Canadian opera singer Ben Heppner has been described as one of the outstanding tenors of his generation, and his voice “an instrument of arresting brilliance and flexibility,” according to New York Times opera critic David Mermelstein. Since the late 1980s, Heppner’s growing prominence inside the rarefied world of opera superstars has increased so rapidly that Wall Street Journal writer Solange DeSantis described it as a career “suddenly brilliant.” Still in his mid-forties, Heppner is esteemed for his talents as a “heldentenor,” or heroic tenor in the tradition of the great male leads in the operas of nineteenth-century German composer Richard Wagner. “This man is a phenomenon,” the artistic director of the Metropolitan Opera of New York, James Levine, said of Heppner to Mermelstein. “His voice is extraordinarily big, with a Classical ring and Romantic expression to it. He is unique.”
Heppner was born in Murrayville, British Columbia in 1956, and was the last of nine children in a close-knit Mennonite farm family. He grew up in another rural British Columbia town, Dawson Creek, and displayed only an average predilection for music and performing country-and-western music which was popular in his home, not the European classical canon. Heppner sang in church and played the trumpet and euphonium in the band at South Peace Secondary School. His friends thought he had a good voice, and Heppner was often encouraged to sing and in college he began singing for special occasions. He then decided to make music his major.
Heppner received his degree in vocal performance from the University of British Columbia School of Music, and headed east. He took a job with a professional choir, the Tudor Singers, in Montreal, and in 1979 won top prize in the Canadian Broadcasting Company (CBC) Radio Competition for Young Performers. “That gave me the courage to think I could make a living as a singer,” Heppner later told the New York Times ’ Mermelstein. However, success was not immediately forthcoming, Heppner moved to Toronto, and studied opera at the University of Toronto; he then won a spot with the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, a training program affiliated with the Toronto Opera. Yet Heppner, who had married a piano teacher and begun a family by this time, often worked several jobs to make ends meet, including teaching music and doing carpentry; with his wife Karen, he served as music director for Toronto’s Rexdale Alliance Church for a time in the mid-1980s.
Performing with the Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, Heppner gradually began to fulfill the promise of his 1979 CBC award. A turning point in his career came with his performance in The Lighthouse at the 1986 Guelph (Ontario) Spring Festival. The festival director had cast
Born January 14, 1956 in Murrayville, British Columbia, Canada; son of a farmer; married, Karen (a piano teacher); two sons, one daughter. Education: University of British Columbia School of Music; attended University of Toronto Opera School; studied voice privately since 1987.
Heppner was a member of a professional choir, the Tudor Singers, in Montreal, Quebec, Canada; joined Canadian Opera Company Ensemble, mid-1980s; with wife served as music directors at the Rexdale Alliance Church, Toronto, Ontario, Canada, mid-1980s; won top honors in the Metropolitan Opera of New York auditions, 1988; made American debut at Carnegie Hall, April, 1988, in a command performance for the King and Queen of Sweden; made European debut at Royal Swedish Opera, March, 1989; debuted at La Scala (Milan, Italy), spring 1990, in Die Meistersinger; released first two albums, Ben Heppner Sings Richard Strauss (CBC Records) and Great Tenor Arias (RCA Victor Red Seal), in 1995; signed with BMG Classics label, 1997.
Awards: Canadian Broadcasting Company Radio (CBC) Competition for Young Performers, 1979; awarded the first ever Birgit Nilsson Prize, 1988, from the American-Scandinavian Foundation at the Metropolitan Opera of New York auditions; recipient of three-year Canada Council grant, 1988.
Addresses: Home —Scarborough, Ontario, Canada. Agent —Columbia Artists Management, Inc., 165 W. 57th St., New York, NY 10019.
Heppner somewhat over his head in this opera, which Heppner later admitted forced him into realizing his potential. Afterward, Heppner headed back to Toronto and signed on with two opera coaches for private study. His teachers, William Neill and Dixie Ross Neill, first suggested that Heppner steer his vocal talents toward the heldentenor repertoire. Relatively rare in opera’s modern era, “heroic” tenors, sometimes referred to as “dramatic” tenors, possess a strong voice of great amplitude and an ability to reach the upper registers. Many of the operas written by the German composer Wagner center around these imposing roles.
The new strategy was a success. In the preliminary auditions for the Metropolitan Opera of New York held in Cleveland in late 1987, Heppner took first place and went on to win in the next rounds in Toronto, advanced to the New York finals, and there won first prize with “Prize Song” from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nuernberg. Moreover, at the Met finals Heppner was awarded the Birgit Nilsson Prize from the American-Scandinavian Foundation. It was the inaugural year of the prize, named after the Met’s longtime star of Swedish heritage and presented to an American opera singer thought considered ready to embark upon an international career. This honor also brought with it a debut at Carnegie Hall the very next month in a command performance for the King and Queen of Sweden and a European debut with the Royal Swedish Opera of Stockholm. In the fall of 1988, Heppner made his formal American debut with the Lyric Opera of Chicago in Tannhäuser, an early Wagner opus.
