March 2005

Ben Heppner by Request
March 9, 2005 • The Carlu • Toronto
Ben Heppner, the world’s finest dramatic tenor, is a very funny guy. Last night he offered a program of the songs of Paolo Tosti, and a second program of requests chosen by the audience voting on a prepared list of arias from operas in French, German and Italian. The performance was outstanding, not to say it was a privilege to attend a gathering that was both intimate and magnificent. But the funny part is Mr. Heppner’s patter as he introduced each song. For instance, he spoke about a Tosti recital given by Nellie Melba at the command of Queen Victoria in honour of the Empress of Russia, which was scheduled just a few hours before Miss Melba was to perform at Covent Garden. Because the Empress arrived late, Miss Melba was forced to arrive at Covent Garden so late, that “She thought she was toast”. However, after the concert, she received a basket of peaches from the Empress, and “She had her just desserts.”

On the other side of the corn, there was a deeper truth to the comedic element, which came out during his performance of Tosti’s “Goodbye”. Here Pierrot is saying farewell to “The maid who does not know/ How many tears it costs/ to make one gay Pierrot”. The effort it takes to appear effortless and amusing is the expression of a courage that Mr. Heppner knows well, after having removed himself from performing on doctor’s orders, and then building himself up to come back. As he told Roger Pines in Berlin about two years ago, “I…have more freedom onstage, with a lot more courage than before. Many singers have taken time off, but it's as if it were something terrible and unmentionable—somehow a great failure. I decided to be much more open-handed about it, and I'm feeling very positive about how things are going.” Mr. Heppner worked hard for the good humour that made the evening sparkle for the audience of two hundred fortunates who gathered to support the Lung Association’s fundraising drive.

Great as his singing and his spirit are, a word needs to be said about the dramatic powers Mr. Heppner displayed. It is a rare thing to be with him while he performs in an intimate room wearing his own clothes. And though he tends not to gesture much with his body or his face, the moment John Hess’ piano introduced an aria, one could see Mr. Heppner concentrate himself to become the character who would sing. During the ‘request’ portion, he sang Floristan’s aria “Lord God, What Darkness Here" (a.k.a Lord God, how dark this beer) from Beethoven’s Fidelio. One could literally see the subtle changes that go through his physique as the emotion swells to excitement, subsides into rest, becomes agitated by anxiety, transforms into joy that becomes very intense, and then ‘Floristan’ visibly shrinks as the tempo and mood deflate towards the conclusion of the aria, and having bowed, Mr. Heppner is himself again.

As an introduction to the dramatic moment from Wagner’s Lohengrin in which the hero reveals his true name and lineage—a super-‘heavy’ moment, Mr. Heppner shared this practical perspective: “I like to imagine grade 4 students hearing this for the first time.” As explanation why he put the exquisite and familiar “Flower Song” from Bizet’s Carmen on the program list, he had this to say:” I thought of it while I was preparing a tulip salad during a cooking show on CTV.” The most requested aria of all, “Nessum Dorma” from Puccini’s Turandot (“about an ice-princess who probably can’t skate”) he saved for last, and it was the best. It’s odd how the spontaneous outburst of a totally heartfelt standing ovation is somehow the last gift an artist gives to his audience.

We welcome your comments and feedback
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Report and Photograph by
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Stanley Fefferman
for The Live Music Report

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