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La Scena Musicale - Vol. 4, No. 10

Heppner's Tristan Year

by Philip Anson / July 1, 1999

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Canadian tenor Ben Heppner is taking this summer off. "Every second year is a No-Festival summer," he explained over brunch last month in New York. "I need time for the wife and kids," he asserted, leaving no doubt that the world's top heldentenor is a family man first, and an opera singer second.

Which explains why the 43-year old star refused an invitation to sing Lohengrin at the renowned Bayreuth Festival this year. "They wanted a commitment for five consecutive summers, with very long rehearsals. But I'm not going to change my family rules for Bayreuth," he declared.

Bayreuth's loss is Canada's gain since Heppner will have time to give two very special recitals in July at Quebec's Lanaudiere Festival and Ottawa's National Arts Centre. For the first time in North America, Heppner will be singing the German Romantic opera arias program (Wagner, Korngold, Weber, Beethoven) that he recently recorded for RCA. It will also be the first time Canadian audiences get a chance to hear Heppner singing an aria from Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, an opera much on his mind these days.

With Tristans in Salzburg, Berlin, Florence, Chicago and New York, Heppner calls this his "Tristan Year," yet until last summer, when he sand it in Seattle, Heppner had avoided the killer role. The Tristan in August 1998 was widely regarded as the opera event of the year. The first day tickets went on sale the Seattle Opera's switchboard crashed. All performances quickly sold out as fans from 44 states and 13 countries, along with every major music critic in the Western world, headed to the state of Washington. The pressure was intense, and no one had more at stake than Ben Heppner. Would he live up to his billing as the next great heldentenor?

"It was a little scary," Heppner admitted. "I actually chose Seattle for my first Tristan because it was off the beaten path. I never expected it would become ground zero for the opera world, even eclipsing Bayreuth." Despite two months of rehearsals, he was still worried about getting through the five-hour vocal ordeal. "I'm not usually nervous, but sometimes in rehearsal I felt I wasn't at my best," he admitted.

Heppner made it through the eight performances with flying colours. Some critics noted that Heppner saved himself for the grueling final act. Today he admits as much. "Tristan is a long evening's sing. A bad habit in Act 1 could develop into a real problem by Act 3. You could run out of vocal resources," he recalls. Reviews were generally positive. "A real Tristan has arrived," purred the New York Times. Paradoxically, Heppner ignores the critics. "I never read reviews," he says. "I prefer to listen to the people who know me and love me. They are the ones who tell me the truth."

After Seattle, Heppner carefully lined up Tristans around the world, determined to perfect a role that he describes as "a cornerstone of my repertoire and an opera that changed musical history." He is particularly looking forward to next November's new Metropolitan Opera production of Tristan und Isolde by German director Dieter Dorn. "I met him in Munich this spring to discuss the staging. It will look modern, but he won't be imposing any strange concepts."

For the moment, Heppner is glad to be returning to Lanaudiere, where his family had a great camping vacation two years ago. "Quebec audiences love good singing and buy lots of records," he notes approvingly. "They can handle a serious recital."

Info: Ben Heppner will sing Weber, Wagner, Beethoven, Korngold with the Montreal Symphony Orchestra under Charles Dutoit at the Lanaudière Festival July 24. 20H00. Tel. (800) 561-4343. Also July 28 with the National Arts Centre Orchestra and the National youth Orchestra under Mario Bernardi. Tel. (613) 755-1111.

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