It was an auspicious start for Heppner. Unlike many opera singers, who often spend years performing with regional opera houses, his path to stardom was a relatively brief one. Early on, Heppner first gained renown for singing parts such as the title role in Lohengrin, classic Wagner, based on an epic poem from medieval German times, which he performed in both Stockholm and San Francisco in 1989. The following year, he appeared on the stages of two of the world’s leading opera houses, Milan’s La Scala and Covent Garden, on both occasions in Die Meistersinger. By 1992, he had made his debut at the distinguished Salzburg Festival in Austria and preeminent opera houses around the world began to press him for performance commitments.
Heppner’s style has earned him comparisons to another great Canadian heldentenor, Jon Vickers, who rose to prominence in the 1950s; Heppner has also been compared favorably to such stellar dramatic tenors as Lauritz Melchior and Wolfgang Windgassen. A heldentenor must possess, according to the New York Times’s Mermelstein, a “loud, ringing and indefatigable” voice as well as a similarly impressive stage presence. It is not an easy category in which to excel. “Some heldentenors can be accused of having a ‘bark’; to their sound, but not Heppner,” wrote Rick Phillips in Maclean’s. DeSantis, writing in the Wall Street Journal, wrote that Heppner’s “big, burnished voice, marathon-like stamina… and power in the Wagner repertoire has persuaded some fairly cool heads to call him the best heldentenor of his generation.”
“Like the great singers before him, Heppner has a rare ability to change his sound and style according to the repertoire he is singing,” wrote Phillips in Maclean’s. In addition to excelling in the Wagner repertoire, Heppner has performed in William Bolcom’s Mc Teague, directed by Robert Altman at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, as well as Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes at the same company in 1997. Heppner’s casting in the title role in what is considered a rather tough modern opera was anything but “heroic”: “Grimes” is a coarse and cruel fisherman who incurs the wrath of villagers in an English coastal town after two of his apprentices die.
Indeed, as New York Times writer Conrad L. Osborne wrote in 1996, Heppner’s one shortcoming seems his inappropriateness for romantic leads, “he’s a bit of a lummox,” wrote Osborne, but noted that in some roles the awkwardness of his bulky size works to his dramatic advantage on stage. Osborne singled out his performance in the Queen of Spades at the Met, “his clumsiness became a dangerous quality, part of a brooding shiftiness…. Best of all, a bitter intensity invaded the singing, giving it color and bite and the kind of startling life that only the fully engaged operatic star can summon.”
Heppner is notoriously careful about preserving his voice. Many promising heldentenors of previous decades seemed to lose their talents early on, and the lucrative offers thrown to rising opera stars such as Heppner to record and perform are tempting. Like many opera singers, he believes his voice only has a certain number of good years in it, and is cautious about not overworking it and thus shortening that span. He only began to make solo recordings in 1995, releasing Ben Heppner Sings Richard Strauss on CBC Records and Great Tenor Arias on the RCA Victor Red Seal. “They display his formidable talent and skill,” opined Phillips in Maclean’s. “On both CDs, Heppner’s wonderful musicality, complete understanding of the text and ability to pass on its full meaning are always present.”
Heppner has paid a price for his prudence, however. His work with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra had earned the respect of its famed conductor, Sir Georg Solti, and in 1997 Solti asked Heppner to record a famed role in the heldentenor repertoire, “Tristan” in TristanundIsolde. In a rather unusual occurrence, Heppner asked the elderly Solti to wait another year, since he did not think his voice was quite ready for such a role; Solti agreed, but passed away before they could work together in the studio. Heppner was scheduled to debut in Tristan und Isolde in August of 1998 at the Seattle Opera; many other top opera houses around the globe were requesting that he sing the popular Germanic love story at their venue as well, but Heppner was adamant about performing Tristan only once a year from then on.
Still, Heppner has concert engagements scheduled well into the twenty-first century. Once comfortable in Tristan, it is assumed Heppner will tackle the other great heldentenor roles in the Wagner repertoire, including “Siegfried” in Der Ring des Nibelungens and the title role in Parsifal] Verdi’s Otello, thought to be the most difficult of the genre, is likely on the distant horizon too. Despite the accolades, Heppner is described by most interviewers as refreshingly deflated, devoid of “the temperamental personality of an international super-ego,” as Maclean’s writer Chris Wood put it, that many renowned tenors seem to possess. Back in his former hometown of Dawson Creek, he is a celebrity, and Heppner remains modestly delighted that a street was named after him. Heppner continues to call Toronto home, living in a suburb of the metropolis with family, and when not touring or recording enjoys the typical suburban family pursuits, such as attending his children’s sports activities. He sings every Sunday at the First Alliance Church in Scarborough, along with his family and the rest of the congregation, and has said that if his voice gave out he might like to become a minister instead.
Ben Heppner Sings Richard Strauss, CBC Records, 1995.
Great Tenor Arias, RCA Victor Red Seal, 1995.
American Record Guide, November-December 1993.
Maclean’s, February 13, 1995; November 13, 1995.
New York Times, May 19, 1996,; May 8, 1998.
Wall Street Journal, February 21, 1996, p. A12.
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