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Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Ben Heppner Drops the Ring; Cancels Siegfried

Yes, we have no Siegfried: Ben Heppner
Photo by Sebastian Hanel  © 2010 Deutsche Grammophon

Ben Heppner has withdrawn from next season's Metropolitan Opera performances of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung, according to a report in the Los Angeles Times.

The Canadian heldentenor was scheduled to sing the role of Siegfried in the company's 2011 productions of Siegfried and Götterdämmerung.

The two operas complete the company's new production of Wagner's Der Ring des Nibelungen, staged by Robert LePage. Siegfried is scheduled to premiere next fall, with Götterdämmerung to follow in January. Complete Ring performances are planned for the spring of 2012, with revivals in 2014 and 2015.

In an announcement today, Mr. Heppner (who is currently singing the role of Lohengrin at the Los Angeles Opera) cancelled his scheduled appearances as Siegfried and announced that he was withdrawing the role from his repertory.

Mr. Heppner, 55, is an acclaimed heldentenor. In the past decade, he carved out a successful career singing and recording the heaviest pieces in the German repertory: Wagner, Strauss, and Beethoven. However, he has been beset with vocal difficulties in recent years, a possible consequence of performing the role of Siegfried.

Wagner's Siegfried is the descendant of gods, the headstrong, kinda-dumb Nietszchean übermensch who is supposed to save the gods from destruction. However, in writing the part, Wagner went a little overboard. In the course of five hours, the guy has to:
  • wrestle a bear.
  • sing heavy, declamatory music while forging a sword.
  • engage in ardent soul-searching
  • slay a dragon and an evil dwarf
  • wake up the soprano and sing a 37-minute love duet, over a full orchestra.
It is a nearly impossible task. The character's further adventures in Götterdämmerung are just as daunting.
  • A heavy duet with the same soprano
  • a heroic duet with the baritone (while bleeding!),
  • a bizarre scene where the tenor has to lower his voice and impersonate the baritone in order to fool Brünnhilde.
In the second act, the character meets his doom in the form of a sixteenth-note octave drop in the wedding scene, a piece of vocal writing that usually comes across as a strangled yelp.

In other words, Siegfried is the impossible role: the biggest challenge in the entire German repertory. Many singers have met with disaster attempting to scale its heights and ten-hour length.

Wagner's Ring is the largest operatic work in the standard repertory, a four-opera cycle that retells the birth and death of the world. The Met's staging, by French-Canadian director Robert LePage, sets the entire cycle against the backdrop of an 85-ton "machine," a vast unit set that has required the opera house to alter other productions to make room for the technology, and install further reinforcements under the north side stage where the Machine is stored.

An article in today's New York Times announced that Gary Lehman, who was last seen at the Met tackling the demanding tenor role in Tristan und Isolde, will sing the title role in Siegfried, with one performance covered by tenor Stephen Gould. The two tenors will alternate the role in Götterdämmerung.

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