At work, Ben Heppner can be a terror. Conjure up, if you will, his unkempt Gherman, stalking the Countess in a spine-chilling Queen of Spades, or his Peter Grimes, manhandling the new apprentice like a rag doll.Think of him hulking through the title role of William Bolcom's McTeague at Lyric Opera of Chicago. McTeague is a dentist, which might make him a scary customer in the best of circumstances, but this one, being unlicensed, is more so than most. Deprived of his livelihood, driven to despair, Heppner's "Mac" flew through a window in a shower of broken glass. What could come next but murder?
"McTeague was a young giant," Frank Norris writes in the opening chapter of his novel of greed and gold, "carrying his huge shock of blond hair six feet three inches from the ground; moving his immense limbs, heavy with ropes of muscle, slowly, ponderously. His hands were enormous, red, and covered with a fell of stiff yellow hair; they were as hard as wooden mallets, strong as vises, the hands of the old-time car-boy. Often he dispensed with forceps and extracted a refractory tooth with his thumb and finger. His head was square-cut, angular; the jaw salient, like that of the carnivora."
Did Heppner fit that description? Not exactly. What flesh-and-blood incarnation of an imagined character ever does? Heppner's face is round and flat: a lumberjack's maybe, but no brute's. His hair is brown, limp, undramatic. He can be remarkably light on his feet. More to the point, his expression can go stony in a flash, and the sheer scale of his person -- his bulk, his height -- easily takes on an aura of menace. So much so that the brother of the boy who played the new apprentice to Heppner's Grimes at Covent Garden would shriek at the sight of him on the street.
In truth, Heppner's young scene partners are in no danger. "The kid is completely safe. I don't get 'possessed' by the role. First of all, I want the boy to know I'll never hurt him on purpose. If I do hurt him by accident, he must tell me. I want him to know I'm a father, too. I want trust to be built up. But then sometimes the boy gets too relaxed, and we have trouble building up tension...." Most reassuring.
Offstage, Heppner's hearty handshake and easy manner make a new acquaintance feel right at home. Welcome to his curiously configured, anonymously furnished crash pad in a Chicago residential tower of no great architectural distinction. Far below, November mists drift lazily over the face of Lake Michigan, and the bird's-eye view of a lighthouse triggers memories of Heppner's appearance many seasons back in The Lighthouse, Peter Maxwell Davies' three-man psychothriller. Unlike most opera singers, Heppner does not shun the literature of our own waning century. What brings him to Chicago this time is another engagement as Grimes, his first in the U.S. The run ends this evening, which explains the denuded feel of the apartment. His bags are packed: tomorrow, first thing, Heppner heads home to Toronto and his wife and three children, ages eleven to sixteen.
Britten occupies a special place in Heppner's career. The Canadian tenor began life as a soloist at age twenty-one with Britten's St. Nicolas. Grimes stands out in Heppner's mind as "one of the best character roles that opera has to offer me." Like many of the work's admirers, however, he finds his own part in it unfathomable -- "I don't think I'll ever plumb its depths." He imposes no reductive point of view, and his commandingly sung performance takes on a special independence and authority, not easy to define.
Interpretive questions aside, what has people talking about Heppner is something more basic: the nature of his voice. Here at long last is a heldentenor truly worthy of the name. Others have put on the shoes but not filled them. For a generation and more, impresarios have been casting the heroic repertory with singers to varying degrees out of their league. The results have not been uniformly catastrophic. Yet even today certain fanatics will accept no substitutes for Lauritz Melchior, absent from the scene for nearly half a century.
As a sample of Heppner's heldentenor credentials, consider his account of "In fernem Land," as heard on Colin Davis' complete Lohengrin (RCA Victor). Heppner lets the narration unfold in a smooth swell from transparency to clarion power, with touches of surprising delicacy along the way. As we listen, a hazy, far-off vision takes on palpable, all-engulfing presence. This is the imaginative effect Wagner plainly had in mind, anticipated by the orchestra in the crescendo of the Act I prelude (and subsequently reversed). Here what carries it is one human voice -- or it does in Heppner's case, proceeding without awkwardness in piano or strain in forte, reaching the peak with power to spare. The timbre of the instrument is sweet, its color distinctively flaxen. Unlike the darker-hued voices of many tenors who can climb high (among them such retooled baritones as Ramón Vinay, Plácido Domingo and Poul Elming, not to mention Melchior himself), Heppner's voice sits high, scattering sunlight.
As the Emperor in Giuseppe Sinopoli's recording of Richard Strauss' Die Frau ohne Schatten with the Dresden State Orchestra (Teldec), Heppner transforms an assignment hitherto thought tortured and squawky into one of considerable radiance (much as the young Leonie Rysanek released the unsuspected potential of the Empress). Heppner also sings Bacchus in Ariadne auf Naxos. He says a high B is comfortable, a high C (infrequent in his repertory) "not uncomfortable."
