In 1984, four years before he would win the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the first Birgit Nilsson Prize, tenor Ben Heppner would bathe in the reflected glory of greatness, and unintended slapstick comedy. The 28-year-old emerging Canadian tenor was cast in the minor role of Hervey, the court official in Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Anna Bolena, with none other than the legendary Dame Joan Sutherland in the title role as Henry VIII’s second wife. After a successful opening in Toronto, the cast and production moved on to Detroit. As Heppner recalls it: “There was a live horse on stage in that production. The horse had to be drugged to get on stage, and then through a series of accidents the horse moved over and hit a little page boy carrying a tray of goblets and they smashed to the ground, and that lit up the eight Afghan dogs, four on each side of the horse. So the dogs spooked the horse and he started spinning in circles critiquing the performance in that special horsey way, launching road apples in all directions. The audience laughed uncontrollably, they couldn’t believe the ticket price included this kind of entertainment.”
Ben Heppner is never far from a good story, as listeners to his weekly CBC Radio show, Backstage with Ben Heppner, know to their delight. Sitting in his suburban Toronto living room on a brilliant winter’s afternoon, he is remembering some of the highlights from his more than 30 years as one of the world’s go-to heldentenors, the German designation for that rare species, the dramatic tenor, particularly those required in the marathon operas of Richard Wagner. All debuts are scary, but it was at the mecca of Italian opera, Teatro alla Scala, Milan, that Heppner jumped over the precipice to greatness. In January 1990, Heppner was singing the role of Walther von Stolzing in Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, and one of his favorite conductors, Wolfgang Sawallisch, was on the podium. “The moment I remember scared the pants off of me was on opening night,” Heppner says. “We get to the Prize Song. You’re now five-and-a-half hours into the piece, and this is your most important moment. There’s a wind chord and the harp [Heppner sings the introductory notes] and then another two bars of the same thing, and then there’s a one bar chord in the winds and strings, and in that chord Sawallisch doesn’t give me a cue on bar six. He just extends his hands as if offering ‘whenever you’re ready.’ No one had ever done that to me before. All of a sudden I was no longer a student, no longer being told what to do. I had artistic choices. It kind of blew my mind, but things went well and he hired me elsewhere.”
But there will be no more debuts on the opera stage, no more operas written expressly for his heroic voice, no more oratorios or song recitals. In April of last year Heppner announced his decision to, as he put it, “withdraw from the world stage”. He resists the word retirement, saying, “we’ve banned the R word at our house.”
“All of a sudden I was no longer a student, no longer being told what to do. I had artistic choices. It kind of blew my mind.”
Whatever he chooses to call it, he is clearly a man at peace with his decision. “When people ask me how am I feeling, I say I have mixed emotions: joy and happiness.” He had come to accept, reluctantly but finally, that he was losing some of his enormous vocal power. “It was like a surprise for me. I’d go for a high note and it wasn’t there. It would just go away or go in some odd direction I didn’t like. I tried to work through that, I went to a really great teacher down in Houston, but eventually I came to the conclusion that [it was time].” But there was another reason. “I struggled in the last five, six years with the immense amount of time that I was away from home. It got worse as I got older. I found myself at an emotional crux that I had to come to grips with somehow. Somehow I did it when my kids were younger, but as I aged, I just wanted to be home, not for my kids who are gone now, and not for my wife, Karen, who is busy with a job she loves.” Heppner pauses and his voice goes quiet with emotion. “I just wanted to be home. I was the one who needed home to strengthen me so that I could go out and sing. And when I was away more than I was home, that was becoming a bit of a problem.”
Not that he’s at home clipping coupons and getting in Karen’s way. In less than a year from making his announcement, Heppner has fashioned for himself a richly diverse new professional life. He spends half his week for CBC Radio, hosting Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and spinning stories on his Backstage show. “It’s something I always wanted to do. Still performing. I can do a lot of it from home, and basically Starbucks is my office. As long as there’s Wi-Fi, that’s all I need. And then I go down [to the CBC] once a week to record. I’m really loving it.”
