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Marc Bridle in Interview with Ben Heppner

In a world not exactly over-populated with great tenors the Canadian Ben Heppner is already at the pinnacle of his profession, a reigning Tristan at the age of 45. He is a singer many compare favourably with illustrious predecessors such as Vickers and Windgassen. Both his Tristan and Peter Grimes are performances of stature lauded on both sides of the Atlantic. December saw him undertake for the first time the role of Aeneas in Berlioz's epic opera Les Troyens. Those concert performances at the Barbican, under that great Berlioz conductor Sir Colin Davis, have now been released on the LSO's own label and the critical acclaim which followed the concerts now looks set to be matched by the CD release.

The role of Aeneas is not by any means a large one - but it is certainly a killer role starting as it does on a high G then spiralling ever upwards. Heppner, always frank, even understated, in his answers, prepared for the role by singing Berlioz's Nuit d'Éte, as he says, 'to get a feeling for Berlioz'. 'This is the first time I have sung Aeneas so in part these concert performances are my preparation for the part. I haven't done a lot of French in recent memory - so I studied and sang the song cycle as a start. I then worked on the rehearsals for these performances.' Although these were just concert performances he has pondered whether he would rather have been singing the role on stage. 'I thought that perhaps the stronger performance in concert would perhaps come from someone who had sung the role on stage already. The conventional thinking is that doing a concert performance is a nice way to prepare for a stage production - it is a half way in that you don't have to have it totally memorised - you can work off the score. On the other hand, you have the role more worked out if you have sung it on stage and its intricacies, the colourings only happen when its on its feet. There are two ways of looking at it.'

For a singer who has undertaken the demands of Tristan he sees different, but equal, difficulties in singing the role of Aeneas. If length is not one of them then the vocal part is certainly as challenging - if not more so. 'The entire part one and part two together are perhaps the same length as Tristan - but the part is no Tristan. It is perhaps about a third in length (probably less so) - in part one I only sing for twelve to fifteen minutes. Part two is more difficult - and I have both the aria and the duet with Dido, which is very demanding. Endurance is not a problem - but the part rests higher than in Tristan and if you're not prepared for the upper register you would find Aeneas difficult but so far I haven't had any difficulty with the tessitura of the work.' The fact that the opera is often sung in two distinct parts means there are extra difficulties a singer does not have to confront in most other operas. 'There is a lot of time spent waiting for something to happen - and this can almost be as draining as the actual singing. I don't think there are any psychological problems with singing the role in two distinct halves but what worries me most is the break'

Singing the role under Sir Colin Davis was an ideal opportunity to prepare for the part of Aeneas and there are already plans for Heppner to sing the role on stage. 'Well I will be doing it on stage with James Levine in the winter of 2003 at the Met. When Sir Colin asked it was natural to accept because it was already planned so this was the best preparation for it. Sir Colin is such a natural at this piece - he is at his best when marshalling all the forces - big chorus, big orchestra, plenty of soloists - he has everything together - he practically lives within the piece.'

Living within the piece, as Heppner phrases it, brings us to Tristan - the role, apart from Grimes, with which his name is most closely associated. Critics have been generous in their praise for Heppner's Tristan - 'rare dramatic purpose and, even more remarkably, without the usual voice-saving cuts' and 'A real Tristan has arrived' purred the New York reviews after his Met performances with Jane Eaglen and James Levine. Heppner, however, seems almost oblivious to the fuss. 'I don't even see my self as a dramatic tenor, more a lyrical one'. He is well known for not reading reviews but as is mostly the case what people say and what people do are very different. 'I don't know all the coverage about Tristan - and mostly don't read it. The truth is you offend your own rule and read it - I'm always disappointed in myself for doing this. The question I ask myself is what in my life or in my psychological makeup was missing which would fill the missing link in this review - it could be positive or it could be negative. I may have thought I sang terribly and got a wonderful review. The people I charge most with the responsibility of telling me what needs to be done or corrected are those closest to me - my friends, my wife, and a few conductors. I don't know the reviewers - do I respect them or do I not respect them? I might not like what they said so when we have an interview like this do I feel prejudicial towards them? I prefer to keep the slate as clean as possible.'

If the range in Aeneas is almost uncomfortably high for many tenors then Tristan must seem even more demanding. Heppner agrees, but doesn't see Tristan's hallucinatory ranting in Act III as the problem. 'Well Act III in some way takes care of itself. It's sort of the old man of the sea - battling against the elements all the way. You start slowly then work up to this feverish pitch, you build into the intensity of the part. It's written superbly - there's one place when you have to start big but fortunately it happens early on in the piece - quite low but very well written. I've never really struggled with Act III - where I struggle is in Act II. The voice is placed very high, and the orchestra is unbelievably loud. After doing all of your big singing - the first scene with Isolde and Brangane, where you're shrieking at your highest - you then have to come down suddenly to sing 'O sink herneider/Nacht der Liebe' and that part of the voice left you when you cried out 'Isolde'. It's much more difficult in Act II. Act III really runs itself.'

Perhaps surprisingly for many whom feel happy to compare Heppner with his fellow Canadian Jon Vickers it is not Vickers who has most shaped Heppner's interpretation of Tristan. When I asked him about which tenors he most admired in the role his answer puts the record straight. 'Well I'd be remiss if I didn't mention Jon Vickers. He had an amazing intensity with the piece that I have not seen anyone else ever achieve. He really does get unhinged. Windgassen was helpful for me because I try to err on the side of lyricism - an instinctive part on my side to stop me wrecking my voice. Each voice has a different feeling - mine is softer than Vickers was. Windgassen was helpful because he takes a more lyrical approach although when I heard him he was perhaps not at the zenith of his career but I appreciated the way he tackled the role. Melchior in Act II is also helpful. I'm also interested in who conducts the piece which can have a decisive influence on how it is sung. I've never taken it with someone who sped through it - the wear and tear on the voice would be less but the great musical moments would probably be glossed over. I've worked with Claudio Abbado at the Easter Festival and James Levine. They've been similar in pacing.'

