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Ben Heppner – Tristan at Covent Garden : talks to Jim Pritchard (JPr)

Ben Heppner : Picture Courtesy of Deutsche Grammophon © Sebastian Hanel

The Canadian tenor Ben Heppner met me early during the rehearsals for the eagerly awaited new production by Christof Loy of Tristan und Isolde at Covent Garden. He is one of the world’s finest singers and in a wide-ranging talk he spoke with great thoughtfulness, good humour and much honesty, about being back at Covent Garden, the role of Tristan, his career, Canada, his family and … riding his motorcycle.

I asked how the rehearsals had been going so far.

We have completely finished Act I in terms of the basic idea, Act II is getting there and we have just begun Act III. So things are going well in the interior of Tristan’s mind and we are discovering about that. I’ve never worked with Christof Loy before and only met him for the first time this summer in Aix when he came to see me sing and he introduced himself. I was asked to sing Tristan here in 2002 but had to take some time off so unfortunately I had to cancel. From what I hear of that production perhaps it was fortuitous. I understand Tristan and Isolde never got together: well, I can dispel that myth with this production and they do get together.

I am having a great time; it is the first time I have sung with Nina Stemme, and I’ve only worked once in a concert Fidelio with Michael Volle who is Kurwenal. The Brangäne, Sophie Koch, I didn’t particularly know before I came here though we were in the same Festival in Santo Domingo and that’s where we saw each other’s names. Of course I have worked with Matti Salminen numerous times as King Marke. Being together with Wagner singers is so much different from being with those who sing French or Italian music. You never feel ‘Oh the soprano got more applause than I did’ – if you are the type to actually have that attitude. With this music you are more concerned with did Wagner win or did I? Each evening you rarely do win because there is so much more to overcome, such as, the orchestra and the extreme endurance test you must go through. This gives Wagner singers a whole different attitude that I really like and they are very gregarious and are always talking backstage – whereas when I do some Italian things everybody is locked in their rooms and somehow that seems odd to me.

I’ve known Tony Pappano for some time and have done Otello and Peter Grimes here with him and we have seen each other here and there in other places like in Chicago where he was connected for a short time. I feel do privileged to work where I work and with whom I work and I have to say I pinch myself some days that I have this kind of quality to work with. I’m actually particularly enjoying working with Christof but do not expect a lot of bandages as Tristan’s agony is more emotional than it is physical and I find this approach interesting.

I wondered whether Mr Heppner had any further thoughts about this production and how it relates to others he has done.

Well, as I mentioned before, Tristan and Isolde definitely get together and there is touching and realism. At the moment we are trying to find the path through the complicated psychology of some of the words because there are some lines that are difficult to understand. We are trying to make it possible for people to understand the ebb and flow of the relationships. I am trying to do what I always do and that is to put breath and life into the words and flesh out character and bring it to life.

All directors are desperately trying to avoid things like in Act III where Tristan is supposed to be laying on a death bed and be confined there. In all productions I’ve done I don’t think I’ve ever been confined; I may have started there but there has always been movement and walking around, so in a sense, they all do the same thing. In this production I am not going to be lying on the ground and showing the physical agony, as much as we are the mental – and I might say from Tristan’s point of view – the spiritual agony. He is longing for night, he’s longing for death and he might even feel a little bit betrayed that Isolde didn’t accompany him on his journey. In this production I think we look more at the characters from that point of view.

I asked Mr Heppner whether it is easy to distance himself from the emotions Tristan must go through and prevent it affecting his singing.

I would look at this slightly differently: Robertson Davies, the Canadian novelist, writes in The Lyre of Orpheus about the actor experience and his thesis is that the actor goes through the emotions of his character in the rehearsal process and not so much in the actual performance. So if one does the same thing every time in the same way for instance, with the same kind of tenderness or effects that you perhaps brought to your own real emotions, then the audience experiences the emotions but the actor doesn’t. I have found this to be true. When I first sang Tristan in the summer of 1998 I went through all sorts of emotions as he self-eviscerates himself – that Freudian self-evisceration. You can go through all kinds of stuff but when you are on stage you have to keep it a bit at arms’ length because you still have to sing the role - and if you give into it all then you will not last more than twenty minutes.

