Celebrated Canadian tenor Heppner feeling upbeat about retirement from stage | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

Would you like to subscribe to our newsletter?

Current Conditions Partly Cloudy  20.5°C

Celebrated Canadian tenor Heppner feeling upbeat about retirement from stage

Ben Heppner performs as Tristan in the opera "Tristan und Isolde" in New York, March 25, 2008. THE CANADIAN PRESS/AP, Seth Wenig

TORONTO - A day after decorated Canadian tenor Ben Heppner announced his retirement from singing, he sounded cheerful and relaxed as he chatted from his Toronto-area home.

"Were you expecting me to break down in tears?" he responded when asked how he felt announcing his permanent departure from the stage. "It's totally fine."

But won't he miss performing?

"No, no," he replied. "What I'm missing is going to Europe. But the idea of going to an opera house is not what I miss."

In fact, Heppner insists he's simply following a plan he laid out at the beginning of his celebrated career — ever since he was the underestimated underdog who claimed the Metropolitan Opera Auditions in 1988.

Even then, Heppner says, he aspired to a 25-year run followed by retirement. It seems unlikely, but perhaps so did his storied run.

Raised in B.C., Heppner knew from an early age he wanted to sing. Winning the CBC Talent Festival in 1979 granted a certain measure of validation to those dreams, but he recalls struggling through the 1980s, unsure whether his operatic career would financially sustain him.

His father was a farmer, and certainly he acknowledges some skepticism on his parents' behalf.

"It was not understood for a long time," said the 58-year-old. "I remember sitting in the same living room where I am now. My mother said: 'Can you make a living at this?' She was already probably in her 80s by then. She didn't really understand the fact that I had done pretty well. I said, 'Mom, I've convinced the banks I can do it. And the banks don't just give you money. You have to prove you can pay it back.'

"It's not something that they understood. I have to say, maybe I didn't understand it for a while. ... I'm talking pre-Metropolitan Opera win, pre-1988. I was just trying to put one foot in front of the other and make a living. And finally, it happened."

The following year, Heppner made his European operatic debut singing the title role of Wagner's "Lohengrin" with the Royal Swedish Opera. In 1991, he performed for the first time with the Metropolitan Opera in "Idomeneo" and while he would go on to sing with most of the world's leading opera companies — including the Royal Opera Covent Garden, Vienna State Opera, Opera National de Paris, the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Canadian Opera Company — the Met always carried special weight for him.

"It's the holy temple of operatic song," he said.

Meantime, the accolades accumulated furiously. Heppner won three Grammy Awards, three Juno Awards and — perhaps most meaningful to him — he was named a Companion of the Order of Canada. He also cherishes the experience of having sung at the closing ceremonies of back-to-back Winter Olympics, in 2006 and 2010.

"I'm so proud of being Canadian that I'm almost American, if you understand that," he said with a chuckle.

Originally, Heppner had planned to step away only from opera while continuing some concert performances. But maintaining his voice was a full-time job, he notes, and he "wasn't having that."

Heppner had battled vocal issues in the years leading up to his retirement, and acknowledged that those health woes took their toll on his instrument.

"I wasn't consistent," he said of his late performances. "And I wasn't reaching my standards on a regular basis — like, all the time. That kind of bothered me. So I decided I couldn't go forward."

Since Heppner wasn't mourning his retirement, it was up to his peers to properly eulogize a marquee singing career.

"When Ben sings, I carefully listen. When he appears onstage, I watch attentively. I'm spellbound and fascinated," said Canadian Opera Company music director Johannes Debus in an email, having conducted Heppner in "Tristan und Isolde" and "Peter Grimes."

"God bless him — what a mind-boggling, glorious, unique voice he has. What an embracing, lush presence, what radiance, what a rich palette of colours and nuances his voice offers.

"There are many great artists working in this field," he added, "but only a few might share with Ben the rare combination of a unique voice, a humble, honest, humorous, cordial down-to-Earth personality and the capacity to powerfully express and deeply move."

Added COC general director Alexander Neef: "Ben is one of opera's finest artists and it has been my great pleasure to follow his career."

For his part, the no-nonsense Heppner offered a humble theory when asked how he so connected with audiences.

"You can sense people's personalities through the way they sing," he said. "Maybe that had something to do with it."

Of the myriad roles he's performed onstage, Heppner says he relished two in particular. The first was that of Walther von Stolzing in Wagner's "Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg," a character Heppner says he related to because he was "young and fresh and needing to learn some rules, but also feeling like (he) could bring (his) own particular perspective to the opera world."

The other was the title role in Benjamin Britten's "Peter Grimes," a "misunderstood character who can appear at times very mean and hard ... (but) at the end you finally start to realize there's a human being in there."

"It's interesting," Heppner mused, "because they're both characterized by being an outsider."

That too is a familiar role for Heppner, a rare opera star who rumbles around on a 2009 Honda Goldwing motorcycle. He certainly recalls feeling that way back at that momentous Metropolitan contest.

"I hadn't studied at Julliard or Indiana or any of the big schools," said the University of British Columbia graduate. "With me that year was Renee Fleming, and everybody expected her to win. They didn't know who I was. They just had no idea. So I came out of the blue. I felt that I was an outsider.

"I didn't know all the rules. It was a steep learning curve for me. So I felt it. It's OK. I don't mind playing that role."

Now, Heppner will continue as host of CBC-Radio's "Saturday Afternoon at the Opera" and "Backstage with Ben Heppner," jobs that demand a "type of performance" that Heppner says he finds "just as fulfilling as the stage." He also hopes to do some teaching, as he's eager to aid in the development of young singers.

When he was still making a name for himself, Heppner recalls travelling for 300 days a year — an "insane" schedule, something "nobody should have to do." For the sake of his family, he decided years ago to cut back drastically on the demanding itinerary. He says doing so "extended (his) marriage and family life."

Now he'll presumably have even more time to spend with his loved ones. So it's not a surprise that they enthusiastically toasted the end of his esteemed career.

"We had a great dinner last night," he said. "My kids and my wife Karen are very supportive.

"We celebrated," he added. "It was a terrific time."

Follow @CP_Patch on Twitter.

News from © The Canadian Press, 2014
The Canadian Press

  • Popular kamloops News
View Site in: Desktop | Mobile