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Ben Heppner: A Wagnerian Interview

Written By The Wagnerian on Thursday 14 June 2012 | 11:16:00 pm

I was recently lucky to have had the opportunity to catch-up with Ben Heppner during his ongoing  run as Tristan in WNO's revival of Yannis Kokkos' Tristan und Isolde. During our time together, we discussed conductor Lothar Koenig, the Isolde of Ann Petersen, who Tristan really is, the meaning of Wagner's opera, advise he would give to young opera performers and much else - including why certain opera productions may leave you smelling of anything but roses.

TW: I believe this is your first time playing at the Millennium Centre in Cardiff, What are your impressions of the theatre?

BH: This is indeed my first time at the Millennium Centre. In fact, I have never been to Wales before and I am enjoying getting to know Cardiff and environs. So far, I have walked portions of the Taff Trail and most recently I have been exploring SW Wales by car and foot. Rhosilli provided a most wonderful diversion.

The theatre is better than I first thought. When I arrived I was able to see the Gala concert with Dennis O’Neill and Dame Kiri Te Kanewa as well as my friend Jason Howard. For some reason of accoustics with the singers on the orchestral apron, the voices were not as present in the hall as I might have expected. However, I do not get that feeling as I sing Tristan or listen to the Boheme that is currently rehearsing. It is a nice pleasing accoustic.

TW: And also your first time working with conductor Lothar Koenig?

BH: Actually no, it isn't. We did a happy collaboration with the Rotterdam Philharmonic presenting a recently recorded CD that I had made called ‘Siegfried’s Life’ In it I take excepts from The Ring and follow the life of the tenor characters throughout the Operas.

Lothar is made to conduct Tristan und Isolde. He has been preparing this for a long time and it is evident is his thorough knowledge and excitement in conducting Tristan. I would think that most conductors would hope that they could conduct Tristan und Isolde at some point in their careers and Lothar is no exception. However, his understanding of the music and texts have made this Tristan a great pleasure.

TW: I think he has said that the first opera he ever attended was Tristan when he was very young and that it left a lifelong impression. And certainly, the response from those attending has been very good - to say the least.

I own a copy, of your ‘Siegfried’s Life’ Cd [highly recommended.If you don't already own a copy, and if you have access to Spotify, you can listen below] but wasn't aware of the
Koenig connection.

You haven’t worked with your Isolde - Ann Petersen – before though have you?

BH: No, this is my first time working with Ann. She brings an intensity and passion to Isolde that is riveting to listen to and watch. She has all the vocal assets needed to express the passionate side of Isolde and a marvellous lyricism during the love duet. We will hear a lot more of Ann Petersen in the coming years.

TW: You have now performed Tristan around 60 times. I’m curious to know, going back to when you first performed the role, how have your thoughts changed about Tristan as a person – if at all?

BH:This is a bit of the frog in the boiling water syndrome for me. Each performance or production moves in one direction or another and I forget where I started with Tristan’s character.

I suppose the biggest change is that I now believe that Tristan had a lot more choice in his circumstances than I previously did. He has a line in Act 3 where, after all the Freudian self evisceration about his father’s and mother’s fate, he concludes ‘ich selbst, ich hab’ ihn gebraut’ – I myself, I have brewed this (drink).

TW: What about his relationship with Isolde?

BH: I don’t think that my basic idea of what Isolde is all about has changed in any major degree. Every Isolde brings her own set of qualities to the performance and my job as a singing partner is to respond. I’ve been married for 33 years now and I’m fully aware that the my beloved is complex and fascinating bringing with her unique points of view that need to be recognised. So when Isolde brings up the ‘und’ speech in Act 2 I’ve got to say she’s right!

TW: Indeed! And King Marke?

BH: At first I had the feeling that Tristan felt completely exposed and embarrassed by Marke’s arrival on the scene. However, I now have the feeling that his remorse is really sympathy of the awkward position in which he has put Konig Marke rather than Tristan’s feelings of guilt.

TW: Like most of Wagner’s dramas, Tristan has been analyzed relentlessly regarding “its meaning”. Yet unlike, Parsifal, or the Ring for example – where there is still much debate – most analysts seem to have now become fully convinced that either it is Wagner’s “hymn” to Schopenhauer or both that and his “obsession” with Mathilde Wesendonck. I’m curious, that as someone who has played the role of Tristan so many times now – and who I know has studied the opera greatly and indeed the philosophy that many argue influenced it – what, at its core, is “Tristan und Isolde “ about”?

BH: Yikes! There is no way I could come up with some definitive answer about this. That is why we have Wagner Verbände that meet and discuss these things.

An obvious place to start is the conflicting forces of the world of Night and the world of Day. It is essentially a realm of lies. In daylight, Tristan must deny any feelings for Isolde or perhaps even her existence. By contrast, the realm of Night represents an opposite, unseen reality, in which Tristan and Isolde are free to express their love and be as one in an eternal setting –achievable only in death. Schopenaur or Wesendonck – chicken or egg – Only Wagner knew.

TW: Yannis Kokkos’ production, while “modern”, seems to remain faithful to the text of the drama. Could you tell us a little about its overall “concept” and your reactions to it.

