Opera star brings esoteric music to the masses

While Canadian opera singer Ben Heppner sang in ornate European opera houses, his 21-year-old son busked on the streets of Toronto.

While Canadian opera singer Ben Heppner sang in ornate European opera houses, his 21-year-old son busked on the streets of Toronto.

Heppner sang in some of opera’s most challenging roles, like his well-known performance of Wagner’s Tristan.

His son strummed Woody Guthrie and Robert Johnson.

To Heppner, his son’s accomplishment is just as impressive as his own physically demanding, celebrated performances.

Not everybody thought so.

Some friends disparaged Heppner’s son’s busking as a summer job.

Heppner is well-off, and his son didn’t need daddy to pay for school, they said.

“My son actually did better — made more money — than most of his friends,” said Heppner.

Performing on a street corner is great life training, he added

“Standing up in front of somebody and performing — how good is that, not even for public performance but as a lawyer or standing in front of a classroom?”

Heppner, 52, is one of Canada’s most celebrated musical performers.

The tenor’s worldwide reputation for his deft performances in some of opera’s most challenging roles has earned him heaps of awards.

He’s stood on the stages of premier theatres in the world’s music capitals, from the Metropolitan Opera, to Madrid, Berlin, and Paris.

And now the Yukon Arts Centre.

Presented by Whitehorse Concerts, Heppner will perform in Whitehorse at the arts centre on September 23 three days after playing Yellowknife.

The small-town tour — with stops in Yorkton and Prince Albert in Saskatchewan — is a regular event for Heppner, who wants to bring his music to audiences that otherwise wouldn’t have the opportunity.

It’s a long, expensive journey from Whitehorse to the Metropolitan Opera in New York.

“How many times can people who live in these centres get to a place where they can hear me or my colleagues sing?” said Heppner.

Heppner calls the performance on his recent tour a recital, in which a pianist accompanies his classical singing.

It’s a veritable variety show with folk songs, opera and parlour songs.

“It’s a performance with a broad reach, giving the full spectrum of what I do,” said Heppner.

“It’s a Readers’ Digest version of classical singing.”

Mixed in with personal stories about growing up and performing around the world, are British Isle folk songs, work from Tchaikovsky and Edvard Grieg and operatic arias from Germany, France and Italy.

“The last one is really rip snorter and will get everybody’s blood boiling,” said Heppner.

“It’s really good one for hooking the audience.”

The parlour songs after the intermission are popular works from the last 100 years, from composers Ernest Charles and songs like Be My Love, a favourite from 50 years ago.

“I do my darnedest to bring people to an understanding of what I do,” said Heppner.

Don’t call it a Classical Singing for Dummies. That would denigrate the audience and Heppner’s profession, he said.

“The idea is to de-mystify what I do, and break down barriers between what opera is perceived to be and entertainment.

“People have the wrong idea about what opera is.”

Turning people onto classical singing isn’t easy when even venerable hosts of classical music and opera are turning away to more mainstream fare.

Heppner — as performer or guest host — is a staple of CBC Radio and CBC Radio Two.

His close work with the radio stations is perhaps why he has taken a hard stance against CBC Radio Two’s recent restructuring that focuses programming on a younger demographic.

“The changes feel like the station is ghettoizing classical music,” he said.

“Coldplay on Radio Two? They get enough commercial exposure.

“If we’re doing a mixed-bag approach (on programs), let’s do stuff we can’t hear on commercial radio.”

Heppner amuses the audience with stories of touring, his mother’s reaction to the announcement of his first performance at the Metropolitan, and explanations of song choice.

“Instead of observing the show like a painting, I’d prefer people embrace and feel like the performer and performance are one,” said Heppner.

“It’s not something to observe but to participate in.”

The show — shtick, as Heppner calls it — is resonating with audiences.

After a performance in Prince Albert last week Heppner received an e-mail from an ecstatic parent of a new fan.

The author, a parent of a seven-year-old boy, wasn’t fully convinced the son would enjoy the show, but at intermission he was pleading with his parents to buy a Heppner CD.

“Your trip to Prince Albert will very probably have had a lasting impact on a little boy raised in a small Saskatchewan city,” wrote the fan.

Challenging people’s misconceptions about opera is the goal.

Even the accomplished tenor was hesitant about opera as a young man.

His only exposure to the music was on television, and then only on Sunday afternoons every other month or so.

“It wasn’t until my 20s when I began to understand the music,” said Heppner.

He studied music at the University of British Columbia where people were constantly telling him that his voice was well suited for opera.

“Part of my interest was that it could be a practical way to make a living with my voice,” said Heppner.

Heppner solidified his desire to sing opera when he won a CBC talent contest in 1979.

“Then it took nine years to become an overnight success,” he said.

For years, he struggled to earn money for his family.

Even after a successful performance, Heppner would still peruse the want ads the next day.

“I always thought if something didn’t happen by the time I’m 35, I’d have to stop this nonsense,” said Heppner.

“It was a constant fight not to give up.”

What was he fighting for?

“Paying the mortgage, putting bread on the table. Everybody’s fight.”

In 1988 found success, but it took another three years before he earned enough to start putting money in the bank, he added.

Opera is a complete art form, said Heppner.

“It fills your vision, there’s emotion, music, acting and an orchestra,” he said.

“You experience from within, you can practically feel the rumbling in your seat and the voices flow overhead.”

The music enhances the emotion pouring from the actors, just like cinema, he added.

“A lot of what feel in movies is helped by the music, otherwise the scenes may fall flat,” said Heppner.

“Opera has known this for a long time.”

Every performance, even on the recital tour, is different, he said.

“Today, if I have more voice than the last time, I might take more risk with tempo or a phrase. It never happens the same way.”

Heppner’s energy levels were depleted the day of a performance in Fort MacMurray.

“I was feeling low and wasn’t feeling the inspiration,” he said.

“Three or four minutes before I went on stage, the adrenalin starting pumping. It turned into a particularly good show.”

Tickets to the Tuesday evening gala event are $80.