Interview: Tenor Ben Heppner on Calaf in Turandot, Otello, Peter Grimes and his career

'Fortunately, it turned out in the spectacular way it did. But if it hadn't I would still sing - it's part and parcel of who I am, part of my psyche'

July 2006

Ben Heppner - MusicalCriticism.com interview

Born in British Columbia, tenor Ben Heppner has made impressive appearances at the Royal Opera House in recent years in Peter Grimes and Otello.

Now he's back as Calaf in Puccini's Turandot, and I caught up with him during a busy week that included an interview with Radio 3's In Tune programme only half an hour after we had finished.

Attentive throughout, Heppner answered with deep consideration, a sense of humour, and a merciful streak of humanity that may come as a surprise to some from one of the greatest opera singers on the world circuit today.

Knowing that he's only sung the role of Calaf once before (in Chicago in 1996) and of the focus of his repertoire towards Wagner, I ask whether he harbours the same mild disdain for the Italian repertoire that is sometimes the case with Wagnerians - only to be greeted with a chuckle and a look of surprise. 'I have no such prejudice! There are other roles that I'm glad that I don't have to sing, for example Ernesto in Don Pasquale, which I sang earlier in my career in a pared down form.There's a few of those that I'm glad I don't have to do because it's just not music to which I relate. But Verdi and Puccini and [Giordano's Andrea] Chenier - I'm just a sucker for the bel canto! I love the music of that whole world.'

Turandot, then, finds Heppner in repertoire that he favours. Does he find the rather obsessive character of Calaf psychologically interesting, I wonder?

'Well you have to take the Chinese myth and divorce yourself from modern sensibilities. If you start to think what he does - he sacrifices Liù! In our modern way of thinking, his real love should be Liù, and he should come to his senses and take up with the slave girl. Then Disney would probably make a cartoon version with Victoria Beckham or something! If you divorce yourself from the sensibility of modern life, his focus has another world to it, it's from a different time. But this fairy tale has a hard edge to it. It was the ideal platform for Puccini to create a masterful work.I do wish he'd finished it though!'

So Heppner doesn't like the Alfano ending? 'I'm sure a good portion of it was sketched. But it seems to me that when Liù has gone, the melodic jewels that we've found up to that point don't really continue to generate. It seems to stop. But maybe it's because we know he finished at that point. It might be fun, though, to do a recording of it and have somebody else finish it!'

Like Lucio Berio (who wrote an alternative ending before he died)?

'Yeah! When I did the recording, that was what Eva Marton suggested. That's a worthy idea, I think, if you're going to do Turandot, as there are so many recordings out there, why not do it with a new ending?'

Puccini's score is a steady mix of high romanticism and bitonality, a Debussy-inspired orchestration and an Oriental kick. Did the composer blend these elements successfully?

'Yes, I think so. If you look at other composers who've used an Asian influence with their tonalities, say Mahler in Das Lied von der Erde - I think maybe Puccini may have been less successful at it. But certainly for our Western ears he does a good job, intoning that kind of flavour.'

The production here is very popular - does the new Calaf approve?

'I did, I did - I saw the set and thought, 'This is fantastic!'. It's got all the elements that I love, which is - it has a certain traditionalism which I enjoy, though I don't mind modern things, but one of the things I do love is the backing on the set, which kicks your voice up a bit - you don't have to worry about your voice being swallowed up by a huge open set, as is fashionable nowadays. So it's excellent acoustically. And I think it's a very fine mixture of things - the ribbons at the front, and the masks: it really is a wonderful show. It feels timeless - it has aged very very well.

'Robert Lloyd told me yesterday that when it was premiered in 1984 in Los Angeles at the Olympics, there seemed to be something missing. People weren't sure it was going to be a success. Then they added smoke at the very last minute at the dress rehearsal, and it just changed everything - all of a sudden it had mystery - and these red silks and the smoke completed the atmosphere and all of a sudden turned everything around.'

Heppner's colleagues on the production include a Hungarian conductor, Stefan Soltesz, and a Hungarian Turandot, Georgina Lukács - what are they like to work with?

