In his first singing role since retiring from opera stage a year ago, Ben Heppner takes his high Cs to the high seas in Mirvish Production's Titanic: The Musical. It's a small role, but the celebrated Canadian tenor tells us he's just warming up.
Articles on you tend to confuse your departure a year ago from opera as a retirement. Would you like to clear that up?
I've avoided the word retirement. Everybody uses it. But basically this is career shift.
A change for a tenor, as the headline writers like to put it, yes?
That's it. I'm really thrilled about this. My radio job with CBC [as host of Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and Backstage with Ben Heppner] is a constant. I'm doing Titanic now, and then who knows? But I'm not expecting this to all of a sudden be a new thing for me. I'm just going to go where the current takes me.
You're doing a lot of interviews for your role of Isidor Straus in Titanic, but we should be clear that you're not the production's main singer, right?
It sounds like I have a lead role. I don't – not at all.
Is your voice capable of handling a bigger role?
Sure. I don't have to sing Tristan any more. But do you understand my voice wasn't the full reason why I left the stage? I was sick and tired of travelling. I was suffering emotionally from it. I'd been feeling that way for a decade. It was also about the time my first grandson arrived. So I decided it was time to stop.
How are you adapting to a musical?
One thing I didn't know is that musical theatre is quite different than opera in the way they warm up together. In the opera world, they leave you alone. Here, they gather around the piano and the music director takes you to the top end of your range and the bottom of your range, and makes it fast and makes it slow. So, that was unusual.
How is your voice blending in? Your director referred to your "choral glory" in a press release.
Sounds like British-accented B.S. [laughs].
But do you have to dial it back a notch?
A little bit, yes. But also, I have to say, I was surprised at how demanding the ensemble parts are. I have self-censored and taken myself off the highest lines, because my voice wasn't doing what needed to be done.
Can you elaborate?
My voice was interfering, rather than adding something good. So, I've taken it down maybe a third. I've taken the lead of the music director and other singers in the cast, to help me learn where best to fit in. I mean, my high A doesn't sound the same as theirs. So, maybe it's better if I sing an F instead in that chord. I'm just learning my way through it, and letting them lead the way.
Titanic: The Musical, to June 21. $35 to $130. Princess of Wales Theatre, 300 King St. W., 1-800-461-3333 or mirvish.com.