Mr Heppner has now sung both Siegfrieds in the Ring operas at Aix and I wondered whether singing Tristan again now was light relief after these.

Well I would say that when I picked up the Tristan score again in early August to take a look at it I found it to be a fond friend. I know the role so don’t need to think too much about it and I know the feelings that go along with most phrases. The Siegfried Siegfried is apparently the longest role for tenors although the one thing that he has going for him is that he doesn’t have this black cloud weighing him down: by comparison is just open and quite ebullient. With Tristan, from your very first phrase he is in some kind of emotional turmoil and then this carries on throughout the whole evening. It makes it a hard sing.

If I was very honest I would say I left it too late to sing Siegfried but I did that for very specific reasons. One was that when you sing the Ring from then on that seems to be all you get offered. Then there is the fact that the rehearsals are endless and it is only four operas to prepare. It is not a problem with any kind of direction; it is just that it is long and it makes the work arduous and detailed. At an earlier point in my career I did not want to be involved in three months of rehearsals away from home and then end up doing only 2 or 3 Ring Cycles. And this means that if you sing Siegfried all you might get is just six performances. It didn’t seem like a reasonable thing to do then, but I thought I wanted to try it now.

I asked Mr Heppner how he approached the Siegfried Siegfried which seems to be the opposite of Tristan. Siegfried is difficult to begin with and then levels off in difficulty whereas with Tristan there is always the Act III ahead.

Your instinct is correct, the Siegfried Act I encapsulates how the evening is going to go and I still feel I have more work to do on that. You do the forging and it is so demanding on your voice; the orchestra is usually so loud and you can end up pushing too hard. Hopefully you can preserve enough voice to do Act II which is relatively Mozartian in a number of ways, and then Act III starts to build again with the Wanderer scene and gets more intense. With the Brünnhilde scene, Siegfried starts quite light and lyric but it’s quite likely that the lyric part of your voice has gone by then. Wagner seems to do that to you and he certainly does that in Die Meistersinger as well; the Quintet in that comes at the most awkward place in the evening and in the most awkward part of your voice which has long since left you. So Siegfried it is somewhat similar in that you need this steel and stamina to survive Brünnhilde who begins singing after a rather long nap. [Laughs] 
I was really thrilled though that in Aix we forged a sword – it might possibly have been a light sabre or something like that I suppose – but unlike in some productions, I understand, I actually forged it and I was quite delighted. 

Since he had mentioned Die Meistersinger I asked how his debut in it for the Royal Opera at Covent Garden in 1990 came about.

My recollection is that it was the third evening: I was actually taking some courses in German at the Goethe Institute in Exhibition Road and I came back a bit early and went straight to the stage manager – the performance had not started yet but was getting close - and told him I was going to be in my apartment which was not far from the stage door. I had this feeling that this might be the night I would go on because I had heard rumours it was inevitable for certain reasons. Then I got a call at the end of Act I and was told to get to the opera house where they found me a costume and had some difficulty in finding shoes for me. The idea was for me to wait till Act III but I said that since my Act II entrance had not yet come I would go on right now. So that is what I did – no one, conductor or other singers, knew - except those 2 or 3 people backstage who had got me ready.

Felicity Lott was Eva and she rushed over to me and we had a sort of quick embrace at this point and she whispered ‘Toi, toi, toi!’ in my ear and I, as I had to, spun her around and we just got on with it. The audience had no warning I was coming in and I ended up doing two further full performances following that first one. The final one was a broadcast which I thought was a wonderful gift to me. I recall I stretched the performance by about 12 minutes because I just decided I needed to take the role at the tempos I wanted.

I told Mr Heppner how much I enjoyed his performance of Calaf at Covent Garden in 2006.