'I've worked with Stefan Soltesz 13 or 14 years ago, also with a Hungarian soprano, Eva [Marton], at the Sonntagskonzert in Munich, and we were reminiscing about some of the funny things that happened in this concert. Georgina, she's a marvellous singer, and she's also a good colleague. The common language for us is German - she feels weak in English and although I feel so weak in German it's better than her English, so that's how we communicate. In a certain sense, though, there's not that much time when I relate to Turandot as Calaf: he sees her in the distance, in Act 1 he's smitten with her, in Act 2 he goes through the riddle scene, and in Act 3 we finally get together after Liù's gone - so there's not that much together, it's amazing. Another one is La clemenza di Tito - there's very little between Vitellia and Tito.'

And how does Liù fit into the relationships?

'In a sense, although Turandot has the title role, and deserves it because of the exceptional demands of the singing, Liù often walks away with it. As does Calaf sometimes, because of the aria, which has shot to fame in the last 15 or 16 years thanks to the World Cup.'

Singers' approaches to opera vary greatly. Some of them read around the music in depth, whereas others approach it from a primarily emotional point of view. Which does Heppner prefer?

'I'm never one to over-intellectualise. You find the role through the moment on stage rather than intellectualising. I think Turandot still counts as verismo - if you intellectualise verismo you miss the entire point! It's visceral. In the case of Calaf I find that he has to be sane and focused because you have not to be pulled into Liù, he has to focus on Turandot. It doesn't help to intellectualise all this.'

Heppner has made some extraordinary appearances at Covent Garden in recent years, with the Willy Decker production of Britten's Peter Grimes an especial highlight. Is he planning on doing it again?

'Yeah that was fun, er, well! I would do Grimes any time. Recently my brother came from the wilds of Northern Columbia to visit me in New York, and he saw me in my first Parsifal. I was asking him if he'd seen me sing any operas before, because I couldn't remember, and he said yes, Peter Grimes! I said, 'I'm very sorry, there are actually operas with tunes in them, just the two that you've seen don't!' I mean Parsifal, which I think is gorgeous and beautiful really doesn't have memorable tunes. Nor does Peter Grimes - there's the Embroidery Aria but you don't walk away humming it like you do with 'Nessun Dorma'.

'I loved this production because it took it out of the realm of being about the Suffolk coast and fish and nets and boats and finally forced us to deal with it as an opera that's about the relationship of people and social mores. And it had to be done by an outsider [the director Willy Decker], in a certain sense, to force us to see the relationships.'

And the Otello was also an interesting portrayal. Is this a role he enjoys?

'Yes, that was my third production. I find in a character analysis, it's awkward, and what I suffer from enormously, again this is a modern sensibility - but it's problematic on the part of Verdi and even the play itself - there's so little time to develop the love relationship between Desdemona and Otello. You only get the 8 or 10 minutes at the end of Act 1 and already in Act 2 the knife is coming in. You're at the mercy of your Iago - the more dastardly he is, the worse it is. I try - I don't know if people get it or not - but I try and stay loyal with Desdemona for as long as it's humanly possible in Act 2, because I try to keep believing that she wouldn't betray me.'

'And also, I was willing to do this, Elijah wanted not to make him too pitiable, but to have the courage to be disliked by the public. So there's a couple of points in Act 3 where most people would soften their tone with Desdemona, but Elijah asked if I had the guts to deliver the lines coldly and harshly, and I said yeah! In a way he's not a hero, he's an anti-hero - he's the author of his own demise.'

Heppner works around the world, in New York, Vienna, Chicago and beyond. Does he enjoy working here at the Royal Opera House?

'I do, I enjoy the House, it's a wonderful place to work. It's organised, but there's a real sense of collegiality with people. I've always really had a good time here.

'My debut here was in Meistersinger and I jumped in in the middle of the opera. And none of the people onstage knew I was coming. So I met Flott [Felicity Lott] here on stage! I arrived, and it was obvious I wasn't the other tenor, and we embraced as the stage direction would say, and she said 'Toi toi toi' and we were on! It was funny - we were sitting under the linden tree on stage left and she whispered to me 'Hi, I'm Felicity!' and I said 'Hi, I'm Ben!', so we got to know each other under a tree!'

Does he find the London audiences knowledgeable?

'Oh very much so, yes. They're very enthusiastic and they love not only good singing but also a good story, a good portrayal. They're not at all finicky like I remember once at La Scala, where the curtain went up on Act 3 of Die Meistersinger and half the audience had gone home because it was too long! And it was a phenomenal cast! But there's none of that here - they're really appreciative of all the good qualities that go into the performance.'

Heppner has no engagements at Covent Garden next year. Does he have plans to return?

