Ben Heppner | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Ben Heppner

He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1991 as the King of Crete in Idomeneo by Mozart.

Heppner, Ben

 Ben Heppner (Thomas Bernard). Tenor, b Murrayville, BC, 14 Jan 1956; B MUS (BC) 1979, honorary LL D (BC) 1997, honorary D MUS (McGill) 2002, honorary LL D (Toronto) 2002, honorary D LITT (Memorial) 2003, honorary LL D (York) 2003, honorary Litt D (McMaster) 2005, honorary LL D (Queen's) 2006. The youngest child of Russian Mennonite parents, Heppner grew up in Dawson Creek, BC. His earliest voice training was at the Canadian Bible College, Regina. After graduating from the University of British Columbia he registered in 1981 at the University of Toronto Opera Division. One of his teachers in Toronto was the tenor William Neill, who, with Dixie Ross-Neill, was Heppner's principal voice coach. In 1979 Ben Heppner won first prize at the CBC Talent Festival. He sang briefly with the Canadian Opera Company. In 1987, he sang Bacchus in Strauss's Ariadne auf Naxos in Australia. He made his European debut in 1988 with the Stockholm Royal Opera in Lohengrin by Wagner. That same year he was one of 11 winners of the Metropolitan Opera Auditions and at the same time was awarded the Birgit Nilsson Prize; in April he made his US debut at Carnegie Hall, at a state concert commissioned by the king and queen of Sweden. Also in 1988 he took part in the world premiere of Harry Somers' opera A Midwinter Night's Dream. At the Vienna State Opera he again sang Bacchus in 1990, and the Prince in Dvořák's Rusalka in 1991. Heppner has also sung at the Grand Théâtre de Genève (Erik in Wagner's The Flying Dutchman), at the Santa Fe Opera (Bacchus), as well as in Philadelphia and Seattle (Rusalka), in Frankfurt (Bacchus), in Cologne (Florestan in Fidelio), in Marseille (Walther in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg), and at numerous other major opera houses and festivals. In concert he has sung with the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra, the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, the National Arts Centre Orchestra, the Toronto Symphony, and other orchestras.

He made his Metropolitan Opera debut in 1991 as the King of Crete in Idomeneo by Mozart. He was soon recognized for his performances of heroic tenor roles in Wagnerian opera, especially that of Tristan (his debut in Tristan und Isolde was in 1998 with the Seattle Opera, the organization that had named him artist of the year for 1996). Ben Heppner has also excelled in non-Wagnerian roles; in 1992 he created the title role in McTeague, written for him by William Bolcom, and in 2010 he played Captain Ahab in the world premiere of Jake Heggie's Moby-Dick for Dallas Opera. His interpretations of the title role in Peter Grimes have drawn acclaim; he performed the role in Cologne and Covent Garden and gave its Vancouver Opera premiere, for which he received the National Arts Centre Award for Outstanding Artistic Achievement. He performed with the Canadian Opera Company in 1996 as Canio in I Pagliacci, and has been successful in French repertoire including Berlioz's Les Troyens at London's Barbican, 2000. He has often been engaged in both Wagnerian and non-Wagnerian roles by the Met, including in Fidelio in 2000, Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg in 2001, Les Troyens in 2003, and Andrea Chénier in 2007. Heppner's debut in Verdi's Otello took place at the Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2001; he subsequently withdrew from several performances of the role. He continued in other roles, and gave the Canadian premiere of Franz Schmidt's The Book of the Seven Seals in Kitchener, Ont, in 2002.

Ben Heppner has sung worldwide, including engagements at Carnegie Hall in 2001 with the Met Orchestra, and in Tokyo with the Met Orchestra and Metropolitan Opera Chorus. He was heard in Metropolitan Opera broadcasts of Tristan und Isolde and Die Meistersinger in 2001. Turning increasingly to concerts and recitals, Heppner has given recitals throughout Canada, the US, and Europe. He has sung with the Billy Graham Crusade in Toronto and Ottawa. He has also conducted master classes, eg, at the University of Toronto, and at Wake Forest University (North Carolina).