Thank you. I have done only two productions, that one and an earlier one in Chicago. I have to say that basically I have decided I will not be singing it any more at this point. I was supposed to be doing it this year at The Met and it would have followed soon after these Tristans so I decided that because of the short rehearsal period there was no way I had the time to make the change. Tristan is low for me and is very middle voice and hard singing; I could still make the transition if I had enough time but I spend so much time in the German music that the Turandot Bs and the C are daunting because I don’t spend much time up there in my kind of music. In Tristan I might have a B flat but it is a wide open one of the kind you cannot do in Italian music and since it also comes from an emotional place, rather than a singing one, it is a different note. I have therefore just decided to be careful which roles I choose outside my main repertoire from now on.

He has not yet sung Siegmund and I wondered why that was.

I decided that I would do the higher roles first and do the Siegfrieds and then Siegmund could follow that. I certainly felt earlier on, that Parsifal and Siegmund were low with a lot of that middle voice again and I would concentrate on the higher things, Lohengrin, Walther and things like that before – and it is inevitable with age – the middle and lower voice flesh out a bit.

Something else I had enjoyed recently was Mr Heppner’s recital at the Barbican and I noted how he occasionally made concert tours throughout Canada. I suspected that this meant quite a lot to him.

Well, September of 2008 I had done a summer festival concert of Das Lied von der Erde in San Sebastian and to anybody living in Canada San Sebastian sounds very exotic – which indeed it is – but my very next concert was in Yorkton, Saskatchewan. That’s a small central Canadian farm community where the grain elevator is more important than any church. Then I went to Prince Albert which is a slightly larger city, Medicine Hat – you’ve got to love these names – and on to Fort McMurray which is the centre of oil sands industry, then to Yellowknife in the Northwest territories and finally, White Horse in the Yukon. I reduce my fee quite a bit and try and do about 6 performances in 15 days. I grew up in small town Canada and it feels very important to get back and give them – I hope – a very enjoyable experience. I try to make the concerts accessible to those who just want to hear me even if they are not particularly into classical music or opera. I try to do tours like this when I can, though it is not possible for me to do this every year and my next scheduled time is Spring 2011.

I had been building up to asking Mr Heppner about his famous compatriot, Jon Vickers, who I had personally heard say that he refused to sing the roles of Tannhäuser and the young Siegfried because of his personal beliefs. He did not like the morality of these characters and I wondered whether Mr Heppner had any problems with any of the Wagner roles he sings because of his own strong beliefs. I was pleasantly surprised by the honesty of his reply.

Do the ‘beliefs’ have anything to do with the high tessitura of those roles - Siegfried in particular - and I think he might have found Tannhäuser also a little too high. That’s my instinct about that but I don’t know as we are not going to extract an answer from him personally now. I would be certainly interested in trying Tannhäuser because it would be a sort of climax to my career. I was offered it way too soon and said no, and then we were thinking of doing it here at Covent Garden but the timings did not work so it hasn’t come about. But I think that it will soon.

If we consider the characters themselves though, that is a different question and if we think about Siegfried, then he is not particularly interesting. He is no Parsifal and is not the ‘pure fool’ but quite an odd character. I tried to find more humour in him because there is a lot there and I think I got better in Götterdämmerung in finding that. I tried to make it more light-hearted because all I ever heard about it was that it is [Speaking with emphasis] The  Ring, and is Wagner. But when I did it I decided to find my own path through it because, after all, it is just a large fairytale with large singers [Laughs], large music and large orchestra. Everything about it is big but it does not have the same emotional impact as Tristan. It is still amazing of course but I do think people take it too seriously. I agree with Mr Vickers that Siegfried is not a nice character and he is not necessarily one you need to go after but I decided to do it for a bit of a lark just to see if I could … it was a challenge for me.

I asked about Mahler, another composer who has featured in his schedule over the years.

I do Das Lied an awful lot and someone said to me that I must like the piece because I sing it so often. I replied that it helps me put my kids through college [Laughs]. It is another great friend whenever I come back to do it again, as is Mahler 8. I also told somebody that if they allowed me to sing the baritone aria in that then I would probably sing it for free. I do not sing any of the songs as I leave that to Thomas Hampson who seems to do Mahler endlessly. I do love Mahler. I listen to all the symphonies and just revel in the sound washing over me.

