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'Every night was perfection': Ben Heppner remembers Dmitri Hvorostovsky

Robert Rowat

There wasn't much overlap between the repertoires of Canadian tenor Ben Heppner and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky, the Russian opera star who died on Nov. 22 at the age of 55. Heppner is best known for his German and heroic French roles; Hvorostovsky sang a lot of Verdi and, of course, Russian repertoire.

But the two did sing together once, in the now-legendary 1995 production of Tchaikovsky's The Queen of Spades at the Metropolitan Opera. Their co-stars were Karita Mattila, Birgitta Svenden and Leonie Rysanek — "What a soulful cast this is," wrote the New York Times reviewer — and with Valery Gergiev in the pit, it really was an opera production for the ages.

"I had heard him on television in the 1989 Cardiff Singer of the World Competition," recalls Heppner during a recent phone interview. "The one where he and Sir Bryn [Terfel] were working off against each other [laughs]. But it was The Queen of Spades in the fall of '95 that I remember the most.

"We had a great time rehearsing in that production," Heppner continues. "The first thing you remember was meeting him, because he had this big mane, this shock of white hair — a colour that doesn't exist in nature. And he was a muscular, fit guy with enormous presence, not just onstage, but personally, as well. You could sort of feel him walk into a room."

In that opera, Heppner sang the role of Ghermann, whose Act 2 entrance occurs immediately following Yeletsky's famous aria, "Ja vas lyublyu," sung by Hvorostovsky.

"Wow. I mean, every night was perfection, it was placed just so," reflects Heppner. "His voice was creamy but it was also sinewy and he was really powerful. So, I would always make sure I was there, backstage, from the beginning of his aria so I could listen to it because it was so well done."

Hvorostvsky sings Yeletsky's aria in a 2003 production of Tchaikvsky's The Queen of Spades at the Mariinsky Theatre in St. Petersburg.

"He had such amazing breath control. And the opposite thing was, when he took a breath, you could hear it from across the street! It was so loud. But he used every ounce of that air, to pour it out, and it was always very measured.

"He was very strong as an actor, his singing was exceptional, and of course he was working in his own language, which is helpful."

In addition to Hvorostovsky's innate, magnetic presence — he became known as the Elvis of opera — Heppner says his consistency was outstanding. "He produced an amazing quality, always, and somehow he connected with everything he sang. I never heard him sing something that didn't work.

"One of the pieces that I do love that he sang was 'O du, mein holder Abendstern' from Tannhäuser. I have to say he wasn't that great in the recitative at the top of the aria — German didn't feel like a natural language for him — but about a minute in, it changes from recit style to more of a singing legato, and then he was away to the races. It gave you goosebumps when he did it.

"He was a new type of singer," concludes Heppner. "Hvorostovsky had this nobility about him that will always resonate in my ear."

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Hand-selected opera gems by the most celebrated dramatic tenor in the world, Ben Heppner. The most familiar arias from the most-loved operas of all time along with opera overtures, intermezzi and choruses. Performances combine the great voices of the 20th century with today's rising stars!