If you think it takes hard work to be an opera singer, Ben Heppner says think again. The star tenor insists that the key to his success is his "laziness." Tongue planted firmly in cheek, the man considered one of today's greatest Wagnerians tells the Paris newspaper Le Figaro that "it requires too much work to sing with power." He continues: "I am convinced that it is easier to sing well than to sing badly."
Heppner — who was in the French capital early this month to perform chunks from Lohengrin, Tristan and Parsifal at the Salle Pleyel — goes on to explain that he tries to sing in his voice's most natural lyrical range rather than attempt to force out a big, stereotypical Heldentenor sound. It seems to be working: Heppner has shown no signs lately of the vocal difficulties that forced him to stop singing completely for six months back in 2002. Incidentally, Heppner is one of the few opera singers who talks openly about his vocal difficulties (Karita Mattila is another). The subject is still taboo among many opera singers.
Right after the New Year, Heppner returns to Canada to perform a series of recitals around British Columbia. Then he's off to Philadelphia at the end of January to sing with Deborah Voigt at the 150th anniversary gala for Philadelphia's Academy of Music, the oldest opera house in the United States.
Conductor Ivšn Fischer got off to a strong start in his newest gig, principal guest conductor of Washington's National Symphony Orchestra. The Washington Post said Fischer began his tenure with "a performance of vigor and clarity," while The Sun of Baltimore said his performance "suggested that the NSO is in for a productive, inspiring time with the Hungarian conductor."
Fischer is on a roll these days. His new recording of Mahler's Second Symphony with the Budapest Festival Orchestra is racking up strong reviews, and he remains in demand as a guest conductor. He just finished up three early-December concerts with the Philadelphia Orchestra and he returns to Washington in February to lead performances of Mendelssohn's complete music for A Midsummer Night's Dream as part of the 2007 Shakespeare in Washington Festival.
Bach, Mozart and Beethoven weren't just great composers; back in their day, they were also known as brilliant improvisers on the keyboard. Venezuelan-American pianist Gabriela Montero is working hard to revive the spontaneity that was once a pianist's stock-in-trade. She has a hit album on the ECM label called Bach and Beyond, which features her own riffs on some of J.S. Bach's best-known melodies.
And while Montero continues to perform standard repertory in major concert halls (she is a close friend of Martha Argerich), she's bringing her gift for jazz-style improv to unusual venues. Earlier this year, she played Joe's Pub in New York, extemporizing on Bach and on tunes picked by the audience — her version of Gloria Gaynor's disco anthem "I Will Survive" brought down the house.
Montero, who says she's always been interested in making up her own music, was featured on CBS-TV's 60 Minutes a few weeks ago, in a segment in which she improvised on themes suggested by correspondent Morley Safer.
The brilliant young cellist Alisa Weilerstein is getting ready to make her New York Philharmonic subscription concert debut after a successful warm-up with the orchestra in the Far East. The 24-year-old virtuoso will play the Elgar concerto with the orchestra and Zubin Mehta at Avery Fisher Hall on January 11 and 13; on the 12th, she and the Philharmonic venture to Philadelphia to perform the same program in Verizon Hall.
Weilerstein, who has been playing the cello since she was 4, has been racking up an impressive string of debuts recently. Last month, in addition to that Philharmonic tour — to Japan and Korea under music director Lorin Maazel — she made her Philadelphia Orchestra debut under Christoph Eschenbach, filling in for Truls Mêªrk. This past summer, she won the prestigious Leonard Bernstein Award for her performances at the Schleswig-Holstein Music Festival in Germany. She also plans to continue an active chamber music career (including gigs with her violinist father and pianist mother as the Weilerstein Trio) by playing next year with an ensemble led by violinist Gil Shaham.
The movie Perfume: The Story of a Murderer, scheduled for release in the United States on December 27, features a soundtrack performed by the Berlin Philharmonic under Simon Rattle. Dustin Hoffman is one of the stars of the thriller, which is said to be the biggest English-language picture ever produced in Germany ... This month, soprano Anna Netrebko makes her first Metropolitan Opera appearances as Elvira, the heroine of Bellini's I puritani. The Met is reviving the bel canto opera especially for Netrebko, who was a hit last season in Donizetti's Don Pasquale ... Canada recently honored six of its greatest singers with a series of postage stamps. The commemoratives feature contralto Maureen Forrester, soprano Pierrette Alarie, and tenors Jon Vickers, Edward Johnson, L_opold Simoneau and Raoul Jobin.