Coming soon for Mr Heppner are performances of a new work, Moby Dick, in Dallas and I wondered what he could say about this.

Actually I’ve been going around telling everybody I’ve got the title role but it’s unfortunate that not everybody thinks this is as funny as I do [Laughs]. I have to dust off my Captain Ahab peg leg next May and we do this new piece. I’ve been through Act I with Jake Heggie, the composer, but haven’t heard anything yet from Act II though it is apparently now finished and they have done some revisions on it. By the time I get back home there will be a full score and a recording from some workshops they have done. I’ll be getting into it in November and December when it’ll be my job to learn it. The music is modern, atonal, but not serial. I wouldn’t call it Mahleresque but it has melodies, it has chords, though it tends probably not to stay in one key but it will float in tonalities.

The first time I did a world première was in Chicago in 1992 with William Bolcom’s McTeague and I’ve said for years now that I’ve wanted to do more modern music but I do want composers to keep in mind that the human voice can do certain things well - and other things not so well – so let’s please stick more or less to what it can do well. I want melodies and even if those are not Verdi, Puccini or Wagner ones, I want to find something in it that I can identify as a melody and the audience can absorb as being new and fresh, and not just pointillistic. Sometimes because a singer can sing a B flat they are made to sing them all night.

Looking back I asked Mr Heppner how he had become an opera singer.

As I grew up I didn’t really have any exposure to classical music particularly, mostly it was church music, more of the gospel kind rather than C of E sort. But singing was very much part of my family and I have brothers and sisters who sing really well although none of them are trained. There was something of the moth to a flame about me and music, and I thought I was going to be a music teacher. When I got to University I had some exposure to opera - both by watching some student productions and being put in some. My basic music degree was not in opera and I just got pulled into it. I wasn’t really thrilled with opera but as things progressed people kept telling me I was really suited for it. I always had a lyric tenor and although I have a fairly reasonable low range it has clearly always been a tenor voice. Eventually I decided to try and find out more about opera and it seems to have worked out.

I do wake up once in a while and think about how I’ve now got great music to sing. Wagner is, of course, unique but even if I do venture into some of the Italian pieces such as Otello, or something else like Peter Grimes, it is all great music. Almost everything I sing – not all but most – is probably in the top 10 or 15 in any list of all operas and how lucky can you be?

Would any of his children be following in their father’s profession and is it easy to balance his career and his home life?

No, but my daughter is a pianist who also sings very well too and so do my boy. The older one is an expert in banjo and Mississippi Delta Blues though his degree is in Philosophy and my younger guy is excellent on guitar but is more into contemporary things.

I never plan how many weeks I’m away but the way that I respond to this is quite euphemistic in that I am away more than I care to admit and less than makes me a martyr! People say I must need to get back for my family but the truth is that going home is for me and I need it. It is not just so I can stay connected with my wife and my three children – it’s also that I can stay connected with myself and somehow find my soul again.

One way I had heard he does this is by riding a motorcycle. Was this true?

Oh yes, if I had my phone with me I could show you a picture of my beloved motorcycle. For those who might be interested I have a Honda BTX 1300 cruiser and this is my fourth season riding my own bike. This summer I had a concert outside Montreal and so my friend and I did three days of very intensive riding from Toronto and some 1700 kilometres later we ended up at the venue. He went home on his own because I had to stay for a Strauss concert … that’s as close to heaven as it gets for me!

This brought the interview to a close and left me with the final thought that if anyone ever made an opera from the biker film Easy Rider they’d probably not have much difficulty in persuading Mr Heppner to be in it!

© Jim Pritchard

The Royal Opera has just announced that Matti Salminen has withdrawn from the role of King Marke for the first three performances of Tristan und Isolde (29 Sep, 2, 5 Oct) to further recover from recent knee surgery. The role of King Marke will now be sung by John Tomlinson for the first three performances, making his debut in the role at Covent Garden.

For more details about Ben Heppner’s forthcoming performances please visit his website : For further details of forthcoming Tristan und Isolde performances see the Royal Opera House website :

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