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MV: When you finished school, did you decide to study music or do something else first?

BH: I took a year of theology first but while I was studying theology I took music lessons and that was the first voice lessons I ever received. Then I went to university in 1974 and I intended to be a music teacher. I didn't think about becoming a performer. That really didn't happen until five years later. I think I wanted to be but I didn't have the courage, perhaps.

MV: What was the turning point?

BH: Well, I love singing and after I entered university I took it as a voice major and this was how I became a performer. But I only started thinking of it is a career after 1979 in May, which would be twenty five years ago this month, when I won a major competition in Canada. That gave me the courage to say: well, maybe I can make a living, singing.

MV: And could you make a living, at first?

BH: No. I mean, I sang at professional choirs, I sang solos here or there, and I taught some people. I don't know what I taught them because I don't think I knew anything yet. I realized after two years that I needed to expand my possibilities of making a living. For me, that meant learning more about opera because that was another way I could make a living. I could do solo recitals, all these options one has when one knows opera.

MV: So you won this talent contest in 1979 and then, how did you get from there to singing for the Queen of Sweden?

BH: That was through another competition. The next competition worth mentioning was in April of 1988. It was the Metropolitan Opera Competition, Opera Auditions they call it, and there were eleven winners that year. I was one of these 11 so it's not a big deal to be one of eleven. They don't say first, second, third, it's just eleven winners. But still, it was a good year, a very good year. Some other winners were Renée Fleming and Susan Graham and a number of other fine singers. We gave a concert and part of that concert was an extra prize giving, the first ever Birgit Niellson Prize of North America and I was fortunate enough to win it. And that's what carried me into a career.

MV: And that's how you came to sing for the Queen of Sweden?

BH: It was a week later. There was a big celebration in North America, the five hundredth anniversary, I think, of the Scandinavian people coming to North America. Big celebration, big concert, and I was there also, singing for the King and Queen of Sweden.

Ben Heppner in 'Lohengrin'. Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper
Ben Heppner in 'Lohengrin'. Photo: Bayerische Staatsoper

MV: So the Queen fell in love with your voice and wanted you to come to Sweden for your début in Lohengrin at the Royal Opera there?

BH: It was not the Queen who did that. It was Birgit Niellson. She suggested that I sing Lohengrin in Stockholm. That was 1989. I was not the first cast, I was the second cast, but I was a beginner so that was how I started. I mean, I had done a couple of big roles before. My first big role was actually Bacchus, in summer 1988, in Australia. Then I did Tannhäuser / Walther, then I did Prince in Rusalka and then Lohengrin.

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Copyright © 23 May 2004 Tess Crebbin and Sissy von Kotzebue, Germany


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