Gospel according to Ben Heppner

This is a screen shot from a CBC Music video featuring Ben Heppner singing the Gospel song His Eye Is On The Sparrow.

About five years ago, Ben Heppner, one of the great operatic tenors of his generation, got a rare opportunity.

He was asked to sing with the Blind Boys of Alabama at the Stratford Festival. It was one of those serendipitous pairings. It may not seem on the face of it to be a natural fit, for Heppner it was a memorable.

“I grew up in gospel music,” Heppner told ARTSFILE in an interview before a performance in Ottawa this week with the Toronto Mass Choir.

“Everybody wonders how does opera fit with gospel? We learn to sing wherever … we don’t learn opera first, that comes later.”

Singing with the ageless Jimmy Carter and the Blind Boys of Alabama was — and remains — meaningful.

“I remember doing the song His Eye Is On the Sparrow with the Blind Boys. I would sing the verse and they were going to do the chorus. And Jimmy Carter comes screaming in on the chorus and I wasn’t prepared for it. It was so fabulous. The smile on my face, you couldn’t wipe it off for days.”

He recalled an interview with he did with Carter who talked about all the times he met Martin Luther King Jr. and he talked about being on the bridge at Selma in 1964.

“When the interviewer turned to ask me a question, I was overwhelmed with emotion just sitting next to and singing with history. I was too shocked to hardly talk.”

Heppner has a favourite picture of two of the Blind Boys.

“Jimmy is one of them. They are sitting on my motorcycle pretending to drive the bike. It’s obviously parked. They have their hats and suits on. It is a treasured memento.”

The success of the first show at Stratford prompted an invitation for a second show in Vancouver.

And then, Heppner said, the idea was hatched that he and the prominent gospel ensemble the Toronto Mass Choir would do something together. Heppner has known the choir’s director, Karen Burke, for many years.

That led to a show at the Elora Festival and then another at the Toronto Summer Festival in Koerner Hall.

“Then this winter tour popped into view. Here we are in Ottawa (at Centrepointe Theatre) to do a little singing.”

Heppner hails from northern British Columbia and started singing there in church. Gospel music was part of that, so these concerts are, in essence, a return to his roots in music, he said, adding that it was not “as effusive and outgoing as the Toronto Mass Choir does it.”

No matter, Heppner is loving these collaborations.

“I don’t move as much as they do. Part of it is my upbringing, the other part is my knees. But I am loving it.”

Now led by Karen Burke, the Toronto Mass Choir has been in operation for more than 30 years.

When Heppner arrived in Toronto in the early 1980s to study opera, he picked up some work as a music director in a couple of Alliance churches, one in Scarborough and the other in Rexdale. Soon enough the Canadian Opera Company came calling and Heppner gave up his church gigs for the COC’s ensemble. The rest is opera history.

In the show with the Toronto Mass Choir, Heppner, who has retired from the opera stage, sings with the choir on several numbers and he has some moments by himself.

“It’s the most singing I would do in a program. I’m not doing the big operas or concerts these days. I prefer to be a guest on someone else’s program.

“I do a ‘Hand Medley’, that’s my working title. I sing Put Your Hand in the Hand, He’s Got the Whole World In His Hand and Take My Hand, Precious Lord.”

When people ask Heppner if he’s coming out of retirement when he does shows like these, he says: “After you have sung Tristan, the Meistersinger, Peter Grimes and Otello, this is retirement. This is the fun stuff.”

These days Heppner gets his opera fix doing his CBC Radio show.

“I feel I’m enough in touch with that world. What I do miss is some of the travel. After about a week I’d want to go home but I loved going to Munich, one of my favourite cities, or Florence or London or wherever.

“(In northern B.C.) I didn’t have a great vision of the outside world but I had this very old tube radio in my room. I plugged it in one day and son of a gun if it didn’t fire up. I found out that late at night you get a lot of bounce off the atmosphere and I found that I could get all these programs from Dallas, Texas, and Los Angeles and Chicago. That’s what opened my eyes to the outside world.”

He does pay attention to the state of opera in Canada and beyond.

“I love what Joel Ivany is doing at Against the Grain Theatre and there is The Bicycle Opera Project. These groups are doing opera in a smaller way. It’s closer to the roots of the form … and it might be the way forward.

For those longing for opera in Ottawa, Heppner says, it doesn’t have to be done in the big hall at the National Arts Centre.

“It can be in some of the smaller spaces. … I think this is the way t0 connect it with people again.

“We are playing the same 20 pieces in practically every company all the time. There are very rare dalliances into other areas. I think we need new works or fresh ways of looking at older works.” But that doesn’t mean updating for no apparent reason.

That’s “ridiculous and this happens over and over again and the original intent is tossed aside. Instead of doing that, do new stuff, do modern opera with modern ideas. Connect it to today.”

Can we live in hope?

“I’m old enough that I don’t need to do that but the next generation certainly does. I have this feeling that there is a retraction. It’s getting smaller. We lost Opera Lyra. People are cutting back in Canada, the U.S. and even in places like Germany. In big centres, it seems to be doing well.”

In Canada, he believes now is the time to gamble that small can be beautiful.

Ben Heppner and the Toronto Mass Choir
Where: Meridian Centrepointe Theatre
When: Jan. 25 at 8 p.m.
Tickets and information: meridiancentrepointe.com

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.