The Canadian tenor who made an international career out of wooing Isolde and hunting the great white whale has sung his last high C on a public stage. Ben Heppner announced his retirement from singing earlier today, ending a stellar run as the greatest Canadian Heldentenor since Jon Vickers.
At his peak during the 1990s, Heppner was in demand around the world as one of the few tenors able to succeed in the demanding heroic tenor roles of German opera, as well as in Italian works such as Verdi’s Otello and Puccini’s Turandot. He also created several roles in new operas, including the title role in William Bolcom’s McTeague and Captain Ahab in Jake Heggie’s Moby-Dick.
“I’m setting aside my career as an opera and concert singer,” said the 58-year-old tenor and CBC broadcaster in a statement released by his manager. “I want to thank everyone who bought a ticket.”
The burly singer from Dawson Creek, B.C., pursued his music training at the University of British Columbia and the University of Toronto opera school. He sang bit parts, gave singing lessons and did part-time manual labour till deciding to “bet the farm” on a full-time stage career.
His first big break came in 1988, when he won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions and the first Birgit Nilsson Prize, which came with the promise of a European opera debut. A stint the following year at the Royal Swedish Opera in the title role of Wagner’s Lohengrin put him on the radar of opera managers everywhere.
He moved quickly up the playbill, becoming a regular star attraction at major European opera houses in works by Wagner and Richard Strauss. He became noticeably absent from Canadian theatres, though he continued to keep his family home in Toronto.
Heppner made full-length opera recordings with some of the leading conductors of his time, including Sir Colin Davis, Sir Georg Solti and Giuseppe Sinopoli. He also recorded, and widely toured, a program of light Italian songs by Paolo Tosti.
His last opera performances in Canada came last fall, when he shared the title role in a Canadian Opera Company production of Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes. He has already taken up a broadcasting job as host of the CBC’s Saturday Afternoon at the Opera – the first sign that his mind was turning toward a future after singing.
“The time has come for a new era in my life,” he said in today’s statement. “I wish to thank the countless people who inspired me, supported me and encouraged me to embark on a fantastic journey over the past 35 years.”