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A singer’s life can be a rocky road

Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts
09/11/2010 -  
Edvard Grieg: Six Songs, Opus 48
Jean Sibelius: Seven Songs
Pyotr Ilyich Tchaikovsky: Six Songs
Opera Arias

Ben Heppner (tenor), John Hess (piano)

J. Hess & B. Heppner (© Cecily Carver)

Ben Heppner’s connection with the Canadian Opera Company goes back almost thirty years. In 1981 he made his company debut as Kaspar in a small-scale production of Amahl and the Night Visitors. He joined the company’s apprentice program (quite a new thing then) and made his main stage debut as an Armed Man in Die Zauberflöte (his fellow Armed Man was Gidon Saks). He was also one of the eight manservants in a concert performance of Strauss’s Capriccio.

While performing other comprimario roles (like the Prince of Persia in Turandot), he participated in the COC’s bus and truck tours in small towns where he sang lead roles in La Bohème, Die Fledermaus, and The Merry Widow. In 1986 he finally landed a main stage role with an aria: Malcolm in Verdi’s Macbeth.

In interviews he admits he began to question his own future in opera when, in 1988, he won the Met auditions and Birgit Nilsson presented him with her own special prize. His career took off like a rocket which put him pretty much out of the COC’s reach. He returned to the company in 1996 to add Canio (I Pagliacci) to his repertoire (I’m not aware that he performed this role anywhere else since.) He also appeared in the opening gala of the Four Seasons Centre in June, 2006 (with Durch die Wälder from Der Freishütz).

He makes his home in a Toronto suburb and has appeared locally in concert and recital, sometimes to great effect, sometimes not. A recital at Roy Thomson Hall (the city’s main symphonic venue) early in the millennium had to be aborted halfway through, and at least one other was cancelled at the last moment. Through the years we hear of triumphs - and cancellations. Recently we heard good reports of a recent appearance in Stratford, Ontario (with the same program) and an eager audience turned out for this gala recital.

(Heppner had been scheduled to be the centrepiece of the company’s 60th anniversary gala in November, 2009. He had to withdraw perilously close to the day, and three singers were quickly hired in his stead. This recital was an extra free event for ticket-holders to last year’s concert.)

The recital began with a rather shaky rendition of "Gruss" ("Greeting"), the first of Greig’s Opus 48 songs. Things picked up, however, especially with the blithe third song, Lauf der Welt ("The Way of the World"), and the charming Die verschwiegene Nachtigall ("The Discreet Nightingale"), with its distinctive repeated “Tandaradei ”. The timbre of his voice is an ideal match for the program’s Nordic repertoire.

The second group (seven Swedish songs by Jean Sibelius all composed around the turn of the last century) demontrated both strengths and weaknesses. In "Till kvällen" ("In the evening") Heppner displayed a rapt, elevated tone, marred by unsteadyness at the end. The fourth song, "Var et ein dram?" ("Was it a dream?"), has two high-lying moments; the first was hesitantly attained, the second fully attained. A quiet song, "Säv, säv, susa" ("Sigh, sigh, rushes") was very nicely done. The final song of the set, "Svarta rosor" ("Black roses"), displayed flashes of the singers’s epic vocal quality.

The six Tchaikovsky songs opening the second half were marred a bit by the fact that Mr. Heppner used a score. He refers to his failure to memorize the Russian as his soviet block. I can’t accuse him of burying his head in the score, but whenever he looked down at it a certain degree of direct communication was lost. The third song "Nam zvyozdï krotkiye syali" ("So mild and clear the stars were showing") displayed a key note in very rough form, sadly a hint of what was soon to come.

The final section of the program was simply termed “Opera Arias”. The first, "O souverain, o juge, o père", from Massenet’s Le Cid was neither a failure nor a success. Why bother with it if you can’t amaze the audience with it? The second one, "Winterstürme wichen dem Wonnemond" from Die Walküre, came a cropper with two very rough spots where Mr. Heppner just couldn’t negotiate the passagio, the transition zone from lower to higher voice.

A quick reshuffle of the sheet music indicated a Plan B was being put into effect, and opera was abandoned for Tosti’s "L’alba separa dalla luce l’ombra" ("Dawn separates light and dark"), a song with operatic flight. It failed to take off and it ended with the singer’s voice simply running out of...voice. Thus an abrupt and ignominious end to the recital.

An audience that gave the singer a hero’s welcome was deprived from giving a hero’s send-off. Rumours are that Heppner has been engaged for an upcoming production with the COC - what credibility will this have?

The concert was recorded by the CBC for later broadcast (no date listed). One wonders if they will actually schedule it - or perhaps polish it up beforehand? (I’ve known this to be done).

Many refer to Ben Heppner’s “hometowncurse”. Sadly, it hasn’t been lifted yet.

Michael Johnson



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