Ben Heppner - Interview by Joseph So
/ November 1, 1997
Opera lovers have long
recognized Canadian Ben Heppner as one of the most important tenors
of his generation. Official recognition of Mr. Heppner's achievement
comes later this month in the form of an Honorary Doctorate from the
University of British Columbia. Mr. Heppner is also the subject of
an upcoming CBC documentary and will soon be embarking on his first
North American recital tour that will take him to Kansas City,
Vancouver, Calgary, Toronto, Carmel and Washington D.C.. Heppner is
currently starring in the Chicago Lyric Opera's production of
Peter Grimes, where he was kind enough to speak with La
Scena Musicale .(Photo: Ben
Heppner as Peter Grimes, Lyric Opera of Chicago, October 1997.
Photo: Dan Rest)
SM: Thank you for agreeing to speak with us. I hope you don't
mind talking on the day of a performance?
BH: I generally prefer to stay quiet before a performance. I
don't like television cameras, but an interview is OK.
SM: How many Peter Grimes productions have you
BH: This is my fourth production, after Cologne, Vancouver,
and Covent Garden.
SM: Has your interpretation of the role changed?
BH: Yes. The first time I did Grimes I felt like I was merely
scratching the surface of this incredibly deep character. And today
I still feel there are more layers to explore. No matter how many
Grimes productions I do, I am always going to find new depths in the
SM: Would you say that Grimes is your signature role, versus
Walther in Die Meistersinger or Lohengrin, for example?
BH: Die Meistersinger has certainly been my calling
card. I'd be glad if Grimes became one of the handful of roles I am
noted for, really fantastic roles that were seemingly written for
me. I don't expect to find more than eight or ten roles like that in
my lifetime and Grimes fits me easily.
SM: People often note that your Grimes is more human compared
to that of Jon Vickers.
BH: I only know Jon Vickers' Grimes from the video. I admire
his work, but I don't like to draw comparisons. Each singer has his
own way of looking at the role. As for being more human, I am
learning to be more vulnerable and open on stage. This comes with
the development of my acting abilities.
SM: Are other Grimes productions planned?
BH: There are discussions with a couple of places, but
nothing for sure yet.
SM: Will you record Peter Grimes?
BH: Not at present. There are so many new recordings of
Grimes on the market, and classic ones like that by Peter
Pears. I once heard a rumour that a year or so before Leonard
Bernstein died he wanted to record Grimes and that I was a
candidate for the lead, but of course nothing came of it.
SM: What are your future recording projects?
BH: I am now an exclusive RCA-Red Seal artist. For RCA I am
recording a lieder recital in Toronto in December, in a location not
yet confirmed. In May, I am recording a German arias disc which
should be released in autumn 1998. We have other disks in mind but
not yet scheduled. We will be producing four or five discs over the
next three-year period. We had Tristan and Isolde scheduled
with the late Sir Georg Solti, God rest his soul, but that project
has been cancelled.
SM: Any complete opera recordings on the horizon?
BH: Record companies are not making as many complete operas
as they once did. A couple of my projects have been cancelled as a
result. However there is talk of Berlioz's Les Troyens in the
SM: You have a new recording of Die Frau ohne Schatten
coming out this month...
BH: I have an advance copy, but since I don't open the first
copy I haven't heard it myself!
SM: Last year you stopped singing for a few months following
an indisposition. Can you tell us about that?
BH: I sustained an injury by singing with the flu during the
second performance of Andrea Chenier in Buenos Aires. I was
very sick, with chills and sweats, but against my better judgement I
let them talk me into singing. Of course I gave the performance
everything I had and my voice was hurt. It was scary at first, but
fortunately there was no permanent damage. I just had to be patient
and wait for the voice to return. It took six weeks of physical
recuperation and it took time to recover my confidence as well.
SM: Now you are starting on a recital tour with a new program,
which will come to Toronto in December.
BH: Yes, I just opened the tour in Kansas City. The main
piece was Liszt's Petrarch songs. I also did Beethoven's
An die ferne Geliebte, some Schumann and Strauss's opus
27. I hope people enjoyed the lieder but I know some people find
the slow songs boring. I have felt that way myself. Lieder is such a
high holy art but after all we are trying to entertain people! So I
like to add something more amusing to the program, like the Ernest
SM: Will you be recording the popular, lighter stuff?
BH: I would love to record a disc of the fun stuff, but for
now I'm just recording lieder.
SM: Do you enjoy doing lieder recitals?
BH: If Kansas City is any indication, I'll enjoy it. I've
done a lot of orchestral concerts, so I know I enjoy the close
relationship with the audience.
SM: What new are coming up?
BH: Tristan is the big new role next summer in Seattle.
SM: How do you feel about singing eight Tristans with only
two-day rests in between?
BH: Very concerned! Tristan is unique and it is more
demanding than any of my other roles. It is going to be difficult on
me, but we'll find out! Gary Lakes is my cover.
SM: How did the Act 2 Tristan and Isolde go in
BH: It went very well. I had a great time with Armin Jordan,
who has a droll sense of humour. We got along very well. He knows
his music and his orchestra. It was a real joy.
SM Who was your Isolde?
BH: Eva Maria Bundschuh. Petra Lang sang Brangane. Hers is a
SM: Is Siegfried still in the works?
BH: I haven't got anything firm, but I am planning on doing
SM: What about Otello?
BH: That is also in the works and at this point it is more
firm than Siegfried, so watch this space for further
announcement, as they say.
SM Career-wise, is it the right time to sing these roles?
BH: By the time these plans reach the stage I'll be in my
mid-forties. I am looking four years ahead. That should be about
SM: You seem to be cutting back on your opera
BH: I am limiting the time I spend on the road. I need to
take more time to prepare roles and for my family. I still like to
sing about 50 performances per year of operas and concerts. It's
difficult to sing my repertoire more than three times a week.
Gurrelieder, for example, is a big workout.
SM: Do you have any advice for young singers?
BH: It is funny, I don't feel old enough to give advice. A
few years ago, I was speaking with a record executive about a
project. He was talking about the young talent that they had
assembled, and then he said, "as well as established artists like
yourself." That was four or five years ago and I thought to myself
then, where has my youth gone? Young singers have to figure out who
has earned the right to give advice. It is very important for young
singers to know themselves and who their real friends are. Too often
young artists are led in different directions by friends, teachers
and coaches. You have to figure out who has earned the right to say
the difficult things. My wife is a big part of that for me. You also
need a teacher and management you can trust. I don't read critics
because I don't feel they have earned the right to advise me. I have
nothing personal against them. I think it works out well because if
I have an interview with a critic, I can approach it honestly and
openly without feeling resentment about their previous criticisms.
But with the advisors you trust, you better listen to them. It may
be bad news but that's the only way you're going to improve.
Toronto recital is scheduled for December 2, 8 p.m., at Roy Thompson
Hall. (416) 872-4255.