Big Ben – Canadian opera great talks about his passions: opera, the world’s best tenors, family, life, motorcycling and his next career road
“I go mad and die, much like my real life,” Heppner, arguably Canada’s most famous opera star, says as he describes his life in a tongue-in-cheek way and his best-known opera role, Tristan in Tristan und Isolde. Ben Heppner has performed operas worldwide. In his breakout year, 1988, he won the prestigious New York’s Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and his career took off with at least one major performance every year since then. In 2013, he debuted in Houston after successfully returning to the stage in Toronto, a venue he had not played in seventeen years. The reviewers raved re-affirming his position atop of the list of outstanding tenors in the world.
Q. Is it accurate to say that German operas such as Tristan und Isolde, Siefried and Die Meistersinger are less popular than the romantic operas such as Carmen, Madame Butterfly and Turandot. You seem to prefer performing the German operas. Why?
A. The German operas in which I have performed have sold out for the most part. Therefore, I am not so sure that these are less popular operas. The selection of opera productions is as political as many decisions are in the world of commerce, government or even education. The directors of opera houses base their opera choices on varied criteria: local audience tastes, current popularity, availability of performers and of course, personal agendas. Since I began my career, I have had the good fortune of selling out a majority of my performances throughout the world. As to popular preference of romantic or lighter operas versus the German ones, I think it may be a misinterpretation to say one set is more popular. Popularity is fleeting and temporary like fashion or perhaps toe-tappers just seem to catch popular attention more readily than great epic dramas.
Q. Being an opera star is such a unique profession or career. How did you get into it? Was your family interested in music and opera?
A. I was born in British Columbia into a family of four siblings, each a very capable singer. Every one of my brothers and sisters could have been a successful singing star. They were that good. They sang everywhere and all the time, in the backyard hanging laundry, in the church choir singing hymns, on the front porch as evening serenades. The neighbours must have thought ‘those Heppners are nuts!’ I was the only one of the kids to turn his singing into a successful career. In high school, I was a trumpeter, but with no aspirations of becoming an Al Hirt, Miles Davis or Harry James. None of the great trumpeters was on my musical radar. I enjoyed playing but the attraction may have been social more than musical as I was a regular teenager. Still, I did apply to study music at university after graduating.
Q. Was opera your primary goal when you studied music in the University of British Columbia?
A. No, the path to the opera stage was a bit convoluted. After high school, I tried divinity school for a year. Then, I had an accident while working my summertime job cutting my hand very badly at the glass shop where I worked. I asked myself if I wanted to be doing this kind of work again next year. I called UBC about my previous year’s application and learned it was still valid but that I would need to pass an audition to be accepted. I was successful and compressed their ‘four year program into five.’ I was in no hurry for I had no clear music career plans. In 1979, I won a CBC Talent Festival that opened the door to training with the Canadian Opera Company in Toronto. Now came the lean years, with little happening until 1988 at which time I won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in New York. My career sprung to life with my being offered many roles, 8 or 9 in the first year, 7 in the next, 4 in the next, and subsequently about a role a year thereafter.
Q. You grew up in the age when such greats as Mario Lanza, Enrico Caruso, Franco Corelli and Robert Merrill dominated the opera world. Did you ever dream of being among that elite group of tenors?
A. No, my singing style was less dramatic then and I thought that if I were to follow a singing career, I would be touring along the lines of rock and roll band singers or country and western stars, neither genre of music being especially appealing to me. Of course, road touring did not no appeal to me either. However, a teacher in university directed me into the CBC audition that I mentioned before and that is how I got onto the path of opera, something which I really love because singing opera is so much more dynamic, so much more multifaceted than any other type of singing. You are an actor playing a variety of roles, from heavy to light, from sad to jovial, from tragic to comic. No other singing has such dynamic fullness as operas.
Q. You seem to enjoy doing recitals as much as singing full operas. Recently you gave a recital at the Indian River Festival in Prince Edward Island. You are known for giving recitals frequently, throughout many small towns in Canada. Are recitals not energy draining and a distraction from your major operatic performances?
