“Like a full-bodied cabernet,” is how Ben Heppner’s own website describes his voice. The Juno and Grammy award winning British Columbia native, known as one of the world’s most renowned dramatic tenors, is bringing his flavourful voice and exuberant stage presence to St. John’s and Corner Brook next week, as part of an Atlantic Canada tour.
While he’s no stranger to gigantic venues, from performances with the New York Metropolitan Opera to the closing ceremonies of the past two Winter Olympics, Heppner’s current tour is taking him to smaller places like Antigonish, Saint John and Wolfville, with a solo recital that’s less formal, more intimate.
“In my recitals, I’m quite willing to break the fourth wall, so it’s not a formalized kind of experience for me or for the audience,” he explained. “I talk off the cuff, and try to share music with them that’s not like a formalized program at Carnegie Hall.”
Heppner studied at the University of British Columbia and first attracted attention when he won the Metropolitan Opera auditions in 1988. Since then, he has performed demanding repertoire around the world, including Wagner’s “Tristan and Isolde” and title roles in “Lohengrin,” Verdi’s “Otello” and Berlioz’ “Aeneas.”
He is well-recorded, both as part of operas and on solo albums, and is currently signed to German label Deutsche Grammophon.
Heppner was made a Member of the Order of Canada in 1999, was later promoted to officer, and was made a companion three years ago.
While he doesn’t do strictly opera, he’s never considered putting out an album of, say, jazz tunes, or anything other stream than classical.
“It’s not my training,” he explained. “I was raised singing gospel music at church, so I don’t really have that as part of my thinking.
“I love the challenge of what it is that I do. It’s difficult to sing: it takes big concentration and you’ve got to think your way through it, because not every day is your best day. You might have a cold or something, but you have to work your way through it. I love that challenge.”
The challenge also includes singing in a language that isn’t your own, and if it’s one you have no training in whatsoever, it involves memorizing words by syllable rather than by following a theme.
“This is a problem with Russian for me,” Heppner, who sings entire performances in Russian, said. “I don’t speak Russian; I don’t have any training in Russian, not even a basic course. I’ve learned it just phonetically, and memorizing phonetics is very difficult. With German, I can think of the next thoughts, and chances are 95 per cent that I can come up with the right line.”
Memorizing words isn’t the only thing that’s gotten a little more difficult with time, Heppner said. Twenty years ago he may have been able to step on stage without any special effort to warm up whatsoever; these days, it takes a little longer.
“It’s like if someone is, say, a curler. He used to be able to go out and immediately start throwing, and that deep knee bend as he delivers the rock is not a problem, and the sweeping is not such a big deal. Twenty years later, he’s finding he needs to stretch, and maybe he should do something about the sweeping thing so he doesn’t give himself a glitch in the back,” Heppner, 55, explained.
“That happens in singing as well: your chords sort of stiffen and start to thicken, and it just takes longer. It’s one of those things that I think everyone can relate to.”
Accompanied by John Hess, Heppner will start his recitals with six Benjamin Britten folk songs.
“They’re from the British Isles, so they’re in English, and hopefully my diction is clear enough and your ears are fast enough to catch some of the subtilties of what’s going on,” he said.
After that, he’ll perform a shortened version of his bigger program, including two Tchaikovsky, two Sibelius and two Greig pieces, followed, after an intermission, but three opera arias: one French, one German and one Italian. Heppner plans to close his show with a selection of “parlour pieces” popular in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
It all works together well, Heppner reckons.
“The folk songs have such a familiar ring to them, even if you don’t know them. Then the more serious grouping that I do … the opera arias have a certain drama to them, and I might tell a story or two, and then the final grouping, of course, is familiar and, in a sense, like singing covers,” he said with a chuckle.
Heppner, who performed in St. John’s once before and who has an honorary degree from Memorial University, said he’s “delighted to return to Newfoundland,” and is looking forward to meeting some old friends and seeing a little more of the province.
Heppner performs at the St. John’s Arts and Culture Centre Monday, Feb. 28 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $65 ($50 for students and seniors) and can be purchased by calling 720-3900. His performance at Corner Brook’s Arts and Culture Centre is March 3.