Ben Heppner has recorded extensively on RCA Victor Red Seal, EMI, BMG, CBC Records, and Deutsche Grammophon. He received his first Grammy award in 1997 for Die Meistersinger von Nürnburg, and his recording of Les Troyens earned 2001 Grammy awards for best classical and best opera recording. He won Juno awards for best classical album in 1996, 2000, and 2002; and won Gramophone awards for record of the year (Rusalka) in 1999 and for best opera recording (Les Troyens) in 2002. His 1999 recording My Secret Heart crossed onto the pop charts, as well as becoming the top-selling Canadian classical album of the week.

Known for a voice of great expressive power, Heppner is sometimes called "the fourth tenor." The Globe and Mail (19 Jan 2002) described him as "the world's pre-eminent heroic tenor - a Canadian hero - and one of the most widely beloved singers of our time. His phenomenal, free-vaulting voice of seemingly limitless capacity - accommodating all shades and intensities of expression, from the gentlest lyrical persuasion to the most stentorian battle cry - has thrilled thousands in the opera houses of the world."

Ben Heppner's charitable work has included benefit performances for the Canadian Bible College, and being spokesperson for the Ontario Lung Association. Scholarships have been established in his name at the University of British Columbia. He is a Companion of the Order of Canada, and a recipient of the Jean A. Chalmers National Music Award, the Galaxi Award from the Canadian Cable Television Association, the Golden Jubilee Medal, an Opera News award, and other regional, national, and international honours.

Selected Discography

Ben Heppner Sings Richard Strauss. Toronto SO, Davis cond. 1995. SMCD 5142 CBC Records

Turandot. Abbado cond; Marton, Price sopranos. 1995. 09026-60898-2 RCA Victor Red Seal

Ben Heppner sings German Romantic Opera. North German Radio SO, Runnicles cond. 1998. 09026-63239-2 RCA Victor Red Seal

My Secret Heart: Songs of the Parlour, Stage and Silver Screen. London Phil, Tunick cond. 1999. 09026-63508-2 RCA Red Seal

Millennium Opera Gala - Roy Thomson Hall. TSO, Bradshaw cond. 2000. CBC Records SMCD 5198

Airs Français. London SO, Myung-Whun Chung cond. 2001. DG 4713722 Deutsche Grammophon

Ariadne auf Naxos. Staatskapelle Dresden, Sinopoli cond. 2001. DG 471 323-2, 324-2, 325-2 Deutsche Grammophon

Harry Somers: Songs from the Heart of Somers. Hess piano. 2001. Centrediscs CMCCD 7001

Ideale: Songs of Paolo Tosti. London SO. 2003. 471 557-2 Deutsche Grammophon

Excerpts from the Ring of the Nibelung. Staatskapelle Dresden, Schneider cond. 2006. 00289 477 6003 Deutsche Grammophon

Selected Filmography

Anna Bolena. CBC Home Video. 1999. VAI 69414 Video Artists International

Fidelio. 2003. 073 052-9 GH Deutsche Grammophon

Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. 2004. 00440 073 0949 GH 2 Deutsche Grammophon

Tristan und Isolde. 2004. 073 044-9 GH2 Deutsche Grammophon


'"Spotlight," interview with Ruby Mercer, Opera Canada, vol 30, Spring 1989

Smith, Craig. "Helden Heppner," Opera Canada, vol 31, Winter 1990

Dyson, P. "Ben Heppner," Opera, xlvi 1995

Hampson, Sarah. "Gentle Ben: One of a kind," Globe and Mail, 19 May 2001

Covello, Richard. "Otello: Renée Fleming (Desdemona) and Ben Heppner in the title role of the Lyric Opera of Chicago production," Opera Canada, Winter 2001

Winters, Ken. "Heroic tenor calls for time-out," Globe and Mail, 19 Jan 2002

"Heppner to play Ahab in new Moby Dick opera," CBC News Online, 28 Jan 2010