Ben Heppner (b 1956) is a now retired Canadian tenor. At his peak, the 1990s, he was as fine a tenor as can be imagined. His career at the Met lasted from 1991 to 2009. He is now a regular host of two Canadian radio programs both devoted to vocal music, especially opera .
Heppner was best known for his Wagnerian roles, but he also sang Aeneus in Berlioz’s Les Troyens and several Italian roles – most notably Andrea Chenier and Otello. It was his assumption of the latter that marked the beginning of his vocal decline. I was so impressed with Heppner’s singing that I traveled to Chicago solely to hear his first go at Verdi’s tragic Moor. Given that he had made a big success as Tristan, I was sure that he had goods for Otello. Peter Hall’s new production of Otello was first performed on Tuesday September 25, 2001. Appearing with Heppner were Renée Fleming and Lucio Gallo. Jonas Kauffman made his American debut as Cassio. Andrew Davis conducted.
Heppner was in trouble from the start. His voice repeatedly cracked at places where one would not expect such a mishap. Ms Fleming was fine as was Kauffman. Gallo was savaged in the New York Times by Bernard Holland. I thought Mr Gallo underplayed his role as Verdi intended. Mr Holland thought that he overacted and blustered his way through the part. We must have been sitting in different parts of the house.
Heppner blamed his continuing difficulties in other performances on the ACE inhibitor he was taking to treat his diabetes and hypertension. Regardless of cause, he was not the same singer in the first decade of the new millenium that he had been in the last decade of the old. Accordingly, I’ll only deal with a few recordings that show him at his best, which as I’ve alluded to above was very good indeed.
His voice was a firm spinto, but without any hint of baritonal overtones. It was not a Italianate voice, as were those of Tucker and Corelli. His sound was apt for Wagner and Berlioz. But he was a fine artist who sang with sensitivity and feeling and hence was effective in Italian roles despite the limitations just mentioned.
I’ll start with Wagner. First In fernem Land from Lohengrin. This role in general and the aria specifically is Wagner at his most lyrical. Lohengrin is often the one Wagner opera that Italian tenors sing. Hepner’s reading is right on the mark. Similarly his version of the Preislied from the last act of Die Meistersinger is full voiced while still retaining a graceful line. He’s in more mountainous terrain when he sings Wagner’s idiot child Siegfried. He was supposed to sing the part in the two final Ring operas at the Met, but withdrew. In this recording, made several years before his canceled Met appearances (2011) as Siegfried, he displays all the power and verve demanded by the role. Whether he had the stamina needed is debatable even if one goes back to his 90s prime. This excerpt is from the last scene in Act 1 of Siegfried when the eponymous hero, brave but witless, reforges his father broken sword Nothung. Burkhard Ulrich is Mime.
Heppner sang eight performances as Aeneas in Berlioz’s Les Troyens at the Met, all in the Berlioz bicentennial year of 2003. I heard one of them. He was good in a notoriously difficult role. He did not crack as he had in Otello. His recording of Inutiles Regrets! .. Ah! quand viendra l’instant from the last act of Les Troyens shows the singer his best. The opera takes about a week to perform, so by the time the tenor gets to this aria he’s likely in need parenteral hyperalimentation. Berlioz’s The Damnation of Faust is of a reasonable length. But again Nature immense, impénétrable et fière comes near its end. Heppner is equally fine in this aria; his voice is right in Berlioz’s sweet spot. The great Hector’s vocal music sound is like no one else.
Testa adorata from Act 3 of Leoncavallo’s almost never performed La Boheme is frequently encountered on redcordings and in recitals. Heppner’s approach is full throated and reminiscent of Mario Lanza’s recording. Calaf in Turandot was in Heppner’s repertoire, though he never sang the role at the Met. Nessun dorma, the last great Italian tenor aria, gets a boffo reading. Heppner also recorded many songs. Tosti’s famous Ideale has been sung by just about every tenor who got close to a recording studio, none better than Heppner.
Finally, the concluding scene from Korngold’s Die tote Stadt. This opera was a big hit when it first appeared in 1920. After World War II is was infrequently performed. It seems to be making a comeback. It’s a marvelous work that requires a heldentenor who can also sing like Bellini wrote part of the score. Heppner never sang the role onstage, though he had the perfect voice for Paul – the opera’s protagonist. Here’s the final scene of the opera that displays both Korngold’s melodic gift and his virtuosic orchestration. These characteristics made him the preeminent composer of movie scores after he was forced to leave Europe. The Met should bring the opera back. It’s much better than a lot of the stuff they’ve been force feeding their audiences recently. But if the company does reprise the opera they’ll need to find an exceptional tenor.
Heppner at his peak was a great tenor. Fortunately for posterity he made many recordings. They are all examples of his best efforts.