As already suggested, Heppner does not see himself as the 'Heldentenor' but more the lyrical tenor. One of the earliest influences on his singing career (after he had spent time as a student playing first the trumpet and then the euphonium) was the great tenor, Fritz Wunderlich. Singing a great deal of Schubert took him from Wunderlich to another favourite, Jussi Bjoerling. Pushed to name singers of a generation earlier than himself Heppner reels off Tebaldi, Sutherland and Pavarotti as favoured singers who had that lyrical warmth - evident to this day in Heppner's own singing. Domingo he considers one of the most well rounded of singers - and a great actor at that (something he admits Vickers also showed). Although he has never warmed to Callas his admiration for her acting ability begs the question of whether a singer should also be a great actor. Heppner thinks not - that the two can be separated and should - not least because so few singers are great stage actors.

Critics and writers on music have long held that there is a shortage of great tenors able to tackle the great dramatic roles (read Wagnerian) - Tristan, Siegfried and so on. For Heppner, who has trained his voice sufficiently to sustain the demands of singing Tristan six or seven times a year, the question doesn't begin to register as a problem. 'It is not something I worry about. But I think there is some kind of thinking that people assume you must sound like you're lifting a piano at the same time as singing the role of Tristan. But I don't want to sound like that - much too much work - and it doesn't give me any pleasure - so I prefer to enjoy the role and find subtleties along the way. I think on the dramatic side rather than the singing side.'

This dramatic element to Heppner's singing makes him take a healthy interest in how operas are both staged and directed. He leaves the impression that direction needs people with highly technical approaches to opera. 'Some who come to directing from a visual point of view - say a designer - don't always have the ability to give the full technological approach to direction. Often they seem unable to let actors bring forth their craft. Sometimes they just want pictures and see opera wholly in pictures. Robert Wilson is an example - it's not acting he wants but the holding of a pose usually with no facial expressions. I reply, "if I have to sing a high B flat then my face will become contorted - its just the way it is". A high note often has an emotional connection so there is a need give expressions. There are directors who are good at getting a dramatic style. These are the ones who ask for more from the actor.' Producers and productions don't escape Heppner's desire for opera for to mean what the composer or librettist intended. 'If I feel it is simply a case of doing something controversial or to get the director's name in the paper rather than singer or composer or to refit the opera in to an entirely alien mould then I feel less happy about it. Making it a social statement for which it was never intended can be problematical. I did an Idomeneo in Amsterdam in 1991 which was voted the worst opera production of the year in Europe and deserved it. The idea was to set it just after the Gulf War - so it was obvious that Idomeneo was a latter day Saddam Hussein who needed to be taught a lesson much like Idomeneo did after the success of Troy. Costumes were dreadful - and those delicate recitatives and beautiful lines when you're crawling around in the dust with greasy hair - it just didn't fit. Mozart didn't intend any of that. If you can look at it in a fresh way and keep the integrity of both composer and librettist then modern productions don't bother me.'

Heppner is perhaps less critical of conductors than some of his temporaries - or predecessors. 'I have high quality work offered to me - mostly from great conductors. In 1991 I did my first Dutchman with Christian Thielemann. I'd love to work with him again. I don't think there is any conductor I wouldn't work for. I've worked with both Sinopoli and Levine - Levine I have worked with a great deal. I have only done recordings with Sinopoli Die Frau ohne Schatten - although I was not actually in the same city when I recorded it! I have also recorded Ariadne auf Naxos with him [it now transpires that this was Sinopoli's last opera recording following his death in April - MB]. He had very distinct ideas about the music and was not a problem at all to work with. Levine is so easy to work with - everything's intentional - he doesn't play slowly for the sake of it but because it is intended that way, particularly in the case of tempi. Take Act II of Lohengrin - the scene with Ortrud and Telramund and the dawn breaking - a trumpet theme breaks in - he takes it slower than I have ever heard before almost at two thirds the noted tempo -significantly slower. Yet it was the first time I understood the music fully. It sounded so natural. Great ideas and has always been very constructive.'

Future plans include performances of Otello under Levine in Munich - a role he is approaching with the same degree of trepidation as he did Tristan. 'In some ways the shadow of Domingo and all the great Verdi tenors will be looking down on me just as Vickers' did for my Tristan. The sense of expectation is enormous.' Apart, however, from a possible revival of William Bolcom's McTeague ('I need them to write an aria for me', he jokes) contemporary opera plays little part in Heppner's repertoire. Whilst he has seen Gatsby, View from the Bridge and A Streetcar Named Desire he doesn't express much hope that he will be performing in any new operas. What is likely to be an expanding part of the Heppner routine is his chamber music 'There are piano recitals in Germany - but I'd like to do more. It is my antidote to the demands of the roles I sing in the opera house. People say I should do some Verdi or some Mozart to counteract the intensity of the Tristan but I prefer to do recitals.'

As things stand Heppner has already reached one of his ambitions to be indisputably associated with a major role - Meistersinger. Tristan and Grimes are both for the taking - although Heppner would like to 'own' a handful of other roles 'to maintain my passion for opera'. Listening to the new recording of Les Troyens Heppner may already have added another but perhaps only after the Met stage productions in 2003 will he be happy to admit this.


Marc Bridle

See review Berlioz Les Troyens
Seen&Heard review of the live performance

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