A problem role for a pushed-up baritone, Lohengrin is tailor-made for Heppner. His performances in Robert Wilson's staging this season were his first in New York, but he made his acquaintance with the swan knight a decade ago on the advice of Birgit Nilsson, shortly after she declared him the first winner of the newly established Birgit Nilsson Prize. "I didn't know much about Lohengrin," Heppner admits, "but I didn't think I should say no to Birgit." Off he went to the Royal Opera of Stockholm.
He has since taken on Walther von Stolzing -- imparting a rare, perhaps unprecedented clarity of thought to some knotty verse that normally goes by in a blur -- in productions of Die Meistersinger from La Scala to San Francisco, Munich to the Met, plus two complete recordings. This August, at Seattle Opera, Heppner assays his first Tristan, opposite the redoubtable Jane Eaglen's Isolde.
Normally, the announcement of a new Tristan has the interested public sympathetically worried. Not this time, apparently. But anyone aiming to appoint Heppner the Compleat Wagner Tenor should know that the singer has other plans. He has no time for Siegmund, for instance: "I find myself ill served having to grovel in a low register that doesn't show my voice." Siegfried? "Siegfried would be a good idea." (The Siegfried Siegfried sits very high, he allows, and makes tough demands on a singer's endurance, but Götterdämmerung strikes him as "fairly benign.") Any prospects for a Ring? "There's no date set up. I had one, but it wasn't in the right context. I have to add it while the top notes are still easy, or relatively easy." And Tannhäuser? Heppner roars: "I think I'll wait for the video game."
Outside Wagner, there is a world of other literature to keep Heppner busy. His Calàf, Canio, Andrea Chénier and Florestan are internationally established. His Samson in the Saint-Saëns opera has been heard in concerts with the Chicago Symphony and Minnesota Orchestra. (In the symphonic literature, Schoenberg's daunting Gurrelieder is in his repertory, and Mahler's Das Lied von der Erde is a staple.) The idea of Aida has crossed his mind without taking hold, but he would "love" to take on La Forza del Destino. Otello is "a possibility." As relief from all the heavy lifting, he is thinking of Un Ballo in Maschera -- and lieder. His song arsenal to date runs to Beethoven's An die ferne Geliebte, Liszt's Petrarch Sonnets and selected Schumann and Strauss. When he can find some time, he wants to learn a lot more. "I'm really enjoying recitals. I never thought I would say that. It takes a real purity of production. You can't sing flat out for an hour."
Heppner is a heldentenor in the mold of ... who? Ask Nilsson. "Every singer is unique. I cannot compare him to anyone. Ben's voice is not broad and large. For my ear, he keeps a very slender line. It's a bigger voice than Wolfgang Windgassen, who also had a slender tone and technique. Most Wagnerian tenors sing in a broader way. But Ben's voice has a lot of ping in it -- it carries very well. It's not important to have a large voice. What's important is to have intensity in every note. That's what carries! And then, Ben has that wonderful ring." Ping and ring -- who could ask for more?
"My first favorite, when I started listening to other singers at university, was Fritz Wunderlich," Heppner recalls. "I loved the fluidity, the musicality, the beautiful tenor sound. Then I discovered Jussi Bjoerling, still my favorite voice -- passionate, committed at all points. And anyone my age must include Luciano Pavarotti as a model of what singing could be. Hearing his records, I couldn't sit still, it was so exciting -- especially the aria from La Fille du Régiment. I wanted to be able to do that, and for a while I could do it. I can't do it anymore." Wunderlich, Bjoerling, Pavarotti -- not a heldentenor in the bunch.
Like many a star before him, and no doubt like many to come, Heppner started his career in the chorus. A farmer's son, the youngest of nine children, he grew up in Dawson Creek, B.C. (population then 13,000, now 10,000). If the name rings a bell, you are probably thinking of the fictitious locale of a new Fox TV series. "Dawson's Creek," tease the posters. "The end of something simple. And the beginning of everything else." Heppner's description of his hometown is a little different: "Mile Zero of the Alaska Highway." Among the Heppners, there seems to be a goodly quotient of raw vocal talent, but apart from Ben, only one sister did much of anything with it, in a stint with the Sweet Adelines. And if the name of those all-girl barbershop quartets means nothing to you, Brother Ben has some advice: "You've got to get out more."
As a student at the University of British Columbia, Heppner had an eye on the ministry, but music took over. It was at school that he met the woman he would marry, Karen Pozzi, a pianist who played in an opera workshop they "endured" together. Endured? "We would get together and commiserate. You had to know the teacher. I learned a lot, but it took ten years to apply. He had a lot to offer dramatically, but I didn't understand what he was asking me to do vocally, namely to sing like an opera singer, not a choral singer." Meaning what, exactly? "In a chorus, when individual voices stick out, it's a problem. A chorus master has to reduce the range of sounds, to equalize, rather than expand and give more variety. I was used to taking color out of my voice to make it blend, rather than using colors to make a palette."
