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Heppner a rare opera commodity

The Vancouver Courier

by Robert Jordan

As far as the opera world is concerned, there’s just not enough Ben Heppner to go around.

That’s because he sharply limits his engagements – partly for his vocal health and partly to be with his family at their Toronto home. And Heppner’s still finding out just how much his clarion tenor voice can sustain as his cancelled tour last January demonstrated.

The official word was laryngitis but lingering suspicions that Heppner’s voice was showing signs of strain seemed to be confirmed when his voice gave out mid-concert in Toronto, early in the tour. He never made it to Vancouver, but after a few months of rest for his voice, he’s on his way. Always remembering his B.C. roots, he has squeezed a Vancouver appearance into a new and truncated tour so the home crowd will hear him after all – on Saturday, April 27 at UBC’s Chan Centre.

UBC is familiar turf to Heppner. After obtaining a bachelor’s degree in music in the ’70s, he had his sights set higher than a teaching career. He enrolled in the Opera Division at the University of Toronto and sputtered through the ’80s in pursuit of work. In 1988, he gave the solo career one last go and, against all his expectations, won the Birgit Nilsson prize in New York’s Metropolitan Opera Auditions. That catapulted him to opera stardom.

Why is Heppner in such huge demand? Because he’s a Heldentenor, a voice the music dictionary tells us is “a tenor voice of great brilliance and volume, well suited for operatic parts of the hero.” Real Heldentenors are scarce and a category in which Heppner still professes some reluctance to be pigeonholed, probably because he knows he’s a lot more versatile than that.

The world’s opera houses and concert halls agree and are clamouring for him. So are recording studios and, even when recording contracts for classical musicians are as scarce as camel feathers, Heppner signed an exclusive contract with Deutsche Grammophon, perhaps the world’s top classical label.


“I consider it a real honour to be chosen by the ‘yellow label’ which has an exceedingly good reputation that is still intact,” says the unassuming Heppner from his Toronto home. “Many record companies are going to the crossover format, but Deutsche Grammophon is still making its niche in serious classical music. And I like that – they’re sticking with what they do well.”

Heppner’s exclusivity clause refers only to solo recordings. He can record opera for anyone. In fact, his most recent opera recording – Hector Berlioz’s colossal Les Troyens for LSO Live, the London Symphony Orchestra’s house label – won a double Grammy Award, for best opera recording and album of the year. And Heppner followed it with a Juno Award for his first solo outing for DG. Airs Français is a disc of arias from Romantic French operas with the London Symphony conducted by Myung-Whun Chung. Few would begrudge Heppner this win: both his singing and the recorded sound are absolutely spectacular.

Heppner’s original Chan Centre program, a rather weighty affair with several intense but gloomy Nordic art songs, isn’t going to happen. “I wasn’t feeling it was ready to put before the public yet,” Heppner confesses. “I’m not the ‘serious artist’ so I decided I would do some more opera and then things that I knew already. You see, I want to have a good time out there, too, and if the music I’m singing doesn’t have a kind of a gracious, communicative value, it wears me down.”

Neither will Heppner sing any of those melodious but muscular arias from Airs Français at the Chan Centre. Instead, pianist John Hess will accompany him in Robert Schumann’s romantic ode to love, the “Liederkreis,” Op. 39.

“It’s a beautiful song cycle. That’s what ‘Liederkreis’ means – simply ‘song cycle’” says Heppner. “We’re not going to hear big, stentorian high notes, because it’s Schumann and because they are beautiful, gentle love songs.” The program will also include some of Henri Duparc’s exquisite quasi-impressionistic songs and a trio of melodious favourites by Paulo Tosti.

Schumann’s lyrical songs, with their nightingales and moonbeams, are a long way from the Heldentenor repertoire for which Heppner is so renowned. But then, for a guy who loves to sing the schmaltzy “You are my heart’s delight” as an encore, perhaps it’s not so far after all.

Fri Apr 26, 2002