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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Canadian Opera Star Touted to Become Fourth Tenor

OTTAWA -- With opera's Three Tenors aging, the music world wonders who can fill their enormous shoes.


Canada's most famous opera star, Ben Heppner, 40, modestly insists he does not aspire to join their elite group. But he cannot avoid the inevitable comparisons that are being made.


He and Roberto Alagna, a dashing Franco-Sicilian in his early 30s, are the two tenors most often mentioned as successors to the towering trio, even if they do not yet have the same stature or draw the same million dollars a night.


"Luciano Pavarotti, Jose Carreras and even Placido Domingo have arguably passed their vocal prime. Ben Heppner has arguably yet to reach his," Toronto Star music critic William Littler wrote recently.


"Mr. Heppner simply has no peers among helden tenors at the moment," The New York Times' James Oestreich wrote about a year ago, using a term for tenors who are able to sing Wagnerian roles.


Alagna emerged on the opera scene later than Heppner but is being marketed more aggressively as The Fourth Tenor.


Heppner protested before a performance in Ottawa that he was not gunning for Pavarotti. "It is not something to which I aspire. At this point I don't employ a publicity agent. It's amazing to me that I've gotten any notice at all," he said.


Heppner has an imposing presence on stage -- he looks bigger even than Pavarotti, although he will not divulge his weight -- and a voice described by the journal Opera Canada as "liquid gold that is even from top to bottom."


He describes himself as a big-voiced lyric, able to power arias to a high C or melt into a pianissimo. He has already performed in the world's foremost opera houses from New York's Metropolitan to London's Covent Garden and Milan's La Scala.


But he reckons he has time to achieve superstardom, and he has won praise for his deliberate pace in developing his voice and his repertoire. He does only 50 performances a year, rather than the 75 to 100 some other stars undertake.


Heppner says this is partly to protect his voice, partly to make sure he excels at everything he attempts and partly to have something to look forward to. He is only now working up the male title role in Wagner's demanding "Tristan und Isolde," which he will perform in Seattle in the summer of 1998. Verdi's Otello "is still a ways away," added Heppner, who has bookings with major opera houses into the next millennium. "I don't want to do all the big stuff in the next two or three years. Where to you go in the next 15 years?"


Heppner grew up in a big, singing British Columbia family, where hymns around the piano alternated with pieces like Elvis Presley's "You Ain't Nothing but a Hound Dog."


These days, Heppner is set to proceed to Chicago from January to March for Puccini's "Turandot," to Vienna for Wagner's "The Flying Dutchman" and "Lohengrin" in April and on to Minneapolis and Geneva in May.


Of course, to paraphrase Mark Twain, rumors of the passing of the Three Tenors are greatly exaggerated. It is likely to be years before either Heppner or Alagna has a chance to wear one of their crowns.