What makes a gala great? The recipe sounds simple: Take the world's preeminent dramatic soprano and heldentenor, whose combined vocal and dramatic resources constitute a force of nature and whose mutual respect and admiration radiate a palpable warmth, add the genius of Beethoven and Wagner, and there you have it.
On November 9, the Lincoln Center Fall Gala will feature soprano Deborah Voigt and tenor Ben Heppner in concert with the Orchestra of St. Luke's under Asher Fisch. Voigt has affectionately dubbed the program "The Debbie & Ben Show," a concert of excerpts from Fidelio, Tristan und Isolde, Tannhäuser, Die Meistersinger, and Siegfried, which they have already performed to great acclaim in Heppner's native Canada.
Their careers have shared parallels from the beginning. Both came to international attention in 1988 via major competitions; for Voigt, it was the Luciano Pavarotti Competition, for Heppner, the Metropolitan Opera National Council Winners' Concert. During the 1990s they took the great houses of the world by storm and are now at the top of their game. Both are favorites of New York audiences and have triumphed at the Met in large and diverse repertoires.
"New York is unquestionably my artistic home," says Voigt. "I think of myself as having grown up at the Met. The New York audiences have come to know me and they make their love felt more every season."
"I love the fact that the New York audiences are so informed," adds Heppner. "They know the repertoire and are willing to express the fact that they know good singing and bad when they hear it. It's wonderful to sing for an audience that understands and is eager to hear this particular music sung by that particular singer. Since Debbie and I are a new pairing in this show‹and we'll both be singing excerpts of future projects‹it gives them an 'inside scoop preview' which they deserve and appreciate."
The two singers also come from a similar place in terms of vocal technique. "Vocally, Deb and I match," says Heppner, "because we are not 'dramatic' voices per se, but large-voiced lyrics, in both instruments and techniques. Our voices are higher pitched than the usual voice that sings this repertoire and our approach is lyrical. My wife, Karen, is not a big fan of dramatic sopranos‹she doesn't like the voice type in general and when she listens to them, she thinks she's paying for some past sin. But Deb is the one such soprano she does like because Deb approaches it with a lyricism that is quite rare in people who sing this repertoire."
"People just think loud with Wagner," Voigt explains. "But so much in Wagner is written pianissimo and never gets sung that way. I try to underscore the moments of soft, feminine introspection."
Both Heppner and Voigt boast a breadth and diversity of repertoire that are among the widest of anyone singing today, from Tristan to McTeague for Heppner and from Sieglinde to Tosca for Voigt. "I just did my first Rosenkavalier," says the soprano. "I've fallen in love with the Marschallin. And I am currently in a really Italian year‹my first Gioconda is earlier this fall in Barcelona and during the Met's winter-spring season I'll be doing La forza del destino and Tosca. These operas won't cost me so much vocally, so I'd really like to keep them. Longevity is the key."
"There's tremendous satisfaction in diversifying," continues Heppner. "I've done some really unusual things‹Rusalka, for instance, and Oberon‹and although I now concentrate a bit more on the 'helden' roles that not everyone does, up until now I've assiduously avoided most of the stuff in the Ring. If you do the Ring, inevitably it's all you get asked to do. Now, at 49, it's the right time for me to do them but I'll still be returning to Calaf in July, and Gherman in Pikovaya Dama is something I'd like to do again."
For both Heppner and Voigt, the duet concert medium is new. "We just started this journey together," says Voigt. "It is interesting for me to work on these pieces with someone who is at the same point careerwise but has had a little more experience with this repertoire. He makes some suggestions and because he's such a sweet guy and has such a way of saying things, I'm willing to hear him. I trust that what he's saying is for our mutual benefit."
"It works well on several levels," says Heppner of the joint concert experience. "First of all, it's a good continuation of a format that is put forth in the pop industry. And it's just a wonderful collaborative effort with special rewards that you don't get in the opera house, where you're portraying a character onstage and carrying it forward. Here you're in concert and it's pure music. You can concentrate on the singing and let fly. And Deb is fantastic to work with. She takes her work seriously but never loses sight of the joy of singing."
