The world of Peter Grimes is one of obsession and madness. British composer Benjamin Britten worked out the unyielding bones of his gothic opera while crossing the North Atlantic from the United States to Britain in the darkest hours of the Second World War, and it was first performed amid the rubble of London just one month after V-E Day, in June, 1945. The title character is a brutish and violent fisherman on England's gale-swept east coast. And the story, based on a 19th-century narrative poem, follows Grimes as he is hounded to suicide by malevolent villagers after first one and then a second mistreated young apprentice dies in his service. Britten's brooding orchestration, abrupt dissonances and malice-laden chorus create a baleful atmosphere. In a well-mounted production by the Vancouver Opera, Canadian superstar tenor Ben Heppner sang the part of Grimes with power and pathos. But both lead performer and company parked the pathos in the wings. These days, Heppner, who turned 39 last month, and the Vancouver Opera, 35 this year, are both very much at the top of their form.
The opera company, having retired a deficit that three years ago approached $250,000, is now operating in the black, commissioning new works and reaching out to new audiences. Heppner, meanwhile, is booked into the next century for major roles on the principal stages of Europe and North America. And he is nominated for a Grammy Award for his performance on a 1994 recording of Richard Wagner's Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. Yet, Heppner resists adopting the temperamental personality of an international super-ego, in the pattern of Luciano Pavarotti or Placido Domingo. Arriving punctually last week for a mid-morning interview, the burly native of Dawson Creek in northeastern British Columbia, wore a black wool and leather jacket embroidered in red with the name of his former high school, South Peace Secondary. "I wear it with pride," he volunteered.
Grimes, the lonely misfit, could hardly be further removed from Heppner's own character. Success means that the singer is increasingly able to limit the frequency of his engagements in order to spend more time at home in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough with his wife, Karen, and their three children. "My hobbies are family and friends," the singer says. His sons Aaron and Lowell, aged 9 and 10 (daughter Ashleigh is 13), play minor-league baseball and hockey, and "on Friday nights when I'm there, I drive and we watch them."
When Heppner does travel for about 50 concert and opera performances a year, he often takes one of his children along. "It gives us a chance to talk, and I get to spoil them with no holds barred," he says. Of his children's musical education, the internationally acclaimed vocalist jokes that he tries "to teach them the classics: The Beatles, Carole King, James Taylor."
Heppner's Christian faith, a constant in his life since his Mennonite-farm upbringing, sustains him both at home and on the road. While in Vancouver to sing in Grimes , Heppner's heldentenor (German for "heroic tenor") voice could also be heard raised in worship at the city's 10th Avenue Christian and Mission Alliance Church. At home, the Heppners attend Scarborough's First Alliance Church. How far the powerful voice lets out its throttle while Heppner is holding a hymnal, however, "depends on how enthusiastically everybody else is singing." If few actually left Grimes humming its dissonant tunes last week, Vancouver Opera general director Robert Hallam can nonetheless lay claim to having revived the city's enthusiasm for the operatic form. After 31/2 years in his post, the Edmonton-born Hallam has not only brought the Vancouver company back to solvency, but he has done so while increasing subscriptions by more than 10 per cent and expanding his company's season from 20 to 28 performances. "We have a real commitment to balance what is musically onstage and what is dramatically onstage," asserts the 42-year-old director. The company's $900,000 original production of Grimes , Hallam says, "is a good example of our approach: it is a work that taps us to our fullest in every element." The Vancouver Opera's artistic and financial health leave Hallam unworried by the knowledge that he will shortly be competing toe-to-toe with the box-office magnetism of a lavish new commercial musical stage. Just steps away from the Queen Elizabeth Theatre, the opera's home base, work is well under way on the new Ford Centre for the Performing Arts, designed by Moishe Safdie, where Toronto-based impresario Garth Drabinsky plans to open Showboat on Dec. 3. "I am not jumping up and down in anxiety," Hallam says, adding: "When we're doing all the elements well, as we are with Grimes , I don't think we can be touched." Hallam sees the creation of new operatic works as part of his mandate. He commissioned The Architect, by Vancouver's Tom Cone and David MacIntyre, in his first months at his post, and now has a second opera, Alternate Realities, by Vancouver-based John Oliver, under development, with plans for a third new commission in place. Heppner, meanwhile, will be featured on two recordings being released this year - a performance of Wagner's Lohengrin and a collection of arias. The tenor is also looking forward to his first attempt at the demanding role of Wagner's Tristan, in a yet-to-be-announced North American booking. And he is as bullish as Hallam about opera's rising fortunes. Opera, declares Heppner, "has as much going for it to compete with MTV as any art form."
Maclean's February 13, 1995