink in is important, and we have to strive for the best. It can’t just be the best for Lancaster County or Harrisonburg, Virginia. You have to strive to be the very best that you can possibly be in the world, in the history of the world.

Such words should give music lovers a glimpse into the quality of the program that Madeline will be putting together for her January 22, 2011, MCC fundraiser.

The performers she has lined up “are really, truly world-class people who can easily get five-, six-, [or] seven-thousand dollars for a performance. So for them to come and sing for free is a big donation of their talent,” she explains. “It is a really generous act.”

But these performers are also going to have fun, Madeline adds, because they get to sing pieces they already know and can do well, they get tickets for an easy train ride from their homes in New York City to Lancaster, and they get the satisfaction of knowing they are helping others.

“Artists love to sing,” Madeline says. “I can’t think of a performer who wouldn’t be happy to sing for a good cause. So much about the arts is not a money-driven thing. To get where they are, most artists have had to rely on the generosity of people.”

Madeline says she has to be flexible, though, in who she books for the Global Family fundraiser. If a paying job unexpectedly comes through for one of her featured performers, Madeline will need to tap the shoulder of another good friend. No problem – New York is filled with possibilities.

One singer nobody will see at the Fulton this year, however, is Madeline’s husband, Paul Whelan, a baritone and bass-baritone singer. He will be in an opera in Oslo, Norway, at that time. He missed last year’s fundraiser, too – “he had to race off, I forget where,” she says.

In recent years, Whelan has filled so many leading roles in operas around the world – at such coveted venues as the Metropolitan, Covent Garden, München, Opéra de Paris, Opéra de Genève and Netherlands Opera – his name is known to almost everyone who follows the performances and progress of opera stars.

Several years before they married (in 2007), Whelan accompanied Madeline to the 2004 Shenandoah Valley Bach Festival, where both were featured singers. It may be a while before EMU sees the pair on the same stage again.

These days Whelan scarcely has time between engagements to connect in person with Madeline and their 2-year-old son, Zachary. She calculated that he will be spending just six days at their Manhattan home between December 2010 and May 2011. She and Zachary will travel for extended visits with Whelan, however, especially when he is performing in London (which Madeline views as her other home) and his native country of New Zealand.

Meanwhile, Madeline is taking steps to awaken her career from a deep sleep. In January 2005, Madeline was blissfully at the pinnacle of the opera world, having just played Helena in “A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream” at Belgium’s top opera house, Le Théâtre Royal de la Monnaie in Brussels. She was preparing for her next role when she learned that her mother’s cancer had returned and was untreatable.

Madeline returned home to be with her mother during her last five months. “I lost my voice. I lost it almost completely. I could speak, but I couldn’t sing properly. Nothing was wrong physically. Basically it was a psychological block.”

Nancy Shank Bender died on May 31, 2005. “My mom – just as she taught me how to live in so many ways – I really feel like she taught me how to die. It was just so full. It was a time of visiting friends and seeing loved ones and focusing on family and life going on. She didn’t focus on dying, but she didn’t push it away.”

As Madeline was finding her voice again, another family matter intervened: She became pregnant. “Having Zachary wasn’t planned, but it is good that it worked out that way. It has been a tremendous blessing. To be honest, I don’t know if I ever would have had the courage to take the time out to have a child.

“I think a lot of women who are singers slip into that easily. They just keep putting it off and putting it off and putting it off because it is very hard. You kind of go from job to job and from the strength of your last performance, and it is very scary to think of turning something down or disappearing for a while. Unless you have to do it.”

Madeline may have temporarily fallen silent while focusing on her mother and son, but she has deepened her heart. This has got to be reflected, sooner or later, in the magnificent voice she first claimed at EMU.

For more information on Madeline Bender’s “Sing for Hope: Winter Opera Gala,” her third annual concert benefiting MCC’s Global Family educational sponsorship program, visit

[1] Her elder sister, Courtney Bender, proceeded to Swarthmore College, then Princeton, and is now a religion professor at Columbia University. Her younger sister, Sena Bender Larard, started at EMU in 1993, but transferred in 1995 to study cello with a mentor she found at Roanoke College. In 2000 she switched her focus to voice by studying at the Brooklyn Conservatory of City University of New York. She is now a singer based in London.

[2] Nafziger also led a group of students, including Madeline, on a cross-cultural semester to Germany, where Madeline spent much of her time at concerts and operas. This exposure also had a major impact on Madeline.

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