'We're talking - I don't have any next season, but we're talking and the truth is they're waiting for my answer, so I think you can expect it!'

A month ago, Deutsche Grammophon (for whom he records exclusively) released a new CD of Heppner singing Wagner arias, a striking arrangement of excerpts from the Ring Cycle that tracks the life of Siegfried through three operas, from birth to death. What was the inspiration there?

'My previous disc was of Tosti songs. My idea was that every second disc is going to be more accessible because I have the perception (and maybe it's just me!) that my repertoire tends to be a little bit esoteric. So I wanted to do something with wider popularity, and that was Tosti. I also did My Secret Heart for RCA, which is the only one of my recordings I listen to..I've been trying to widen the fan base a little bit if you like. But it was time for a serious disc, and the last one was French arias, which I think of as the centre of my repertoire but other people think of me as a Wagner singer! So I thought, alright, let's give them Wagner - what Wagner have I not sung? I haven't sung any of this repertoire before on record and we decided to string it all together, to take Siegfried's father and his life cycle.'

So what's next in the studio?

'We're in the process of looking at ideas. One is Mozart or Handel, concert arias, strong arias, things like that. There's also some concert repertoire that I've done, for instance Sibelius songs. Putting together essentially a song programme. I don't know at this stage.'

This November, Heppner is appearing in Act 3 of Siegfried in concert form with the Hallé Orchestra and Mark Elder in Manchester. Does opera lose something when given in concert form?

'Well you do lose something, you lose context. It makes far more sense from the audience point of view, you deliver a character in the opera. But you gain the music - and it's not quite so expensive! I've just done Fidelio in concert, and I think it works enormously well, with the bare minimum of spoken dialogue. You can glory in the wonderful music.'

What about solo concerts in general - are they an attractive prospect?

'They're hard to prepare - it's amazing how long it takes, and everything is suddenly focused on you. From my first recital when I was shaking in my boots, I now really enjoy it. I can do a set of repertoire that keeps me interested. From a vocal point of view, it forces you to work at the elasticity in your voice, not always concentrating on the hard edge of Wagner that can sap your voice. It's a wonderful way to get around to places you couldn't normally go as well. You just don't have time to go and do an opera in some places, but you could do a concert.

'I'm starting a new initiative to set aside two weeks in my calendar to go around a region of Canada and sing recitals.I'm doing Dawson Creek and six other centres, including very small areas. But it's been enormously popular: two of the venues are sold out and the others are very close. I can do seven in two weeks, and in the following season I'm going to do another region.So I love it for that reason and it feeds an artistic soul too!'

When Turandot opens on Friday 7 July at the Royal Opera House, it will also be broadcast on Big Screens around the country to an estimated 25,000 people. And at 6.50 in the Covent Garden piazza, the Royal Opera Chorus Master will be teaching 'Nessun Dorma' to the crowd, with the help of three tenors from the chorus (the event will also be broadcast around the country). Is this kind of outreach work important to Heppner?

'I love this - I knew it was out in the piazza here, and I've seen that before, but I didn't know it was going around the country! I think that's just fantastic!

'A few weeks ago I was opening the new opera house in Toronto and they broadcast it in the square on a fifteen minute delay and we went out afterwards. It had been raining, and I think they were genuinely appreciative of the fact we went out to see them. If you're going to take opera to the people this is an enormously helpful way to bring it out in the open and help lose some of the prejudices people have about opera.'

So is he optimistic about the future of opera?

'Yes and no. I worry that our ears are being accustomed to liking something other than a trained voice. And even since the 50s, there aren't that many trained voices on Broadway, compared to the days of Ezio Pinza, for instance. So we've lost that. And we also haven't helped ourselves, we've put up barriers. For example in a concert programme, you have a group of Schubert songs and the routine is that you do not applaud in between. Well, ok, for concentration perhaps it would be nicer if people did not applaud. On the other hand, if there are people in the audience that applaud, it means they haven't been there before, and I like that! I want more of that!

'So we need to make opera and classical music in general more accessible, and we need to get off our high horses and help them understand that we're not doing any great esoteric thing. Since the World Cup is on just now - the beauty of good football play is just exceptional, and it's for all intents and purposes improvised ballet! Just as football is 'the beautiful game', we need to have people appreciate opera and singing and the musical arts in the same way.'

What about young people? What role do they play in all of this?

