When the curtain goes up on the Canadian Opera Company's production of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde on Jan. 29, Ben Heppner will be singing a role that has been central to his career for 15 years. Since his role debut as Tristan in Seattle in 1998, he has sung it at the Metropolitan Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, l'Opéra de Paris, the Berlin Staatsoper, the Salzburg Easter Festival and at the Welsh National Opera. Familiar territory, to say the least, but by no means a walk in the park.
"For me, it's not one of those roles where you get up in the morning and say, 'Hey, I get to sing Tristan tonight,'" said Heppner in a recent telephone interview with CBC Music. "You feel like you've got to climb Mount Everest. So, on the way to the theatre, I have a sort of heart heaviness. Like, 'Oh boy, I've got to do something hard.' And then you get there, and you get into the routine. You get your makeup on and you talk to your colleagues, and the music starts and you're heading to the stage and from that moment to the end seems like about 20 minutes."
Of course, it's not 20 minutes. It's five hours. But Heppner says it goes by quickly because he is tremendously engaged with the role. "You can't phone anything in; you have to be vigilant about pacing yourself."
For tenors taking on Wagner roles, pacing and stamina are a continuous challenge. Surprisingly, Heppner doesn't consider himself a Heldentenor.
"I would prefer to consider myself a large-voiced lyric tenor," he says. "I have an overdrive that I can go to that will flesh out the dramatic side of things. But if you listen to some of the major Wagnerian tenor voices — Lauritz Melchior, Jon Vickers, Richard Cassilly — there was kind of a gnarl in the voice, and I don't hear that in mine. I feel like I'm in a different vein, more like Wolfgang Windgassen: a lyric guy who applies his voice to the [dramatic] repertoire."
This is not to say Tristan is inappropriate for Heppner's vocal profile.
"What would be really challenging to me, more than the Tristans, would be to try to sing something like Count Almaviva in Rossini's Il barbieri di Siviglia," he responds, laughing. "It's just not possible because mine is totally the wrong voice. But probably the most challenging role I've done is Tristan because of the emotional weight of the role. It's not the longest role — I think Siegfried is longer. It's not the highest one; that might be Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger. But with Tristan, when you start, you're under a cloud, and you die at the end [laughs] and there are very few light moments in between."
Hello, Ben Heppner? This is Seattle Opera calling
So when did this large-voiced lyric tenor first find himself singing the Mount Everest of tenor roles? The call came in 1995 from Seattle Opera, asking him if he would consider taking on Tristan in their 1998–99 season. "Doing Tristan was a huge move because it's quite a bit lower than Lohengrin, Walther and Erik, and you're expecting the middle voice to be easy and comfortable." He was not sure how to proceed.
"I phoned up Dixie Ross Neill, God rest her soul, who was my coach at the time. And I said, 'Dixie, Seattle has asked me to tackle Tristan, what do you think?' And she said, 'Well, when will it be?' and I said '1998,' and she said, 'How old will you be?' and I said, 'I'll be 42,' and she said, 'Well, if you can't do it by then you'll probably never be able to do it.' So on that basis, I took on the role."
People still talk about that Seattle Opera production of Tristan und Isolde as one of the major operatic events of the past quarter-century. Suddenly there was a tenor-soprano pair on the scene heralding a new golden age of Wagner singing. Heppner sang opposite Jane Eaglen in that production, and they would reprise the roles a year later at the Metropolitan Opera in New York.
Eaglen and Heppner sing an excerpt from Act 2 of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde at the Metropolitan Opera in New York City.
"She's a great gal," says Heppner of the English soprano. "She has wonderful singing instincts, and she's just tireless, vocally tireless. She was great fun to work with; a good colleague onstage. She's screamingly funny. If you can catch her in the right mood, meaning you should probably have a bottle of wine in a social situation, you just have to ask her a couple of key questions and she will entertain you for the rest of the evening."
Word of Heppner's success as Tristan spread quickly, and he soon became the Wagnerian tenor on every artistic administrator's speed dial.
"Part of the problem is, once you establish yourself as a Wagner singer, that's all you get asked to do," says Heppner. "So you have to make an effort to find some of the other roles that will counterbalance the Wagnerian thing."
Those other roles include Ghermann in Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades, Énée in Berlioz's Les Troyens, Canio in Leoncavallo's I Pagliacci and the title roles in Britten's Peter Grimes, Heggie's Moby Dick, Mozart's Idomeneo, Verdi's Otello and Giordano's Andrea Chénier.
"There's a different kind of attitude between the Germanic Wagnerian singers and the Italian-French casts," notes Heppner from his vantage point as a tenor who straddles both camps. "For example, at the Metropolitan Opera, there's a central, common area for all the dressing rooms. And the German casts, from what I've observed, have their doors open, and if they're not getting their makeup or costume on or warming up, they're probably in the common area socializing. Whereas I find the Italian and French casts are locked in their rooms with their humidifiers on, drinking special teas and not talking to anybody. But the German casts, who have a much bigger thing to accomplish, are very social for the most part, kind of a family. It may be because of the work that we do: we're not worried whether the baritone or the soprano gets more applause. We're worried about how we fare by comparison with what Wagner wrote for us."
Wagner: it's all about relationships
Heppner has been singing Wagner's music for 25 years, since his first performance of Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 1988. What has he learned about Wagner, the man, from this career-long association with his music?
"I think I can feel the musical genius that is there," he answers. "Probably he wouldn't be a friend of mine, given his super-egocentric views on life. But he's so real in the way that he writes. He understood a lot about human interaction and the state of one's heart and soul. He seems to really get it."
Someone else who seems to get it is director Peter Sellars, whose staging of Tristan und Isolde will grace the stage of Toronto's Four Season's Centre, enhanced by video projections designed by Bill Viola. Heppner says Sellars understands that Tristan is all about relationships.
"What I love about this opera is, if you want to do it right, you have to approach it from the character point of view, its relationships. That's what the thing is all about with Wagner. You can set his operas on the moon or on the New York subway and as long as the relationships are intact it seems to work."
Video still by Bill Viola, from l'Opéra national de Paris's production of Tristan und Isolde, 2005. (Kira Perov)
The Canadian Opera Company will present seven performances of Wagner's Tristan und Isolde between Jan. 29 and Feb. 23. The title roles will be sung by Heppner and soprano Melanie Diener for five of those; on Feb. 8 and 23 they will be sung by Michael Baba and Margaret Jane Wray. The production is 98 per cent sold. To buy tickets visit the Canadian Opera Company's website.
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