Friday, January 14, 2005


I first heard Ben Heppner years ago in a concert performance of Fidelio with the San Francisco Symphony under Herbert Bloomstedt. He was wonderful in this, the perfect Heldentenor in both voice and expression, but the role is also very short.

There was a period of several years when he was constantly reported with vocal difficulties. I also heard him on the radio last week in Otello, the last act of the last performance of the run at the Metropolitan. His voice was only barely holding out, but he made it all the way to the end. So is he all fixed now?

The big roles, the Tristans and Isoldas, the Otellos and Brühnhildes, are the ones that kill voices, just the ones that Ben sings. So what is it with Ben? Is he just failing to take care of himself, or is he screwing up? There are two possible culprits:

1. The life of a touring opera singer is hard and not for everyone. He has definitely let himself go. To do really huge roles requires a minimum level of muscle tone and general physical health. Maybe this is all there is to it.

2. Or maybe he isn’t doing it right from a vocal technique perspective.

I can’t contribute anything to getting Ben to eat right and keep himself and his voice fit, but I would like to comment on item number two. When James Morris first started his reign as the world’s leading Wotan at the San Francisco Opera in 1985, during the reign of Terry McEwen, he talked about his approach to the part, saying he would sing it like Verdi. James Morris may be regarded as a role model here, because he has achieved enormous success in a role for which his voice was just a little light. He’s still singing it after 20 years. Whatever he’s been doing must be right.

I can tell you what I heard in James Morris’ Wotan—he stuck faithfully to his gorgeous legato, did not try to push his voice beyond its capacity, and kept everything comfortably within his grasp with no over-reaching.

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