A. I grew up in Dawson Creek, BC, population about 11,000 at its peak and so, in the words of John Denver, ‘I’m a country boy!’ I am very comfortable in these small town venues. I relate well to the people that live there, understanding how they think, how they live and how they concentrate on the responsibilities of life: raising a family and working hard. I also recognize that these small towns lack the cultural opportunities of the bigger cities and TV productions are not the same as a live performance. Recitals allow me to create special programs, which I think may appeal to those particular audiences. I can insert my favourite arias from operas I enjoy the most, but I can also insert popular songs that these folks will never have heard sung by a heroic tenor. Almost as importantly, I can talk to the audience; answer questions with real-life anecdotes from the world of opera and the international stage. It is very gratifying to see how interested they are and how attentive they become when you personalize what they have seen on TV or what they think opera is about.
Q. Today, thanks to social media which has taken TV to more personal levels, opera tenors such as Pavarotti, Domingo, and Carerra are well known by many more people than Enrico Caruso, Mario Lanza and Robert Merrill ever dreamed of being. Who do you think is the best tenor ever?
A. Undoubtedly, audience exposure to the degree that exists today was never imagined just a few decades ago. The internet is a wonderful tool for accessing an amazing variety of musical performances be they singing by particular stars or productions of particular operas. Enrico Caruso is owed the most gratitude by all tenors because he was the first renowned tenor to harness the power of technology to reach a wider audience. His audio recordings are readily on the internet. But we are also indebted to Mario Lanza for using Hollywood and the cinema to broaden the exposure of operas. As to who is the best tenor of all time is much like trying to label the best wine in the world. Either it cannot be done or one has to narrow the scope of the question. We do not know how tenors before Caruso sounded and even Caruso’s recordings have technological flaws. Additionally, tenors fit into four categories. Counter tenors sing a higher pitch and in earlier times, they played female roles as only males were permitted on stage, even in in operas and they sang operas which some would classify as lighter operas, by composers like Rossini and Bellini. Then, there are the lyric tenors, Pavarotti being the most well known. These tenors have larger voices with more a “fullness” to their sound. La Boheme best stages their particular vocal colour. Next, the spinto tenor fills the gap between the lyric and the dramatic tenor with the prerequisite capacity for volume and the needed sweetness to the voice. Enrico Caruso may fit this type, but for certain, Jussi Bjorling and Franco Corelli did. Finally comes the heavy hitter, the dramatic or helden tenor. Canadian great John Vickers fits this role. I too am classified as an helden or heroic tenor. The operas we sing well are the big dramatic ones like Verdi’s Aida and Leoncavallo’s Il Pagliacci.
Q. You have performed in a long list of the opera houses throughout the world from Sidney, Australia to Stockholm, Sweden, from the Met in New York to La Scala in Milan. How do you cope with all this international travel? What do you do with your time in these famous world capitals?
A. As I said earlier, I am a small town boy, so I am quite awed by these great cities and I love to explore. I enjoy walking and when I travel to these cities, I walk about them a lot, visiting museums, art galleries and exploring unique neighbourhoods. I always find it amazing to see the changing social kaleidoscope and its variations from country to country. Yet, though many things change, much does not. People everywhere love art; people everywhere like to eat and drink well, people everywhere appreciate beauty, the greenery of parks, the architecture of buildings and the historical commemoration of their history with sculptures and monuments. I will hop on a local bus or take the subway if it is available and, map in hand, I will begin my adventurous exploration. Often, I will ask my hotel to recommend an Italian restaurant, among my favourite foods, and I will test it out and use it as my gauge for ranking other eateries in the city at subsequent dinners. Of course, when I started motorcycling, my range of exploration broadened significantly.
Q. How long have you been motorcycling? How do your agent and the opera companies for which you perform react to your having such a high-risk hobby?
A. At my age, my insurance premiums are within an acceptable range and the people who contract me for their productions are aware of my maturity, I am 57 and expect that I ride with due caution, care and awareness. I discovered motorcycling in 2002 and got my motorcycle license that same year. Until I bought my first bike, I rented bikes for renting was easy and practical for one who travelled to so many different cities annually. However, eventually, I tired of learning to adapt to so many different bikes and ownership seemed more economically practical. My first bike, a Honda VTX 1300, was great and it was all that the salesperson had promised, ‘Great balance, good power, ideal weight, perfect as a first ride.’ Motorcycling was a great way to expand my city explorations, I could easily ride into the regions bordering the cities and see some of the countryside. I really loved this, each evening the excitement of performing, each day the excitement of exploration by motorcycle.
