The Argument: why the stakes are so high for Ben Heppner’s return to the Canadian Opera Company

The Argument: why the stakes are so high for Ben Heppner’s return to the Canadian Opera Company

A controversial production. A hugely difficult role. A star with a reputation for choking onstage. The stakes are high for Ben Heppner’s long-awaited return to the COC

The Argument: a controversial production. A hugely difficult role. A star with a reputation for choking onstage. The stakes are high for Ben Heppner’s long-awaited return to the COC Heppner as Seigfried in the 2009 Aix-en-Provence production of Wagner’s Götterdämmerung (Image: Getty Images)

When opera singers want to wish each other good luck before a “big sing”—opera lingo for a particularly challenging role—they whisper, “in bocca al lupo,” Italian for “into the mouth of the wolf.” It’s meant to invoke the same reverse magic as “break a leg”: by wishing the worst for their colleagues, they hope to pacify the opera gods, and thus avoid the curse of an unpredictable throat that croaks on the money notes.

When Ben Heppner steps onstage at the Four Seasons to perform Richard Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde this month, there will be more than a few people—in the cast and in the audience—praying that those opera gods are feeling generous. It will be his first appearance with the Canadian Opera Company since 1996, when he performed as Canio in Pagliacci. Tristan is a very big sing, and though Heppner is the planet’s most acclaimed Wagnerian tenor, he has faced the wolf many times over the past decade.

The list of Heppner’s vocal mishaps is long, but among the most recent: in the fall of 2010, he cancelled three concert performances of Verdi’s Otello with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra due to “vocal indisposition.” Twice last year, in San Diego and San Francisco, he withdrew from performances of Jake Heggie’s operatic version of Moby-Dick—in which Heppner played Ahab, a role created with his powerful voice in mind—citing both illness and personal reasons. Hometown shows have been especially dicey. Halfway through a 2002 concert at Roy Thomson Hall, he had to stop singing, later explaining that his blood pressure medication was having a deleterious effect on his voice. Illness forced him to cancel his appearance at the COC’s 60th anniversary gala in 2009. He rescheduled the Four Seasons recital for the following year, but began to falter in the second half of the concert, and left the stage abruptly after the final song. The pattern sparked talk among local opera devotees of a “Toronto Curse.”

Tristan is Heppner’s signature role, and this is only the third production of the opera in the COC’s 64-year history. It’s also the first time Peter Sellars, the iconoclastic American director, has worked here, and the first full restaging of his controversial 2005 Paris production, which also starred Heppner. (Sellars’ version suggests a homoerotic connection between Tristan and King Mark, Isolde’s husband, and features giant video screens in lieu of sets.) The show needs to be a hit, and Heppner must be as brilliant as he has been in the past, if only to silence those who would say his best performances are behind him.

Here’s what Heppner is up against. For its two leads, Tristan und Isolde is the opera equivalent of a marathon run. They are required to make their voices soar above a huge orchestra for more than four hours, occasionally scaling back to erotic intimacy for the more tender moments—especially during the second-act love duet. There are other characters, but the focus is almost always on the titular lovers, and they have nowhere to hide. There is little stage action, no big choral scenes, no dance—none of the diverting staples of most 19th-century opera. The drama is all in the music.

The last act is almost exclusively Tris­tan’s. Wounded, dying, near mad with pain and grief, he must hold the stage for some 45 minutes until Isolde arrives to sing the famous aria that crowns the work (by which point Tristan is dead, giving the singer the chance to finally lie onstage and relax until his curtain call). Ludwig Schnorr von Carolsfeld, the tenor who originated the role, died after only four performances, allegedly of stress.

Before I saw it live in Montreal in 1975, I was lukewarm about Tristan. I found recordings of the opera tediously talky and pretentious. When all the elements—singers, orchestra, staging—work together, however, it can be an overwhelming emotional experience. And in Montreal, with the great Canadian tenor Jon Vickers in the title role, all the elements were there: when the curtain finally fell, I was so moved I could barely speak.

Heppner has sung Tristan at least 70 times, in 11 different productions. The most recent was a warmly received concert performance at the Edinburgh Festival last August. The greats sometimes don’t know when to quit, but Heppner has been known to retire roles that no longer fit. Some years ago, he stopped performing the part of Walther von Stolzing, the hot-headed young hero of Wagner’s Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg. (He knew it was time when he realized that his love interest in the opera was a singer younger than his daughter.) More notoriously, he recently retired the role of Siegfried, the doomed protagonist of the final two dramas in Wagner’s Ring Cycle. He’d been scheduled to sing it at the Met in New York, in Robert Lepage’s troubled production, but left the show even before it began its run. He had tried out the role in Aix-en-Provence beforehand and wasn’t completely happy with the result. It’s not clear, however, whether the decision to leave was entirely Heppner’s own, as the Met insists, or he was given a push.

For the current version of Tristan, Hepp­ner is double-cast with German tenor Michael Baba, but no other provisions have been made in the event of a vocal mal­function on the part of its marquee star. Alexander Neef, the COC’s general director, was insulted by my question as to whether a precaution might be necessary, adding that he has scheduled several more lead roles for Heppner in future seasons. Heppner, on the other hand, is trying to keep his sense of humour. When I asked him about the Toronto Curse, he paused, and quipped, “Are you talking about the Leafs?”

Opera buffs are a little like wrestling fans: they love backstage drama and thrill to the possibility of catastrophe—the art form is a high wire act without a net. This can sound a lot like schadenfreude, but it speaks to an enduring passion for live, unvarnished performance. When a “bocca al lupo” moment happens, particularly to a celebrated and beloved performer like Heppner, the heart breaks, just a little, and then you stand and cheer even louder, as much for what they’ve given as for what you hope they have still to give. You cheer till the wolf slinks away. But it always lurks.

Tristan und Isolde

Four Seasons Centre
To Feb. 23