July 28, 2013

An un-review of a Ben Heppner recital

The famous tenor Ben Heppner came to my town recently to teach a master class at the local university and sing a recital the previous evening. This is - or should have been - big news in said town, which is Newport News, Virginia. I say "should have been", because the hall, which holds something like 550, was half-full. The same building also houses a 1600-seat concert hall, and had a second-rate country-western band, maybe some roackabilly act, been booked in that venue, it would have sold out weeks in advance.
The preferred tenor of Ben Heppner's mom...

Which tells you a lot about Newport News, otherwise a place I've enjoyed living in for over thirty years now.

Oh well, it's not my purpose here to rag on a quiet little city, it's my purpose to talk about Mr. Heppner's concert.
Don't misunderstand: THIS IS NOT A REVIEW. I'm not a critic, and since I work for an opera company, it's not really cool if I start criticizing opera singers. If one of them perchance was engaged by my company to come and sing, and I had recently dissed them in print, -- well, the awkwardness just slaps one in the jaws, doesn't it?

Of course it does.

So this is not a review. I doubt if I could remember all the titles from his program anyway. (There was no printed program.) Instead, I want to attempt to describe the experience of having been at this recital; to convey my impressions of Mr. Heppner in such a manner that by the time you finish reading (which, hopefully, was not after the first paragraph - talk about awkward!), you will feel as though you had been there, which is to say you'll feel as though you know who Mr. Heppner is.

Because all of us who attended came away with just that feeling.

The recital was in conjunction with a two-week vocal institute the university sponsored, drawing high school and college students from all over the country - there was even one from Alaska! Other than the  voice faculty from the school, faculty included a prominent voice professor from Indiana University as well as other celebrities like Brian Stokes Mitchell. I got to see Heppner's recital for free, as my wife was one of the institute's resident accompanists; suh-weet!

As the audience consisted mainly of the institute's students, Mr. Heppner was greeted with the chorus of hooted wailings that have replaced mere applause with the "twenty-somethings-and-younger" crowd in the past couple of generations. It always sounds juvenile to me, but - let it pass. This was the automatic response to every piece of music sung; there was no sober, respectful waiting until the end of a group of songs. Nah - these kids had a lot of hooted wailing to get off their chests.

Heppner took the stage dressed in an elegant vested suit, looking more like the CEO of a bank or an airline than like a musician. If you didn't know him, you would not guess he sang at all, much less opera. Maybe the fight song from his college football team, for which (you might have guessed) he probaably played left guard.

A bottle of drinking water perched on a bar stool to one side of the piano; he would turn to it frequently, often urgently. More on that below. He began by talking. Ben Heppner, when not impersonating Wagnerian heroes like Siegfried or Tristan, is quite informal, genial, and down to earth. He lacks any persona of the diva; he does not carry the mantle of the self-important "artiste"; he does not posture; he does not pontificate; there is no trace of arrogance or pompousness in his stage presence. In fact, I'm betting bank and airline CEO's are way more pompous than this fifty-ish heldentenor.

After introducing himself, he sang a familiar Schubert song, "An die Musik", which, it's fairly certain, 100% of the students on hand had sung in lessons at some point and were probably mouthing internally as he sang. The first group was all Schubert, with the opener followed by another standard, "Wohin" from Die schöne Müllerin. He interrupted the group, by way of explanation for the decidedly unadventurous programming, that he had never sung a senior recital in college as most other singers have done; for him, this recital was a chance to "catch up" and sing all the standard literature he'd missed as a young man.

The trips to the stool to nurse that water bottle began early on. The pleasure afforded by the evening's music-making was tempered by the tenor's continual struggle to tame his enormous instrument to do his bidding. But it wasn't easy; there was little of the illusion of effortlessness that artists manage at their best. If recent years hadn't been rife with stories of chronic vocal troubles, I might have assumed the local climate had brought about some post-nasal drip clogging up the vocal folds. Whatever the reason, there were many selections in which the approach of a vocal climax made me rigid with empathetic tension in my seat. Some such moments were surmounted successfully; others were not. 

But in the end it didn't matter. The best lesson all the students could have taken away from the evening is that artistry and charisma count for a lot; when the chips are down, they can carry the day. Music was made, in spite of all obstacles. And God bless water bottles. Looking back on it, there was a certain wistfulness in his opening remarks when he said "Hopefully we'll get some good singing tonight."

When his body cooperated and allowed that celebrated set of pipes to peal out with vintage Heppnerian clarion strength, the burnished sound was amazing.

Oopsie, this is starting to sound like a review. Sorry. Let me finish by sharing some of the anecdotes and banter with which he charmed students and faculty alike, not to mention me.

His pianist was an elderly gentleman named Thomas Muraco. This, Heppner explained, was the first time they had worked together in several years. With a wicked smile, the tenor took pains to loudly point out that his collaborator "has to wear glasses now!" Muraco smiled wryly.