Q. Owning such a bike would afford you easy access to a much larger bite of the local geography but of course, riding like that would expose you to much greater risks. Have you had any accidents, close calls while motorcycling?
A. There are two types of riders: those who have gone down, and those who will. I have had one accident of note, in Abbotsford, BC. Checking out the street name signs on the roadside, I looked back to the front and was confronted with a barrage of brake lights. I grabbed my brakes, turned my front fork and ‘hell, I was down.’ I was riding very slowly, so suffered no major damage, not even a tear to my jeans. However, I hurt my shoulder, which I never admitted to my wife at home. It took two years before my pain totally subsided and my shoulder healed completely. I remember the accident well. There was a woman on the sidewalk who ran up to help me and peppered me with questions. How’s your hand? How you feeling? I asked her if she was a nurse. She turned out to be an emergency room nurse saying she saw these kinds of things every day. The shock of the accident came hours later. When I got back to the hotel, a wave of the chills hit me. The woman asked that I phone her when I got back to my hotel. When I described my symptoms, she told me to take analgesics and a very hot shower. I recovered and I still ride motorcycles today.
Q. Do you own a car? Do you ride in foreign countries? Any close calls there?
A. I own two cars, but usually both are being driven by one of my three adult children and I am gratefully relegated to riding my new bike. Driving on the left is challenging enough in a car in countries where they drive on the other side of the road to where we drive. I prefer to avoid riding a motorcycle in places like Australia and the United Kingdom. When I ride in Europe I am especially careful as I am not familiar with the roads. I have to be very aware of road directions and of course, the drivers there for they drive much faster than North Americans. They are a different breed of driver, more observant of other drivers and driving etiquette. Simply put, they are more aware of driving. I have never seen a driver eating while driving in Europe and if they use cellulars while driving, they use hands-free devices. Still, I had one close call on a motorcycle. I remember riding along the Champs Elysées in Paris. At the best of times, this internationally famous boulevard teems with Gallic ‘madmen’ at their wheels. These vehicular speedsters convert the three lane wide avenue into a six-lane speedway circling the Arc de Triomphe on Pl. Charles de Gaulle at unthinkable speeds with cars flying off the traffic circle like sparks off of a grinding wheel. This Parisian roundabout is not for the faint of heart, nor for a slow-thinking driver, let alone a motorcyclist of limited experience or lacking geographic familiarity of the area. Like one of the sparks, I flew off onto one of the boulevards that spin off of the circle only to be faced by an multiple lanes of cars, all with me in their zooming sights. Before any panic hit me, I made the fastest U turn I ever dreamed I could make on a motorcycle, and joined the traffic flow, now going in the right direction.
Q. What do you ride today and where are you riding to next in motorcycling and in your performance itinerary?
A. My current ride is a 2009 Gold Wing that I bought from a senior in Renfrew, Ontario. The bike was his pride and joy and though he hardly rode it, he cared for like a treasure. I promised I would care for it the same and rode away with great trepidation as the man watched his treasure going down the road. I had more butterflies then than I have ever had on stage. I was not going down in front him that was for certain. I rode away safely.
Well, summer is here and I have done two recitals, one in Gananoque and another in Prince Edward Island. After that, I plan to relax, doing face time with my family, catching up on chores at home and doing some local riding.
As to what is coming this fall, I am tremendously excited about my new path. I will be hosting radio show about opera on CBC Radio, “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera.” The format of the show, where it will go, who the guests will be have not been finalized yet for the show will debut, Saturday, Sept, 7th. I am really looking forward to this radio broadcasting experience and I know I am following in some big CBC Radio footsteps: Shelagh Rogers, Michael Enright, Stuart Mclean to name a few. I will still be performing on stage and still doing my explorations by motorcycle.
Q. Given that you are such a passionate rider and a performing opera star, I hesitate to end this interview with the regular performers’ good luck wish, ‘Break a leg.’ Instead, given your international travel, perhaps better to say, ‘In boca al lupo.’
A. “Crepi.” Thank you!