Por Mario Alegre-Barrios
There are artists that do not have to pass away for their presence to be missed. These are so good at what they do that when they stop because fate has imposed a premature retirement, their absence is somewhat sadder.
That’s what I thought when, on the morning of April 24 last, I read in The New York Times the news of Ben Heppner’s farewell to the stage, the Canadian tenor who has not only been one of the most famous in the last two decades, but has also had a major role in the history of CulturArte de Puerto Rico through three presentations at the Centro de Bellas Artes Luis A. Ferré: January 1999, May 2003 and January 2007.
“After careful consideration, I have decided that the time has come for a new chapter in my life… I end my career as an opera and concert singer…” were the words with which Heppner ended a career that lasted for 35 years and where he established himself as one of the greatest Wagnerian performers of all times.
“I want to thank the huge number of people who inspired me, who supported me and encouraged me to embark on this great adventure for the past 35 years…” And he added, “A million thanks to those who hired me, and more importantly, I want to thank everyone who ever bought a ticket to hear me sing”.
Guillermo L. Martínez –founder and artistic director of CulturArte– said that it has been a great privilege to have Ben as a friend and as a performing artist for CulturArte de Puerto Rico.
“One of the greatest opera performances I’ve seen in my life was that of Wagner’s ‘Die Meistersinger’, in April 1998, at the Metropolitan Opera House, where I was ecstatic with Ben Heppner. Soon after, in September of that same year, in the MET, I heard ‘Lohengrin’, also with Ben, but accompanied by Karita Mattila, another extraordinary singer who played Elsa that night. These experiences gave me the opportunity to hire these two great performers of the opera world to sing in Puerto Rico.”
Martínez recalls, “Just at the end of ‘Lohengrin,’ I greeted them both in their dressing rooms and expressed my admiration for their fabulous vocal and musical qualities and how much the public would enjoy the presence of two extraordinary performers like them.”
“Heppner’s debut in Puerto Rico was easier to arrange, thus I invited him to a piano recital which happily occurred on January 1999,” he said. “The visit of Karita was considerably delayed until 2007, because what he had in mind was to do a concert with orchestra, which is further complicated by rehearsals and all the production demands. Heppner’s recital was certainly spectacular. Only Luciano Pavarotti’s exceptional recitals were comparable to that magical night that the Canadian gentle giant offered us.”
In Puerto Rico
During this recital, Ben offered songs composed by Beethoven, Schumann, Strauss, Giordano, Bizet and Massenet, and his trump card, the “Prize Song” from “Die Meistersinger,” from the Wagner repertoire.
During the prelude to the debut, he had the opportunity to speak for the first time with this huge man with a huge charismatic voice, a great sense of humor, and an extraordinary simple manner.
At 18, Ben entered the University of British Columbia to start academic training, with the goal of becoming a music teacher, thinking that one day he would be an opera singer. In 1979, he had the first sign that he was on the right track when he won first prize at the Talent Festival sponsored by the Canadian Broadcasting Co., a triumph that place him on the map as a young talent with a bright future.
On that occasion he had related, according to an interview published in El Nuevo Día, that after spending several years cultivating a light tenor repertoire, he had dared venture into the immense roles of Wagnerian heroes, and in the second half of the eighties, he understood that the decisive step in his career was winning the Metropolitan Opera auditions.
So he did: in 1988, he mortgaged his house to get the $ 25,000 he needed to prepare and win each of the three stages in Cincinnati, Toronto and New York. Since then, the world of singing discovered a voice that in every sense has shocked greatly since the days when Domingo and Pavarotti emerged as stars.
A simple, uncomplicated man, Ben said on that occasion that he did not pay much attention to those who nominated him the obvious successor to the two figures mentioned in the previous paragraph. “Look, my job is difficult enough as it is, just as the repertoire I’m developing, to even consider if I should be the next Plácido Domingo or Pavarotti. That would further complicate my life; to be distracted by things that do not really interest me and are not in my hands. The only thing that worries me is to do my job the best way possible. Fame is not something that I am pursuing. Leave it to those colleagues that do so. I am a very simple man, and the fame I have achieved I did not seek, but it is a consequence of what I do… and nothing more.”
After that first memorable night, CulturArte brought Ben back to Puerto Rico in January 2003, for a concert with the Orquesta Sinfónica de Puerto Rico and the Coral Filarmónica de San Juan, to sing a repertoire of arias from Berlioz, Meyerbeer, Massenet and Wagner.
The reviews from specialized critics and public opinion overflowed in praise for this program which confirmed to the country’s music lovers that Ben was established as one of the great stars of the operatic firmament and a master in the lead roles of Wagner operas as “Die Meistersinger,” “Tristan and Isolde” and “Lohengrin.”
Heppner’s last visit of to the Island was on February 2007, when he offered us an unforgettable evening concert with Giordano’s “Andrea Chenier,” accompanied by baritone Trevor Scheunemann, the sopranos Cynthia Lawrence and Rosa Maria Baker, baritone Jorge Lagunes, bass-baritone Stephan Kirchgraber, bass Ricardo Lugo, tenor José Ramón Torres and accompanied the OSPR –with maestro Guillermo Figueroa on the podium—and the Gala Choir, directed by Carmen Acevedo Lucío.
Ben said then that he would be returning to the Island, among other things, because of his friendship with Mr. Guillermo L. Martínez. “Besides, I come to validate my relationship with Puerto Rico and its public,” he asserted. “On the Island I have spent very happy moments and it is always a privilege to once again enjoy the warmth of both the people and the climate. I am very happy for this opportunity to be back in such a beautiful place to sing and have fun.”
Evoking the visit, the artistic director of CulturArte remembered that the performance was finally agreed upon after searching several alternatives because of the tenor’s busy agenda. “Ben and I had talked several times about the possibility of his return to Puerto Rico,” recalls Martínez. “Despite the efforts of Ben and his wishes to return, his previous commitments made it difficult to bring him back. Then, I saw that on Ben’s agenda was “Andrea Chenier” at the Met, and then I suggested taking advantage of the opportunity to perform this Giordano opera in Puerto Rico for the first time in concert. He accepted and the result was a spectacular success.
No doubt, Ben’s is a sad farewell to the world of opera. He is going to be missed.