Then there’s Heppner the teacher/mentor. He’s been a visiting professor this year at Boston University, working individually with 12 very talented students, teaching and giving master classes. Next September he’ll move on to McGill University in Montreal. “I’m going to be taking a part-time position at McGill doing a fill-in for somebody who’s on leave for the year. I can’t do it full-time because I still want to do the radio, that’s the standard for me.”
Meantime, as it turns out, he hasn’t completely abandoned the stage. Last year at an arts conference in New York, Heppner met the impresario David Mirvish and asked to be kept in mind if Mirvish needed someone to do a cameo or character role in one of his theatre productions. Several days later, Heppner was offered such a role for a nine month tour revival of the musical Titanic. The tour proved to be too much of a commitment, but then Mirvish asked Heppner if he would be willing to commit to just the Toronto leg of the tour. Heppner agreed. What role is he playing in Titanic? Heppner laughs. “I tell friends I’m playing the iceberg. I win!” After considering several possibilities, “I chose the role of Isidor Straus, the co-owner of Macy’s. The famous story is that his wife wouldn’t get on the lifeboat unless he was allowed to go too, so she got off. The legend has it that they pour each other a glass of champagne and go down with the ship. So that part has a really nice little duet. Now people say, ‘but you’re singing,’ and I say, yeah, but the part is really about two per cent of what I did for Tristan [in Tristan und Isolde]. But here’s the problem: it’s eight times a week! I’ve never had to do that before. [In opera] I used to sing three times a week. Okay, I would leave my entire life on the stage, and you would walk away [he mimic’s hoarseness] feeling a little rough, but you got two days off to recuperate. I loved that rhythm. I could sight-see. I could ride my motorcycle with no guilt. So now I have to show up Tuesdays, Wednesdays twice, Thursday, Friday, Saturdays twice, once on Sunday.” Titanic opens at the Princess Alexandra Theatre in Toronto on May 20 and runs to June 21, 2015.
“We put our feet on the ground and we sing, without trying to semaphore yourself out of an aria, performing in a big way. The more genuine you are, the less you have to do. It’s not all about flailing your hands.”
That month on Titanic will eat into Heppner’s motorcycle time. “Oh yeah, that one’s going to kill me! Maybe I can ride back and forth to work, although they might put into my contract that I can’t, that happens sometimes. I love motorcycling. I got my license in 2002. I rented a few times and then brought my first bike home June 14, 2007.” Glancing toward the kitchen where Karen might be lurking, Heppner continues, “The way that I say it—and I say it with the utmost of love—it was a cold summer here in the Heppner household. Karen said to me, [he mimics exasperation] ‘well fine if that’s what you want to do, go ahead.’ So I did. Basically, I called her bluff. The good news is she’s now my best partner in riding.” What’s the attraction? “It’s the man on the horse on the range, you know? I like the alone time, it can be processing time, I like distances, I like the journey, I like the destinations.” Which is why he prefers his Honda Gold Wing to a Harley. The quieter ride.
At one point Heppner glances at a wall of his living room, where the certificate of his Companion of the Order of Canada is framed, the highest rank of the OC. “Probably my biggest highlight, and the one in which I let myself feel proud—a very un-Mennonite thing to do—is the Companion of the Order of Canada. That one I wear very proudly. We need to draw a distinction between ourselves and Americans. I felt like I needed to be an ambassador for Canada and we have a really good reputation. Or,” he laughs, “had, perhaps. I was really proud of that, we’d had good influence in the peacekeeping world and we had a good reputation for being genuine people, hard-working, we put our feet on the ground and we sing, without trying to semaphore yourself out of an aria, performing in a big way. The more genuine you are, the less you have to do. It’s not all about flailing your hands.”
What’s so infectiously attractive about Heppner is the genuine sense of wonderment and delight he feels in the life he has had, and in the life to come. A boy who grew up on a farm in the Peace River region of B.C. near Dawson Creek, the youngest of nine kids, he went on to hear the shouts of Bravo in the great opera houses of the world. Now that’s done, but a new world has opened up, and still grounded in home and family, Heppner is striding into it with helden confidence and delight.
Hair and makeup by Kevin Smith using Tres 24 Hour Body Sculpting/Judyinc.com