OPERA

Triumph at La Scala

Canadian tenor Ben Hopper shines in Milan

PAMELA YOUNG March 5 1990
OPERA

Triumph at La Scala

Canadian tenor Ben Hopper shines in Milan

PAMELA YOUNG March 5 1990

Triumph at La Scala

OPERA

Canadian tenor Ben Hopper shines in Milan

Milan opera-goers are notoriously demanding—and their initial response to the Canadian tenor seemed less than enthusiastic: a quarter of them left before the final act of the 5½-hour work. But those who stayed cheered him vigorously. The occasion was the triumphant La Scala debut last week of Ben Hopper. Doing what most tenors can only dream of, Hopper appeared at the venerable Teatro alla Scala, one of the great shrines of the opera world, singing the romantic hero’s role in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg {The Mastersingers of Nüremberg), one of Richard Wagner’s most popular works. Playing Walther von Stolzing, a 16th-century knight who can only win the hand of the woman he loves by placing first in a song competition, Hopper earned raves from international critics. A reviewer for Turin’s La Stampa wrote that Hopper “merited applause before the entire world.” And a London Financial Times opera critic said Hopper was “on the way to turning into one of the great talents of the world.”

At 34, Heppner is still in an opera singer’s formative years. But even before last week, international critics were already describing him as the most important Canadian tenor since Jon Vickers, the Saskatchewan-born singer who rose to world prominence in the late 1950s. Heppner has an extremely rare type of tenor voice, one that combines lyric lightness with dramatic power. Even so, he almost abandoned his career a few years ago. With a young family to support—he now has three children under the age of 9—Heppner thought of quitting in the mid-1980s. But then, a top-place finish in the 1988 Metropolitan Opera auditions in New York City gave him the endorsement he needed to secure engagements at major houses throughout Europe and North America. And one leading U.S. company, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, has paid him an extraordinary compliment: the Lyric has commissioned a full-length opera that will receive its world première in

1992—with U.S. film-maker Robert Altman directing and Heppner as the star.

Before he left his suburban Toronto home to begin rehearsals in Milan, Heppner squeezed in an early-morning interview with Macleans in a coffee shop. Asked to describe his type of tenor voice, the genial, plaid-shirted singer laughed

and said, “Loud—that’s the way my kids describe it.” Raised in Dawson Creek, B.C., Heppner was the youngest child in a large farming family of amateur musicians. He studied music at the University of British Columbia and later at the University of Toronto. Heppner first attracted national attention in 1979, when he won a CBC competition for young musicians. Then, between 1982 and 1984, he gained performing experience in the Canadian Opera Company (COC) Ensemble, an apprenticeship program run by Toronto’s COC.

Heppner described the more than three years between his COC Ensemble stint and the Metropolitan Opera auditions as “the wilderness.” In order to concentrate on opera, he stopped teaching music and gave up his job as a

church choral director. But, occasionally, he had to rely on such odd jobs as restoring a house to make ends meet. The situation improved in 1987, when he received a $20,000 Canada Council grant over three years. “For me, it was the difference between staying in the business and not staying in the business,” he recalled.

The Met auditions took place a year later. Heppner says that nervousness hindered his performance in the final round and, as a result, he barely made the cut for the performers who would sing in a special follow-up concert on the Met stage. In the two weeks before the concert, he rehearsed inside the Met in order to conquer his fear. Said Heppner: “I would somehow sneak into the house or the pit and just stand there and go through every single motion.” On the day of the concert, everything worked for him. Heppner received the first Birgit Nilsson Prize, an award named for the great Swedish soprano. It assured him a debut with the Royal Swedish Opera of Stockholm, which he made in the title role of Wagner’s Lohengrin in March, 1989.

Heppner now has several major engagements ahead. Within the next year, he will make his debut with such companies as the Vienna State Opera and the State Opera of Cologne. And in 1992, he will play the main character in the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s world première of Gold, by Pulitzer Prizewinning U.S. composer William Bolcom. The work focuses on a loutish character’s dissolution in turn-of-thecentury San Francisco. Heppner’s only previous appearance with the Lyric was in a minor role two years ago. ^ But the company’s general Ï director, Ardis Krainik, said £ that she knew she wanted I Heppner for Gold. She added: “He’s burly, and he could be believable as a kind of backwoodsy character. But more than anything else, he has this beautiful voice.” So far, Heppner has not made any recordings—he has already rejected some offers because of scheduling conflicts. And while many young tenors would gladly take on such demanding roles as Wagner’s Tristan, Heppner has turned it down a few times. Said the tenor: “I have to resist the pressure that is already being put on me to accept bigger roles.” Richard Bradshaw, chief conductor and head of music of the COC, described Heppner’s attitude as “remarkably sane. And with one of the great and beautiful voices in the world,” Bradshaw added, “there is no limit to where his career can go.”

PAMELA YOUNG