In Vancouver, Tenor Comes from Audience to Replace Ailing Ben Heppner

Classic Arts News   In Vancouver, Tenor Comes from Audience to Replace Ailing Ben Heppner
Ben Heppner was not feeling well when he took the stage Saturday night (Oct. 20). He was back in his hometown of Vancouver to sing the strenuous title role in Elgar's oratorio The Dream of Gerontius with conductor Bramwell Tovey and the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra, who were performing on their home stage for the first time since a nasty municipal workers' strike forced them to cancel some concerts. (The strike was settled on Oct. 9.)

"Within only a few minutes," wrote Lloyd Dykk in The Vancouver Sun, " ... it was perfectly obvious to everybody in the audience that Ben wasn't sounding vaguely like his old self." Heppner had come down with the flu, and he gave up at intermission and left the hall for the hospital. (According to the paper, a doctor who was singing in the chorus drove him there.)

Where was Tovey to find a replacement Gerontius at that point? As it happened, the mezzo singing the role of the Angel, Sarah Fryer, is married to a tenor, Peter Butterfield, who knows the part. So he was pulled from the audience, spent 15 minutes warming up and going over the score with Tovey, and went on for the second half of the oratorio.

"The audience was totally with him," VSO marketing director told the Sun, "and wanted him to succeed under what were extraordinarily difficult circumstances. They gave him a thunderous, screaming ovation."

For this evening's performance, the orchestra recruited another tenor who knows the role: Anthony Dean Griffey, who just finished singing Zemlinsky's A Florentine Tragedy with the New York Philharmonic and conductor James Conlon the same evening that Heppner fell ill.

Heppner wasn't kept in the hospital, evidently; as of this writing, he is still scheduled to sing in the final program of the Los Angeles Philharmonic's "Sibelius Unbound" festival on Oct. 25 and 26.

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