Ben Heppner on the importance of risk-taking in arts support
Ben Heppner is one of the world’s most sought-after tenors. He is a winner of the Grammy award for best opera recording (1998) and the Juno Award for best classical album (1996 and 2000). In addition to several Canadian venues, he has performed at the Metropolitan Opera and Carnegie Hall in New York, La Scala in Milan, the Paris Opera and Royal Opera Covent Garden in London. Born in Vancouver, he is now based in Toronto. He received career development support from the Canada Council in the mid-eighties.
“I was living in Montreal when I got my first Council grant, and that grant allowed me to take voice lessons with a teacher in Rochester, New York. Just the fact of getting the grant — quite apart from the financial benefit, which was only a little over $1000 — made a huge difference in my life. It was not only an incentive: it was a confirmation for me that I was heading in the right direction. Things had been pretty dry for some years, and certainly nobody was saying then that Heppner had a great voice. So the recognition by the Canada Council was a huge boost to my personal confidence. I don’t think anyone else, apart from family and close friends, was especially aware that I had got the grant. It didn’t lead immediately to any engagements. It was really just a confirmation that I should keep working.
“The three grants I got in the late eighties were crucial to my development as an artist. They were the best kind of support because they were the most flexible. I was doing a change then from lyric to spinto and was learning new arias, travelling to auditions, getting coaching. Those grants really got things rolling for me, at a time when I certainly wouldn’t have won a lot of competitions. I tried not to bend the rules, but I was very happy that I could apply the money at need to various parts of my career.
“One of the problems in Canada is that there are precious few opportunities to carry on after you get your basic training at university. This is the point at which I think the Canada Council support is most valuable. You have to take risks, be willing to take a chance on rough human talent, knowing that not everyone will turn out.
“I bypassed some of that intermediate period of training, because I had the good luck to be hired directly from Opera School into the Canadian Opera Company ensemble. I learned on the job by putting one foot in front of another.
“I am very grateful that help came at the stage when I really needed it, and I think that in the end the Canada Council got its money’s worth out of me.”