Opera singers endure merciless scrutiny. Their every onstage phrase and movement are parsed with Talmudic rigor — a situation the Internet has only intensified. Their body weight and emotional health elicit comment and speculation. They are also the artists most susceptible to the vagaries of illness, climate and the effects of travel. So one feels for the great Canadian tenor Ben Heppner, 54, who has enjoyed the world’s praise for his clarion voice but also harsh, sometimes wounding, criticism for a series of problems that have compromised his instrument over the past decade.
With Heppner’s much-anticipated L.A. Opera debut looming — he is scheduled to sing the title role in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” starting Saturday — both anticipation and concern have mounted. In April, the tenor had an unalloyed triumph in Dallas, where that city’s new Winspear Opera House was essentially christened by the premiere of Jake Heggie’s “Moby-Dick,” an opera written especially for Heppner, who starred as Captain Ahab.
“He’s got a really big, warm, lyric, beautiful voice,” Heggie said of the tenor. “And it’s very connected to storytelling, with a sense of line and clarity. Ben has that in spades.”
Yet just last month, Heppner canceled three European concert performances of Verdi’s “Otello” with the Mahler Chamber Orchestra because of “vocal indisposition,” according to the ensemble. And in August he received poor reviews for a Proms concert in London at which he sang Act 2 of Wagner’s “Tristan und Isolde” under Simon Rattle.
James Conlon, L.A. Opera’s music director and the conductor for “Lohengrin,” has worked with Heppner many times during the past 20 years, though less often lately. “Hearing him sing Walther in ‘Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg’ was God’s gift to the world,” said Conlon, referring to the leading tenor role in that Wagner opera. “I can’t think of anybody in recent years who could do it as well as Ben. Many people who sang it couldn’t deal with that role — but he was it, and it was he. Ben has been one of the great singers of our time for the last two decades. And he’s demonstrated a knowledge of how to use his instrument intelligently over a long period of time.”
The “Lohengrin” performances will mark Heppner’s and Conlon’s first collaboration in this opera, but the role has been central to the tenor’s career since he made his European debut with it in the late 1980s.
“I do it fairly often,” he said over a cup of coffee after an afternoon rehearsal at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion last month. “I’m not obsessive enough to keep track of all of them, but I think Lohengrin is my most frequently performed role now. It feels like home.”
The part falls within his comfort zone technically. “It suits my voice very well,” he said. “It’s this bright opera, in A major almost the whole time. And what amazing things Wagner does without varying the time signature. Everything’s in 4/4 or 2/4. There are no 11/12s like a modern composer might do.”
Set in medieval Germany, “Lohengrin” tells the story of a mysterious knight who appears from nowhere to defend the honor of Elsa, a wronged noblewoman. He requests only that she never ask him his name or origins. She agrees but later breaks her vow when confused by rivals. Lohengrin then departs.
“I’ve devoted a lot of thought to this role,” Heppner said. “Lohengrin first appears distant, even godlike, not really human. But he has a big journey throughout the opera, ultimately moving to a more human place in Act 3. And he’s truly hurt when Elsa says she has to know who he is. He was only going to stay with her a year, but then he really comes to care.”
The tenor favors straightforward productions rather than outré or abstruse ones, especially when he’s finding his way in a role. “I’m always happy when the first productions you do are kind of mainstream,” said the easygoing singer. “I prefer character development rather than a director-driven concept that’s dropped on top of the opera.”
L.A. Opera’s new production, directed by Lydia Steier and co-starring Finnish soprano Soile Isokoski as Elsa and American mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick in her role debut as Ortrud, takes World War I as its point of departure. But novel as that concept may be, Heppner jokes that he’s beginning to feel typecast. “Looking at the poster, I’m wondering if I’m starting to specialize in lower-leg trauma,” he said, referring to his star turn as the peg-legged Ahab in “Moby-Dick.” For “Lohengrin,” he’ll be wearing a prosthetic leg over his real one — as opposed to the greater challenge of having his leg elevated behind him, which was the case in Dallas.
The real challenge, of course, will be keeping his vocal travails at bay. The subject understandably makes him uncomfortable. “It happens,” he said flatly. “There have been some not-great moments in my more recent past. I’m working through it.”
Though he acknowledges and even sympathizes with the public’s interest in his troubles, he prefers not to dwell on the issue. “I’ve been taking some very big steps to deal with those things,” he said. “And I feel I need to leave them unspecified. It’s not just vocal. There’s a lot of things that go into it. And I’m dealing with the stuff because I need to be dealing with it.”
The source of the singer’s difficulties remains unclear, though there is no shortage of speculation. “It was a gorgeous voice when he was younger, and the Ahab showed how good he can be,” Anne Midgette, the music critic of the Washington Post, wrote in an e-mail. “But I think he made ill-informed repertory choices that led to a lot of problems.”
Whatever the reasons, Heppner is not alone in this regard. The much-lauded Mexican tenor Rolando Villazón remains in career limbo after vocal surgery, his few recent appearances criticized for their tentativeness. And Heppner points to the great soprano Leontyne Price, who successfully weathered a vocal crisis.
Yet frustrating as his setbacks must be, Heppner is not letting them impede him. He recently made his debut as Siegfried in Wagner’s “Ring” cycle — talking on the daunting role first in “Siegfried” and then in “Götterdämmerung.” He is set to assume the part at the Metropolitan Opera in Robert Lepage’s new staging during the 2011-12 season. He will, however, be taking precautions, appearing in no operas but those for that whole season. “So we have a year to get it in shape, to get it done proper,” he said.
If waiting for the right moment before tackling these touchstones was his intention, he himself acknowledges that perfect timing is chimerical. “I held off because the ‘Ring’ takes an incredible amount of time to put together,” he said. “You’re constantly in rehearsal. And at an earlier point in my career I was raising children and wanted to be part of their lives. So I didn’t want to start it then. But now I’m feeling like I wished I’d started sooner.”
Sitting in Plácido Domingo’s memorabilia-filled office, it’s hard to avoid mentioning a voice that has sidestepped most pitfalls. Heppner, though, maintains that career longevity of the sort Domingo enjoys was never in his plans.
“I didn’t ever see myself singing till age 70,” he said. “I want to be bouncing grandkids on my knee, frankly. I’ve been away from home a lot, and that has taken its toll on me. Not that you have to stop at 65, but you deserve time to yourself — and maybe recoup some of the time you didn’t sleep in your own bed.”