By Melanie Cummings
While Ben Heppner’s talents on opera stages around the world have brought him international renown, a love of gospel music has kept him rooted.
Often, before heading out to perform, he could be heard back stage warming up his voice with the church songs of his youth: Great is Thy Faithfulness, or Amazing Grace.
“Gospel music is a thread that weaves through my entire life,” he said. “Even though I took a detour through the world of opera for a few years, those songs of the church held me together,” said Heppner. In fact, while touring the world singing, he has adopted a “home church” in many of the cities he worked in, including London, New York, Munich, Milan, Chicago and Vienna, to name a few. “It was a way to connect with others and with myself.”
Now, in his retirement from the opera world, Heppner is revisiting those familiar gospel roots and joining vocal forces with the venerated Toronto Mass Choir on Thursday, July 26, as part of the Toronto Summer Music Festival. The performance called O Happy Day is at Koerner Hall.
“I’m delighted to share the songs of my heart. The Circle is Unbroken,” said Heppner.
He’s now four years into retirement from an illustrious career that saw him headlining shows in prestigious theatres and concert halls throughout Europe and North America for nearly 25 years.
It was a career that almost wasn’t. As a student at the University of British Columbia, Heppner considered the ministry. But music soon consumed his interests. So did his future wife, Karen Pozzi. As it turns out, she would become the minister in the family while Heppner pursued music.
His ascent on the opera scene began in 1979, at age 21, when he won a CBC Talent Festival. Over the next two decades, industry honours began to pile up. He won the Metropolitan Opera auditions in 1998, two Junos in 1996 and 2000, Grammy awards in 1998 and 2001 and countless more international awards. His artistic achievements also earned him a Companion of the Order of Canada in 1999. In his childhood hometown of Dawson Creek, BC the main street is called Ben Heppner Way and an arts school in Scarborough also bears his name.
He’s worked with the best of the best conductors and hobnobbed with royalty – even making the King of Norway laugh so hard once that he spat out his champagne. Debuting at Milan’s La Scala and London’s Covent Garden, each in early 1990, and at New York City’s Metropolitan Opera in December 1991, count among the highlights of his career, he said.
Such grand achievements came with a cost over the years. It meant a hectic life on the road 300 days a year. Eventually the pace took its toll and Heppner pared it to the still dizzying pace of 210 days a year. “I often felt isolated out there on the road,” he added.
When “cracks” in his singing developed it created an emotional disconnect in his performances. “I didn’t enjoy being away from my wife and three children seven to 11 weeks at a time so I asked myself why I was doing it,” said Heppner.
Still, opera remains a part of his life. He does concerts “here and there” now — including a cameo with the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Hadrian (written by Rufus Wainwright) in October.
He’s also host of the CBC Radio shows “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” and “Backstage”.
“I’ve always wanted to be in radio,” said Heppner. He got a taste of it with a stint on a CBC show called “This is My Music” in 2010. When “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” host Bill Richardson announced his retirement in 2013, Heppner applied.
As the youngest of nine children growing up on a farm in rural B.C. (population 13,000) “radio was always a fascination,” said Heppner. “Through the long, cold winters, radio was the only connection with the outside world.” With the family’s waist-high tube radio he could tune into “faraway places” such as Los Angeles, Texas and Chicago. “I felt like I was listening to the whole world outside of mine.” Little did he know he would one day dominate the operatic stages in such faraway places.
Adapting to radio life has required some changes. Both require following a script and evoking images and reactions for large audiences. But where opera demands a commanding voice, Heppner has learned to lower his voice in the sound booth.
The road still beckons, he said. The open road that is. The avid motorcycle enthusiast often hops on his Honda Goldwing to “clear his head” and connect with friends. Occasionally, he convinces his wife Karen to take time away from pastor life at a Toronto church and join him.
Riding counts as one of his many passions, which also include his five grandchildren now age 18 months to 4. “I have a fabulous life,” said Heppner.