It gleams in the mid-morning sun: shiny, dangerous, powerful. A pitch-black Honda Gold Wing touring motorcycle, outfitted with dual seats, double mirrors, a special dock on which a passenger can fix an iPod, luggage capacity for several mid-size bags, enough power to frighten a small village. It’s sitting outside the offices of the Canadian Opera Company in east-end Toronto.
It belongs to Ben Heppner, opera singer extraordinaire. It’s parked outside the COC offices because Heppner has been in rehearsal for the past month for the COC production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes, which opens on Saturday with Heppner in the title role. The bike gets him back and forth from rehearsal hall to home in the Toronto suburb of Scarborough. Last March, he had it shipped down to Houston when he was performing Wagner in Texas. When he was done the gig, he climbed on the bike and rode it back home. Took three days. Tristan meets Easy Rider.
Ben Heppner roaring through the Texas panhandle on a motorcycle is probably not an image that flits through the mind of most operagoers as they revel in his unique voice and stage presence. And I’m guessing the notion that one of the operatic world’s great treasures is toodling around town on a massive cycle provides fodder for many an opera exec’s worst nightmares. For many people, the machine simply inspires fear. Heppner understands the fear. Because he shared it once upon a time. “The bike was my mid-life crisis for sure,” he tells me, “but not in the way you think. I had always been attracted to motorcycles, but had been afraid of them as well. I finally decided it was time to conquer my fear. I needed to do it.”
Heppner’s admission of his own vulnerability is key to his success both as an artist and a person. And he finds himself at an interesting point in his life and career these days. At 57, he’s not old for an opera singer, but not young either. About 15 years ago, he decided to limit the roles he would sing on the world’s stages. Today, he admits, those roles are “thinning out.” Is that good?, I ask him. He answers with a long, sincere sigh, “Ahh, it’s immensely good.”
It’s good for Heppner because he can spend more time at home, something that eluded him when he was making a career as one of the world’s great dramatic tenors. As anyone who knows him will attest, home and family are extremely important for Heppner, and he now understands that a combination of loneliness and homesickness was part of the background to his vocal problems that were so well noted worldwide a few years ago.
“There were things I was struggling with, one of which – I can talk about it now – was that I was emotionally inhibited during those years because I was away so much. That took a huge toll on me. Other people seem to survive it well. I did not. One day, a friend of mine had a heart attack in Boise, Idaho – he was eventually okay, but for 17 minutes he had no vitals. And I thought, ‘That could happen to me, easy, it could happen to me.’ And I would be alone. Always being away from home drew me inside of myself, which was not a good thing. I hated being away, and then after the problems began, my confidence started to suffer.”
Heppner is home a lot more now, and he is also embarking on a new career, as host of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera on CBC Radio 2. It’s an assignment it’s clear he takes very seriously. In fact, he sought out the gig. An interviewer at a Victoria CBC station casually let Heppner know that the job was vacant. Within hours, Heppner had sent Mark Steinmetz, the Head of CBC Radio Music, an e-mail expressing his interest in the position. A week later, he had been hired. For the careful CBC, that’s pretty fast work.
Interestingly enough, Heppner had set January, 2014, as a potential date for a career change almost 20 years ago. “It seemed to me that January, 2014, was a perfect time to make some kind of a change, some kind of a transition. Just happened to come four months early.”
Not that Heppner is retiring from the world of opera. Far from it. Singing roles like that of the tortured, dark, malevolent Peter Grimes is still both a challenge and a joy for him. He’ll be doing it again in Vienna after he finishes the COC production. “I try to make an emotional connection on stage,” he says of Grimes. “You somehow want to bore into the heart of the listener and to get them to grapple with the issues that are present in this piece – to let the audience see the inner pain and turmoil of this character and try to get them to understand how someone can be this dark. At the end of the opera, there’s frequently 15 or 20 seconds of stunned silence. If you’ve done it right.”
One way or another, Heppner is relishing the new place in which he finds himself at this point in his life. “I launched out into the open ocean of this career a while back, and have been fighting the winds and tides for the last quarter-century. Now I can see the shore. I can see the new world approaching. And it’s very comforting, actually.”
Peter Grimes runs at Toronto’s Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts from Oct. 5 to 26 (coc.ca).