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Heppner inspires at UBC homecoming

The Vancouver Sun

by Lloyd Dykk

For part of the night the Chan Shun stage was full of young singers of the University of B.C.’s opera and choral programs, and in their midst was Ben Heppner, a great star whose beginnings were at UBC two decades ago.

You could see the student singers were excited and happy to be there as part of something that had produced Heppner, and since the concert was a benefit for both UBC’s and the Vancouver Opera Foundation’s voice scholarships, the legacy is apt to continue. Heppner, a home-town boy, waived his fee for the concert.

In a phone call last week to his home in Scarborough, he said that since it was a happy occasion the program was going to be light, but that depends on what you call light. Though some of his material was light, he sang it with all the taxing laryngeal excellence he’s brought to any Parsifal or Tristan or Meistersinger that has drawn him raves from the world’s opera houses.

The evening, nearly sold out, was certainly over-long with a tiring 75-minute first half mainly laid out to feature the student singers in song and choral numbers, but of course UBC had to show off its own as lengthily as possible.

There was something worth showing, especially the fine choral work under conductor Bruce Pullan (who has recently assumed direction of the UBC choral program), tenor Philippe Castagner in a scene from Faust, and Maaike deBruyn in a segment from Wagner’s Die Meistersinger.

The latter, which ended part one, at last ushered in Heppner, who stood back modestly behind the younger singers for the famous quintet, introduced on sure, powerfully long breaths by the promising deBruyn, and the melody’s phrases passed on smoothly from singer to singer. Then Heppner stepped forward to sing the classic Prize Song from the opera and made it glow with a restrained inner excitement, a rapt, intoxicated mood fully conveying the character Walther’s conviction that this was how the contest prize-winning song should be sung.

The second half, wonderfully accompanied by pianist Rena Sharon, was all Heppner, and everything he sang was prize-winning. His sound rang with the virility of a true heroic tenor and had the sensitivity of a poet’s emotional shadings. He did many personal things that supplied a lift to a phrase, a surprise, a sense that there was a personal heart behind the operatic brio.

He sang powerhouse arias from Leoncavallo’s La Boheme, Massenet’s Herodiade and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, which were full of emotion but emotion never shook him off the exact centre of a note. He never sounded forced at a climax. Whether it was tender or powerful, it came from a wellspring of something held in reserve.

A good part of Heppner’s program was borrowed from his nostalgic album, My Secret Heart, songs of the stage, parlour and silver screen, containing lovely things that may leave you unsure whether to laugh or cry: wartime ballads like Ivor Novello’s We’ll Gather Lilacs and Sammy Fain’s I’ll Be Seeing You Again, swooners like Nicholas Brodzky’s Be My Love and Rudolf Friml’s Love Me Tonight (“the hours that we know, measure our dream of delight. Sweetheart before they go, love me, love me tonight”).

An atom of the routine would have destroyed these songs. Heppner’s investment of beautiful, honest singing made them philosophy.

Mon Nov 20, 2000