Schubert was followed by more senior recital fodder: four Schumann songs. Vocal raggedness prompted more medicinal sips from the water bottle, during which he turned to us and remarked, "You know, it would probably help if I didn't talk so much." The crowd laughed as if it was Stephen Colbert up there, happy to revel in his humble candidness. 

Rather than reading song texts verbatim, Heppner preferred to share aspects of his chosen composers he personally found interesting and meant something to him. For example, he recounted Schumann's romance with Clara Wieck and the disapproval of Clara's father at her desire to marry a musician. "I have a daughter myself", he said, "and she married a computer guy." Then, with a knowing smile, "That is every father's dream." Then, with consumate timing, he added "My son is a philosophy major. (Beat of siilence) That's also every father's dream..." This last with the droll resignation required to get a big laugh.

The laughs continued with, of all things, a Hugo Wolf group. Heppner's eyes lit up when he came to the final number in the group, "Abschied". With the enthusiasm of one who's just discovered his new favorite composer, he read the complete text in English, but - oh, Dear Reader, you should have been there - with character voices! Like the trained actor he is, but like no opera character he's ever sung onstage, he assumed a truly funny voice for the character of "the critic" who informs the song's narrator that "I have the honor to be your critic". He scrunched up his face in a sneering expression of pique and delivered the lines with an effeminate, nasal, mincing voice that had the students gasping with delight. His performance of the song had to be seen to be believed. At the end of the song, when the narrator delivers the surprise ending in which he kicks the critic down the stairs sending him tumbling ass-over-teakettle (my words, not Mörike's), Ben Heppner, this big Kodiak bear of a man, resplendent in his vested suit, went cavorting in circles around the piano like a guy who'd had twelve martinis too many, galumphing and galloping off the stage. as the piano postlude came to an end. My wife, who knows her Hugo Wolf, whispered "That's exactly how that song should be done!"

Best thing ever. Not one of those dozens and dozens of students will ever make the mistake of assuming Wolf's art songs to be dull and academic. They'll all go back to their regular teachers and beg to learn "Abschied".

What else? 

Oh, I forgot. Prior to "Abschied", as an introduction to "Er ist's", he told an anecdote to explain the effect of Wolf's ode to spring on him. It turns out Heppner is a motorcycle aficionado who rides whenever he can. Not long ago, at a point when he was familiarizing hiimself with the music on this program, he had occasion to ride his donor-mobile (my term, not his) from Dallas Texas all the way to his home in Toronto. Passing through a mountainous area in  Tennessee, he'd been making his way through dense, gloomy fog for miles, with an MP3 player piping German lieder into his bluetooth device. Suddenly, the clouds lifted and a scenic vista of a valley below came into view just as the sun emerged with dazzling light. That was the exact moment when his ears filled with the joyful cacophony of "Er ist's". It seemed important to him that we experience the song imagining what that moment felt like to him. We did.

By the time he came back out after intermission to begin a series of old-fashioned popular songs in English, the type John McCormack might have sung to sell records, the exertions of battling a balky voice and dripping sinuses were taking a toll. He perched heavily on the bar stool, talking into a microphone and shrugging his shoulders in apology: "Hey", he said, "I'm getting old."

A love song called "Sylvia" was followed by Heppner confessing he always liked to pick out an individual woman sitting somewhere close to the stage and sing it direrctly to her. Whenever possible, he would ask if there might be an actual Sylvia somewhere in the house. There was no Sylvia in our midst this night, but he did sheepishly admit he'd sung the entire song to a woman in the third row. He smiled at her and said he hoped she didn't mind. (She didn't appear to have minded much.)

The program ended, and this overlong blog post will end, with the tenorial warhorse "Be my love". And this produced his best story yet. On the occasion of his first contract to sing at the Metropolitan Opera, Heppner's first thought was to call his mother back in Alberta, Canada to share the exciting news. The conversation went like this:

"Mom, guess what? You'll never believe it: I've just been engaged by the Metropolitan Opera in New York!"

"I was just listening to Mario Lanza on the radio singing 'Be my love'; my god, that man had a voice." 

"But mom - I'm going to sing at the Met!"

"You should have heard it, he's just got a voice like gold, that Mario Lanza".

It continued in that vein. If you had a mother, Dear Reader, you probably had at least one conversation with her that went like that. It's a mother thing.

And how did he sing it? With the determination of a clean-up hitter willing himself not to swing and miss, he put his vocal issues behind him and knocked it clean out of the ol' ballpark. Mario would have been proud, even if Mom wouldn't have appreciated that her son was THE Ben Heppner.

Bottom line - it would have been a great evening even if I'd paid for it! Everyone who left the hall felt as though they and Heppner were now best buds and just shared a few beers together. He's like that.

1 comment:

  1. I'm sad to hear about this *now*. I have an 18 year old who would have loved to have participated, but we DIDN'T KNOW about this event. Where was it advertised? :(