Ben Heppner – Gerontius Debut

Written by: Colin Anderson

Tenor Ben Heppner talks about singing his first Gerontius…

One of the finest dramatic tenors is about to make an important debut: Gerontius in Elgar’s The Dream of Gerontius. In preparing the role, Canadian Ben Heppner is of course without an orchestra. “We frequently start from the text, and this is practically the same language that I speak; so there’s an understanding right from the beginning. Somebody plays the piano part for me so that I learn the harmonic progressions. And I have been listening to various recordings of Gerontius; that’s been helpful learning the colours of the orchestra.”

Surely Gerontius is more opera than oratorio? “I believe it is very much an operatic role; Elgar wanted Gerontius to be world-wise, not a saint to begin with; so an opera singer fits the role well! A good portion of it is a mix of aria and recitative.” A concert work, nevertheless: does Ben psych himself up to become a dying man? “I think one has to. In the first section I need to make sure that I am not portraying someone too healthy. Later Gerontius talks about being refreshed and having an energy that he hasn’t felt before; so one isn’t always an old man, because once Gerontius has moved on beyond Earth there are different energies to be drawn upon.” Not only is Ben singing his first Gerontius, he’s also recording the work for LSO Live. Any pressure? “Not until you mentioned it!” (Hearty laugh!) “Yes, there’s pressure because it’s in England, Elgar Central, but it’s true that one doesn’t feel that a work is known until you do it a few times, but you can counteract that failing.”

Gerontius comes across as a real challenge. “It’s a very demanding role that leans heavily on one’s vocal ability, somewhat daunting; however, I’m noticing that there’s a lot of Wagner in it, who I’m quite familiar with, so it’s helpful to realise that it has other components to draw on.” Having Sir Colin Davis conducting is also important. “I work with Sir Colin with great fondness; I’ve grown to trust his direction. There’ll be a soloists’ session, before we hit the orchestra; the three of us (the others being Anne Sofie von Otter and Alastair Miles) can make sure we’ve got all the corners looked out for and we can talk through things.”

Those recordings that Ben has been listening to include the first complete one (from 1945 under Malcolm Sargent) with Heddle Nash. “That’s the one I like the best, his is a much lighter voice, and he had an amazing ability to deal with text; I’ve got the recording on my iPod: I’m from the old school but I use new technology. I try to find people who can steer me through the maze that is Gerontius. I read through the Newman text, which is very Victorian, and it didn’t encourage me. But once I got over the Purgatory thing I found more in common with me; it has rich theology in it. Elgar’s music brings the words to life and his scoring is like Berlioz’s.” Given Sir Colin’s Berlioz credentials, the prospect is potent; “that may be why he likes it as well; the colours in Elgar’s orchestration aren’t found in too many places.”

The second performance could be very interesting; the first journey will have been completed, and those microphones will still be dangling: “That’ll be very much in my thinking!”

  • Performances on 11 & 13 December, Barbican Hall
  • LSO
  • Barbican
  • The above article was published in “What’s On in London” on 8 December 2005 and is reproduced here with permission

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