A useful lesson, in particular, for Lohengrin, whose opening address to the swan hovers in the passaggio, in the immediate proximity of F, "where everything must be handled with great care." Does he sing this passage in chest voice? In head voice? "I wouldn't think of it in terms of chest or head but in terms of lighter, purer production, with pure vowels, not weighting up the sound. Vocally, keep your integrity, so it all sounds like one voice, not segmented. Use words and colors. If all you want is a long, smooth line, hire a clarinet."
Heppner's first role in opera, understandably absent from his current résumé, was Roderigo in Verdi's Otello (Vancouver, 1981). The jeune premier of the Canadian Opera Company ensemble in his early days, he toured widely as Camille in Die Lustige Witwe and Alfred in Die Fledermaus. The latter is a role he longs to sing again. Outgrowing the light stuff, Heppner has moved on to roles such as Huon in Weber's Oberon (at La Scala and for EMI), the Prince in Dvorák's Rusalka and the title role in his Dmitrij, Laca in Janácek's Jenufa, Jean in Massenet's Hérodiade (recorded for EMI). Royalty from Mozartean opera seria, largely the province of specialists of more slender vocal endowments, figures in his repertory, too.
Like most singers these days, Heppner has had to contend with the vagaries of "director's opera." He has never walked out on a production, but seven years after Peter Mussbach's Idomeneo in Amsterdam, he still wishes he had. Topless dancers in boxer shorts were among the evening's diversions, but what bothered Heppner most was the general conception, which he viewed as "contrary to the piece." Idomeneo was modeled on Saddam Hussein, and to clarify what the captive Trojan princess had in mind when she complains of her "torments," Mussbach gave Idamante whips and chains.
Conversely, Heppner "loved" a later Karl-Ernst and Ursel Herrmann production of La Clemenza di Tito at the Salzburg Festival. Riccardo Muti detested the show so thoroughly that he refused to conduct it, unleashing the first tempest of Gérard Mortier's eventful Salzburg regime. Heppner, who had accepted the engagement in order to work with the maestro, recalls, "Muti's official line was that an opera seria was being done as an opera buffa." Perhaps not an unjustified position, in view of the clement emperor's entrance dressed as a gorilla. "I never thought of it as a gorilla suit," Heppner hoots. "That was armor."
Experience has taught him that concept productions benefit from singing actors with some ideas of their own. He has fond memories of the Peter Sellars Tannhäuser at Lyric Opera of Chicago (1988), a staging as brilliant as it was notorious. Sellars transposed the action from Wagner's thirteenth-century Thuringia to his own beloved Southern California. For Wagner's medieval warrior minstrels, Sellars substituted televangelists, their faces painted blue, like the faces of demons in the popular theater of Southeast Asia. (This allusion was lost on just about everyone. At least one viewer thought Sellars was spoofing poor color reception on a cheap TV set.) Heppner was one of the men in blueface: Walther von der Vogelweide. Sellars (no expert in salvation on the airwaves) wanted Heppner and the rest to play guitar. Heppner countered that it wasn't "echt," relishing the mischief. "I told him we had to have mikes." Other cast members -- artists who brought to bear years of stage experience of Wagner in Europe -- gave Sellars plenty of backtalk of their own, achieving in the process an exceptional degree of ownership.
Heppner remembers the experience with affection. "Of course," he sighs, "the production's shelf life was very short." Not that he has any great fondness for productions that hang on forever, like the recent Lyric Grimes, directed by John Copley in sets by Carl Toms and costumes by Tanya Moiseiwitsch. "Traditional" some may call it, but to Heppner, it was simply too literal-minded.
Dream projects, wishes for the future? "I missed working with some great singers of the past age. I didn't get to sing Tristan with Birgit. That's a regret, not a wish." (Says Nilsson, "I missed that train. It would have been wonderful.") "For the future? My wish is that all the things I get to do are great, that I don't have to worry about things not coming up to expectations."
Would Heppner like another crack at McTeague? "There's been talk of a San Francisco revival. I don't know if it will happen. If it does, I'd want an aria at the end in the desert. I already wanted that in Chicago -- something not predicated on showing the character as clumsy, stupid, inarticulate. Faced with certain death, people are very articulate. The clumsiness rises to eloquence, it becomes lyrical, full of insight. I wasn't the only one who thought the opera needed revisions, but Robert Altman was the director, and he didn't want anything like that. Yes, I do think McTeague should be done again."
A fourth-grader Heppner met during one of his frequent school visits suggested a venture with slightly more obvious market appeal. "He asked me if I'd ever sung a duet with the Three Tenors," Heppner chuckles. "That was my favorite question."