BH:What the set looks like is not the biggest issue for me. What does matter is that we keep a connection with what was originally intended by the composer. Yannis Kokkos’ production does just that. It is a very good directing of the characters involved and allows for the relationships to develop in an organic way.
TW: This brings me onto something you said some time ago when you commented on the “insanity” of many European opera productions – the “worst” of “regitheater” if you will. And I think there is an ever growing chorus of voices in Europe that would sympathize with this view but would you explain a little what for you, you feel is the greatest problem with such productions?

BH: As I mentioned earlier, I have no problem with an updated set or time period. However, when the director decides that he/she is going to use their own social or moral or environmental etc. agenda and insinuate it on top of what the librettist/composer intended, that is where I part company with the director. I have no problem with an artistic desire to put forward new ideas. However, why not write a new piece that deals with that particular topic.

TW: I think I said something similar myself regarding a recent Wagner production and can assure you from responses that I received you are not alone with your thoughts.

Remaining on this subject for a moment, I have always felt that it most somehow make a performance more difficult for an artist within such a production. For example a Tristan set in a sewage works designed to be some sort of “statement” on environmental “issues” - and which, visually, as you have just said, tries to rewrite the text. Would this be a fare statement in your experience or does it make little difference to your performance?

BH: To continue the sewage example, this way of directing is its’ own form of effluent [He laughs] We all end up smelling bad.

TW: There is no doubt that you are a great Wagner performer – and we are lucky to have you - there is also no doubt that Wagner is not the only composer in your repertoire, however, do you feel to highly “tunnelled” towards performing Wagner operas and what other composers would you like to include in your schedule to a greater degree?

BH: It is a natural by-product of singing Wagner to be ‘tunnelled’ to sing more. When one finds a singer who can sing Wagner roles, whose musicianship and musicality blooms within these roles, you will be offered more. If the singer also feels the same you’ve got a match. Such is the case with me. I naturally gravitate to the music of the late romantic period and feel home singing Wagner. At our house, Mendelssohn is considered to be early music [Laughs].

TW: Talking of this, you are of course also known as a great interpretor of Berlioz. While there is a clear link between both composers – and it is difficult to deny Berlioz's influence on Wagner – could you tell us the differences between performing their works?

BH: Beats me how I might be considered a great interpreter of Berlioz given that I have only sung Les Troyens. That said, I do love Berlioz. The orchestrations are the most fascinating to me. Berlioz finds wonderful colours in the orchestra.

The vocal demands of Berlioz and Wagner vary from each other. Wagner seems have written for a way of singing that he envisioned an expression not yet heard on the opera stage up to that point. Berlioz seems to have written for a way of singing that already existed.

The role of Enée seems to be written for 3 different voices. The aria at the end is echoing what Wagner was doing with his vocal writing but the duet seems to be based on the voix-mixte style of the french tenor. Then there are parts of the Enée that feel baritonal. The problem is that if you feel comfortable with the duet you will probably struggle with Inutile's Regrets and vice versa.

TW: You will be performing Tristan later this year with Jennifer Wilson as Isolde, in a WNO concert performance at the Edinburgh International Festival. What, apart from the obvious, are the main differences to you as an artist in performing in a concert version of an opera and in what ways, if any, does it influence your performance.

BH: I love opera in concert. It allows for the music to be front and centre. That said, I do miss the stagings which enhance the nuance and meaning of the piece. If there is any influence on the performance, it is that the singers feel more connected with the musical side of things, perhaps bringing a greater sense of clarity to what the composer had in mind.

TW: I speak to a lot of young and developing opera singers and with that in mind: looking back on your career so far, what advice would you offer them? And is there anything you would have done differently?

BH: One can observe and incorporate what you have learned from another singer, but advice and criticism should be taken from those who have earned the right to speak into your life. Be careful to whom you listen. What I mean is, you cannot listen to the casual observer or even a critic. Your teacher, your coach and manager need to be listened to because you have given them that responsibility.

I would have done many things differently in the light of history. However, I’m content and more than a bit amazed at the path my life has taken. I started out just wanting to find a way to stay connected to music and ended up on a most wonderful ride.

TW: Finally what are your plans for the future?

BH: I don’t have any new operas on the horizon but my next season lines up as follos:

Sept-Oct San Francisco – Moby Dick
Nov – Dec Tour of northern Canada recitals
Jan – Feb Tristan in Toronto
Mar – Apr Tristan in Houston
May - Tour on Western Canada recitals

TW: Ben, I just want to thank you once again for taking the time out, during the middle of a very busy run to talk to me and I look forward immensely to seeing you perform once again twice this year – I shall be heading to Edinburgh as well as Birmingham to so.

Apart from the dates above, you can still catch Ben in WNO's Tristan in the UK: There  are still a few tickets remaining for Birmingham on the 16th and of course we have the already mentioned the concert performance at the Edinburgh International Festival where the superb Jennifer Wilson will take over in the role of Isolde.

For more on the WNO Tristan: WNO
For more on Ben Heppner: Ben