30 April 2010

Ben Heppner

Tonight at the Winspear Opera House, Dallas Opera will present the world premiere of Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick, to a libretto by Gene Scheer, conducted by Patrick Summers and staged by Leonard Foglia. In the role of Captain Ahab — that notoriously obsessive, furiously vengeful icon of American literature, the prototypical boss from Hell — is one of the nicest guys in opera, Canadian tenor Ben Heppner.

From what I’ve seen, his behavior offstage doesn’t much resemble that of any of his best-known roles. That’s probably for the best. For example, he’s the last man you’d expect to badger a little old lady to death, as Gherman does in Queen of Spades.

As Otello: Doing stuff that Ben Heppner wouldn’t do.
Not that that helps Desdemona (Barbara Frittoli) much.

However, so long as Jake Heggie has done his job, this Captain Ahab won’t be watered down. Heppner, as much as any singer I’ve ever heard, taps into the transformative power of music, to such a degree that I come away from his performances with renewed respect for the art form. Hearing him as Walther in Die Meistersinger one afternoon, I marveled at the sweet lyricism he brought to the part, such that I hardly noticed the sheer power of his voice. Then I realized that, before my eyes, he’d turned into a younger, thinner, and (probably) blonder man, the kind of Aryan matinée idol Wagner must have hoped for. Heppner became the music.

Though I’ve met him only once, I learned a lot about him from that lone encounter. The occasion was a fancy dinner party in celebration of the tenth anniversary of his debut at the Metropolitan Opera, in a swanky Manhattan hotel. I was dispatched as a representative of Opera News, and I felt conspicuously out of place among the other guests, mostly recording executives, donors, or potential donors whom the Met’s then-general director, Joseph Volpe, vigorously courted all evening long.

It was my mission to convey the good wishes of the magazine, so I introduced myself to Heppner, and told him how much I’d enjoyed his performance in Meistersinger that afternoon. I added that he’d made the hours fly by, even though I was in standing room. (A corny remark, albeit 100 percent true.)

As Walther von Stolzing

“You stood through Meistersinger?” Heppner cried. “Good Lord, even I didn’t do that!”

And just like that, he put me at my ease. If in fact he wasn’t delighted to see me at the party, he gave out not a single clue. (Mr. Volpe, on the other hand, interrupted me in another conversation and promptly turned his back to me.)

Heppner must have been exhausted, I observed, though he didn’t show it; he replied that “exhilarated” was more like it. Maybe he was still drawing on the power of the music: Walther gets the girl and wins the prize, after all, while getting to sing some pretty thrilling material. Also, he said with a grin, he sometimes got to sit down during the performance.

The Met’s DVD was shot during the run of performances I heard.
Left to right: Karita Mattila, James Morris, and Heppner

Now Heppner was surrounded by people who were happy for him. Throughout the pre-dinner cocktail hour, he was laughing — and making others laugh, too.

I was seated at a table with people who were manifestly not potential Met donors, and who turned out to be terrifically interesting — because Ben Heppner felt strongly that any celebration of his anniversary ought to include the guy from the music staff who’d helped him to prepare Idomeneo, back in 1991, and the dresser who’d helped him into his costume on opening night.

As Idomeneo, fully prepared and fully dressed

Probably nobody would have noticed if these two had been omitted from the guest list, but Ben Heppner wanted them at his side. As he said at one point, “I’d never have made it through my debut without them; there wouldn’t be a tenth anniversary at all. This is their celebration, too.”

Not your stereotypical tenor attitude, is it? That night, he gave me cause to reflect upon the fact that, while Wagner may have skimped on the niceness among his Heldentenor roles, it’s a pretty darned heroic virtue, after all.

Teaming Ben Heppner with Jake Heggie makes sense, because Jake is also a disarmingly nice guy — and even more than I do, he loves singers. You can hear that in every note of his music. (Some of the pieces he’s written for Frederica von Stade make me feel as if I’m intruding on a private conversation between devoted friends — because in truth, I am.) In any case, Moby-Dick is sure to be special, and I’m sorry I can’t be in Dallas tonight to cheer them on.

Moby-Dick (World premiere)
April 30, May 2 (matinee), 5, 8, 13, 16 (matinee)

No comments: