“I want to be like Ken Dryden. He came in on a high and went out on a high,” he told the Toronto Star back in October, with a reference to one of the NHL's most revered goalies.
While his presence will be missed by opera lovers worldwide, Ben says he won't miss the stage.
When he was asked how he was coping with retirement, he laughingly replied, “I have mixed feelings: joy and happiness!
“Really, I had been contemplating this for a while. The time had come. I hadn't sung publicly since December, and I'd been fine. My CBC radio job was keeping me busy in terms of involvement, so I wasn't able to keep my voice in full ready mode like I used to. Even when your singing is part-time, the care and intensity you need to approach your singing is full-time. I decided I didn't want to deal with those anxieties anymore.”
A young 58, Ben has accomplished much in his 35-year opera career. It's a long way from growing up in Dawson Creek, B.C., to the opera houses of Paris, New York City, London, England, and Milan. He studied music at the University of British Columbia and in 1979 won the CBC Talent Festival. In 1988, he won at the Metropolitan Opera auditions. From there, he went on to perform with the world's top orchestras and at the most acclaimed opera venues. His voice was “an instrument of arresting brilliance and flexibility,” wrote The New York Times opera critic David Mermelstein. Ben has been named a Companion of the Order of Canada and performed at the closing ceremonies of two Winter Olympic Games.
A Life of Faith
Retiring from the opera stage doesn't mean retiring from singing. “An album of hymns is definitely on my wish list,” he comments, “even though I may not be able to hit the high notes anymore.”
Ben was raised in a home where faith and church were of high importance. His parents were Christians, and at the age of nine, he made their faith his own. It has played a huge part in his career. He reflects back to 1982 when he suffered an undeserved wrong while apprenticing with the Canadian Opera Company.
“My wife, Karen, and I were directors of music at our church at that time, and our minister was amazing,” he says. “The very week I was wronged, he preached a sermon on our rights as a Christian. I knew I didn't want to hear it because it would require change from me, and I just wanted to wallow in my misery. However, it was helpful to hear that although bad things happen, they don't have to affect our faith. You might feel mistreated, but you have to deal with it and move forward. It was a necessary message to me at that time.”
One of the joys of being a man of faith is associating with those of like faith.
“As I travelled, I was often able to find a church home, no matter where I was staying,” Ben comments.
“In New York City, I could go to Redeemer Presbyterian, where I met up with other opera singers. We all sat together in a corner near the front. It was so refreshing. In a regular church environment, I can't really sing out, because then I stand out. Here, there were as many as 20 of us together singing like we wanted to. It was great. When in London, England, I attend All Souls Langham Place, where the organist is a friend of mine. Munich, Chicago, San Francisco … I was able to find churches where I could go during the weeks away from my home.”
Ben made sure that his demanding profession and extensive travel didn't erode his relationship with Karen.
“I tell everyone that we've been married 35 years and have actually been together only 17!” Ben laughs. “But back in 1996 I made the decision that I would cut back on how much time I was away from home. I arbitrarily chose a certain number of weeks for travel that I could deal with, and stuck to that. That saved our relationship; we would not be in as good shape otherwise. Doing that meant I had time set aside for my family, to relate, react and build relationships with my children.”
He looks forward to building relationships with his two new grandchildren as well.
“Being a grandfather is wonderful,” he smiles. “However, I haven't decided on my title yet. I'm thinking 'Gramps' right now, but I can't decide whether that sounds slightly hip or very curmudgeonly.”
While fans wait for Ben to record a CD of his beloved hymns, they can tune in to CBC Radio to hear him host Saturday Afternoon at the Opera and Backstage With Ben Heppner. When asked if he will miss the immediate feedback given from a live audience, the answer is a resolute “no.”
“I never cared for the applause. I was just there for the performing.”