Ben Heppner with the Blind Boys of Alabama
Canadian Ben Heppner is one of the most prominent contemporary dramatic tenors. He is associated particularly with the Wagnerian repertoire, but performs a wide range of operas from the German, French and Italian canons.
Thursday, July 23 at the Stratford Summer Music Festival Heppner is performing with one of my favourite acts The Blind Boys of Alabama.
I had opportunity to ask Mr. Heppner a few questions, the interview is below.
1. I read that as a child you sang gospel music at church. What are some of the most memorable gospel songs from your youth?
I grew up in the late sixties and early seventies. In the little church my family attended in Dawson Creek B.C. we had your standard hymns along with the old gospel songs from my parents time. You know, ‘How Great Thou Art’ and ‘O How I love Jesus’ type stuff. Then I discovered the new gospel writer of the time – Andre Crouch. Songs like – ‘My Tribute’, ‘Soon and Very Soon’ and ‘Bless His Holy Name’ became.
I sang them in public every time I could.
2. Do you recall the first record you ever purchased?
I didn’t own a record player until I went to University. But when I finally got my hands on one – I bought 3 LPs. Oscar Peterson’s Night Train – Keith Jarrett’s White album and Fritz Wunderlich opera arias. Still got them!
3. Is there any music that your kids are listening to that you enjoy listening to?
Yes! My kids have very eclectic tastes in music. Manchester Orchestra is a rock band that my son’s friend Andy Hull started. He’s an amazing song writer. Stevie Ray Vaughan and BB King are also big favourites. My other son is into Mississippi Delta Blues and country gospel. They listen to Rap and Hip Hop too – but you asked about the stuff that I like.
My daughter has her own unique perspective. Her 19 month old son likes The Jackson 5 and a band from Philly called Good Old War. Of course Raffi is great and also Casper Babypants. To quote my daughter – they are”fun and un-annoying.” Look ’em up. You’ll be pleasantly surprised. Oh yeah – The Wiggles suck.
4. What is the most recent recording you’ve purchased?
These days – I mostly source music for my program on CBC radio. But the most recent purchases I made were albums by the Blind Boys of Alabama: Amazing Grace and I’ll find a Way. Between those discs and YouTube – I feel like I’m already friends with them.
5. You’ll be singing with the Blind Boys of Alabama for the Stratford Music Festival this summer. How does the vocal preparation differ for a musical, opera or gospel performance?
First off I need to figure out where to find a Gold Lamé suit like the Blind Boys of Alabama will be wearing. I think that will help my singing!
Next – I need to check my opera voice at the door and find a gospel sound. It’ll still be me – but German or Italian won’t be allowed. Mostly – I’ll be taking my cues from them.
6. If you could choose any female opera role to sing, which one would you pick?
Suor Angelica. I love Verismo Opera and the great women’s roles. And the aria, Senza Momma moves me to tears – especially when Renata Tebaldi sings it.
Special thanks to Christina Strynatka for help preparing the questions.