'When I opened the opera house in Toronto I could only sing one aria because I was singing a huge concert. There was a Thursday programme and a Saturday programme. On the Saturday we expunged one or two items and eliminated the intermission and shortened the concert to 95 minutes. It was casual dress, the orchestra was dressed by Banana Republic in light blue shirts etc - though it doesn't fit me, so I brought a banana onstage with me instead as a joke! But the point is, after both performances I did a signing, and it was remarkable that the Saturday performance had a significantly lower age when I did the signing. So the marketing has done an effective job. And I notice that this is something you've been doing in the UK for some time now, and I'm very encouraged by it. Across the pond I think we've got a lot to learn. I notice a younger audience in Europe in general.'

I know from other interviews that Heppner doesn't like to be monolithic about giving advice to young singers ('Oh you've noticed! Ha!'), but I ask him whether this is in fact his advice - to be careful in choosing your advisors?

'If you're waiting for a reviewer to give you your raison d'être you're only inviting disaster, so you need to figure out who you are and who is in your camp - who will give you the straight advice you need. Be true to yourself and to the art. I don't like the old school attitude that is sometimes shown where the 'artiste' has to behave in a particular way and take a certain class of accommodation. Well quite frankly, people don't know where I'm staying. When I open my mouth they make their own minds up about what I might be like. And they may be wrong or right, but it never enters their minds that I may be staying in an 'Easy' hotel, or whatever you call it here - or at the Ritz - they make up their own mind. As it turns out I have a fantastic place here, but no one knows that! But to suggest that I should act in some sort of superior way to my colleagues - I don't understand that and I can't countenance it.'

With so much experience to offer, I ask whether Heppner has considered teaching.

'That has recently come up because I've entered a certain round number in my life! [He recently turned 50]. In the distant future - let's say about 10 years - I can see retirement beckoning me on and I've been receiving occasional invitations to consider positions, though it's too early. I don't know if I could take on a traditional teaching role, in terms of doing scales, because they bore me to death and always have. But I think I could help someone understand the fact that singing is on one level a mindset - not just technical. You need to feel something about music and pieces and keep a spontaneity about them. That's where I think I may be useful. I would rather teach through repertoire, rather than isolate it.'

To wrap things up, I ask him what he would like to be remembered for, and he looks a little surprised, pausing for a moment.

'I haven't got a stock answer for that, which is a good thing. But I think, integrity - not 'He came, he saw, he sang'! Integrity - one has ups and downs, but you need to face head on the challenges that are thrown your way, somehow you muddle through.'

And when he sings, whom does he sing for?

'I sometimes joke, when people ask why I sing Das Lied von der Erde so much, I say, 'Because I've got children in college - I need the pay check!' But I don't sing for that reason. At this point with the fees that one gets, you don't need that many of them to survive nicely. So that's not an issue - you don't think about the money. I sing for the satisfaction of singing - that's an important fact..I made a decision about 20 years ago or so, that I wanted to be the best at something - I was tired of being mediocre at five or six things. So I decided I was going to be a first soloist, and if that didn't happen I wanted to be one of the best comprimarios. And then I thought, OK, I'll be a chorister, but I wanted it to be in one of the top houses in the world where it was a full-time job.

'Fortunately, it turned out in the spectacular way it did. But if I hadn't made one of those choices I would still sing - it's part and parcel of who I am, part of my psyche: I love to sing. I'm tickled pink: I get to sing with the best orchestras and the best conductors in the greatest opera houses - how cool is that! But in life we always have that list of New Year's resolutions, to maintain relationships, especially with the family. That's my priority.'

By Dominic McHugh

Turandot was broadcast on big screens around the country on Friday 7 July 2006, with a 'Nessun Dorma sing along' event starting at 6.50pm.

The locations were London - Covent Garden Piazza and Canary Wharf, Aberdeen - Duthie Park, Belfast - Botanical Gardens, Birmingham - Chamberlain Square, Bowness on Windemere - The Glebe, Bradford - Centenary Square Terrace, Hull - Queen Victoria Square, Leeds - Millenium Square, Liverpool - Clayton Square, Manchester - Exchange Square, Rotherham - All Saints Square - and access was free in all cases, thanks to the support of BP.

Read other recent interviews with singers such as Ian Bostridge, Petra Lang, Rebecca Evans, Ann Murray, Claire Rutter, John Hudson, Susan Graham, Sally Burgess, Rosalind Plowright and Marcello Giordani here.