Both performers are looking forward to the music in the gala program. "The music for Tristan is so fantastic," says Heppner. "I try to refrain from saying it's my favorite‹it's like climbing Mount Everest every time you sing it‹but it feels like a dear old friend and I love the challenge."
"I feel the same way about Isolde," says Voigt. "I scheduled my first Isolde in 2003 in Vienna and I didn't accept any others. It will be two years until I sing her again and I miss her! She's angry, hurt, and disappointed, but doesn't understand it. It gets you off to a fiery start and contrasts so beautifully with the love duet, which is so passionate yet not so clearly defined as, say, Leonore and Florestan's in Fidelio. With the long sweeping vocal lines, it's a perfect fit for my voice."
In the case of their duet from Siegfried, both Voigt and Heppner will be giving their audience the privilege of watching work in progress. "The music is so wonderful," says Heppner. "From the first time Siegfried and Brünnhilde meet‹and, of course, Siegfried has one of the best lines in opera. He sees Brünnhilde and says 'Das ist kein Mann!' ('That is no man!') and the audience invariably laughs. But the music is so gorgeous and a pure pleasure to sing." These days Voigt is replacing Sieglinde in her usual repertoire with Brünnhilde and is, surprisingly, feeling some anxiety about the switch. "I'm really going to miss Sieglinde," she says. "It's been such an amazing part for me and I've spent so much time with her that I'm in tears whenever I hear her music! I'll feel differently about Brünnhilde when I get to know her, but right now I'm afraid; she's this daunting creature! Vocally, emotionally, she makes such a huge journey throughout the pieces."
Voigt, whose vocal strong suit has always been a vulnerable quality, admits that her fears stem from the stentorian tones of Birgit Nilsson, the Wagnerian role model for the current generation. "I'm stressing the dynamically quieter moments because that is what works for me," Voigt says. "I don't have that kind of Nilssonian trumpet sound, which, sadly, every singer now uses as the standard and which no one could possibly match. Nilsson would be the first to tell me to work from my unique strengths."
Meanwhile, Heppner will soon be saying a bittersweet goodbye to Walther in Die Meistersinger, whose "Prize Song" will be featured at the performance. "When your Evas are all your daughter's age, you've got to admit it's time," Heppner says good-naturedly. "It's a bit of old home week for me to sing the aria on this concert; Walther has many parallels for me in my life and work. When I won the Met auditions in 1988, I sang the 'Preislied' at the Winners' Concert. Everyone already knew who Renée Fleming and Susan Graham were. I had no pedigree and identified with Walther who appears out of nowhere and seems to be a throwback to another age. He does things his own way, so I related to him."
Both singers are going through rich moments in their artistic and personal lives. Heppner, whose children are 19, 21, and 24, admits that he and his wife have recently been afflicted with empty nest syndrome. This spring takes him to the Met for Lohengrin, Fidelio, and his first Parsifal, all under James Levine. "Parsifal at the Met," he muses. "I wanted to try it in an out-of-the-way place! But it certainly 'sings' well for me now and I'm so happy to be doing it with Jimmy. And," he says philosophically, "at least I'm learning Parsifal before I become a grandfather‹I can only take one milestone at a time!" And Voigt has spent the last year adjusting to her new, svelte figure. "My first staged Salome is coming up. I can't say where yet. It's a great personal triumph for me‹I never thought I'd sing her onstage. And Brünnhilde is looming on the horizon. I'm also at a point where I enjoy doing lighter things, too‹recital repertoire, American composers, and some Broadway. It's been exciting and surprising." Her recent disc on EMI Classics, All My Heart, illustrates her love of American songs.
Galas are usually celebrations‹thanks to Voigt and Heppner, this one celebrates not only the beginning of a season but the promise of many seasons to come.
Robin Tabachnik writes frequently about the arts.