Ben Heppner

Ben Heppner

James Levine

René Pape

Renata Scotto

Deborah Voigt

Heppner Portrait
Photographed by James Salzano in New York
Motorcycle courtesy of American Honda Motorcycle Division;
clothes styled by Debra Finn; grooming by Chuck Jensen
for Mark Edward, Inc.
© James Salzano 2006
Good voices seem to take hold of us gently, producing vague feelings of warmth that go unnoticed until they've passed. Great voices, on the other hand, are best recalled through febrile moments that jolt us out of our worlds - surges of ecstasy that make distinctions between drama and music seem needless. My own love for opera came from such a frisson: hearing Ben Heppner intone "Esultate!" in the opening bars of the Met's 2004 revival of Otello got me hooked. Even from the perspective of a standing-room spot on the Grand Tier, it was the first time I had ever heard anything so round and sonorous produced with such tremendous natural volume. Opera fans often lament being late to the game by birth, having missed the chance to hear a singer while still in his prime. But by my estimate, getting the chance to hear Heppner that night - followed by three subsequent performances of the run, and numerous performances and recitals since - I got there right on time.

In Heppner's case, these sublime, vertigo-inducing surges are anything but flashes in the pan. Whether it's his cello-like intonation of the opening lines of "In fernem Land" amid an otherwise antiseptic production of Lohengrin; the massive release of tortured sound that cascades from his Florestan in "Gott! Welch Dunkel hier!"; the triumphant high A that caps the da capo to his Idomeneo's "Fuor del mar"; the amorous fire that spurs his remorseful Énée in "Ah! Quand viendra l'instant des suprêmes adieux"; or even the longing with which he imbues a woeful art song such as Sibelius's "Svarta rosor" (Black roses), Heppner's capacity to deliver goose-bump moments - to reveal the best of the human voice as a vehicle for musico-dramatic synthesis - seems limitless.

In this vocally jaundiced age, the idea of a heldentenor seems more to do with sheer vocal heft and endurance than to a genuine aesthetic. In Heppner's voice, though, heroism assumes a more refined purpose: through artless force, musical fidelity, a preternaturally lyrical sound and unparalleled diction, he has made the act of gripping one's armrests with white knuckles genuinely edifying. Hearing Heppner's instrument amounts to experiencing Schopenhauer's purest Vorstellung as a full-contact sport - it seems an ideal more exciting than the dramatic reality it represents. For me, Heppner fits the mantle of Wagnerian archetype like almost none before him. His is the consummate song of the warrior-poet.

Such a combination of vocal eloquence, honeyed timbre and musical intelligence in those who traffic in Wagnerian repertory is rare but not unprecedented. Heppner's excellent album of parlor songs, My Secret Heart, in which he croons everything from Noël Coward's "I'll See You Again" to Ivor Novello's "We'll Gather Lilacs" with soigné authenticity, immediately puts me in the same frame of mind as Birgit Nilsson's thrilling "I Could Have Danced All Night." And while the tenor's shrewd forays into lighter repertory are at once atypical, they come across as entirely organic. It's not hard to draw a direct emotional line from his traversal of Tristan's Act III rage against the daylight, "Wo ich erwacht, weilt' ich nicht," to Paolo Tosti's desperate "Lasciami! Lascia ch'io respiri," an Italian salon song with a longing that might only be sublimated in death. Wagnerians may sing as Gods and superhumans, but the best of them find elegant ways to show us that they are people too.

Lest anyone forget it, Heppner is just as frank about his humanity offstage. The opera industry owes him a debt of gratitude for the candor with which he has spoken of facing his own vocal challenges, brought on in 2001 by the side-effects of blood-pressure medication. No art is created in a vacuum, and Heppner stands as a model of artistic courage to young singers and those working through their own rough patches. More importantly, as his most recent performances have shown, few if any singers seem to have achieved such a potent recovery from their own Orphic trials. With the 2006 release of his forceful CD of Ring excerpts, he seems more poised than ever for Siegfried at Aix-en-Provence in 2008.

A singer's voice is ultimately what determines his admission into the Valhalla of great artists. What makes Heppner's so rewarding to hear is his palpable generosity and joy in performing - perhaps something that only artists forced to consider their lives without their raison d'être may truly convey. In late October, at his sole 2006 New York recital appearance, Heppner emerged from the wings of Carnegie Hall's Stern Auditorium, having just finished his triumphant program proper, to tear off his bowtie and toss it Elvis-like into the adoring audience before launching into his first encore. I've seldom seen a performer so relish the chance to be onstage and convey something meaningful through song. That audiences relish hearing him with an even greater fervor is certainly no coincidence - just recompense for human deeds performed with the artistry of a god.


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