Recent History – 2004
By Gary Rusak
Dawson Creek’s most famous son credits his success to the values that he learned growing up in the Mile Zero City.
“It may be my saving grace,” said internationally-renowned tenor Ben Heppner before a performance in Denver last week. “I really appreciate Dawson Creek and the sensible roots it gave me,” he said in a strong clear voice that is almost as impressive in conversation as it is in performance. “It has kept me realizing that your roots are important and has made me stronger.”
Heppner grew up on a family farm with his eight brothers and sisters just outside the city, and some of his earliest memories revolve around music. Singing was something that the whole family enjoyed.
“I was at mother’s knee if you were,” he said. “It is kind of a thing in my family. I certainly got lots of experience at the Alliance Church. It gave me a lot of opportunity so I started in the children’s choir doing little solos here and there.”
But, it wasn’t until high school that the strapping, yet shy, youth got a taste of what was yet to come. Years later he would still point to that Christmas concert in 1972 as a turning point.
“It was a drama teacher at the school who heard me sing at one of the local church functions and she got me to sing for the Christmas concert at South Peace,” he said. “I sang there and I was totally scared out of my mind. I didn’t sing music that was particularly popular at that time so I wasn’t quite sure of their response. They kind of stunned me with their response; I didn’t know what to do with all the applause.”
An accomplished musician as well as a singer, Heppner soon found himself in the University of British Columbia’s music program and eventually as a working singer in Montreal. The rest, as they say, is history.
Today, the 49-year-old tenor has played all the hallowed halls in his profession including New York’s Metropolitan Opera, as well as numerous revered stages all across Europe.
“Nothing really compares to Unchagah Hall though,” he laughed.
His full tenor is in such demand that he usually books his dates two and a half to four years ahead of time. Just last month, he made international news by signing a contract to perform the role of Siegfried in a production of Richard Wagner’s Ring cycle at France’s Aix-en-Provence Festival in June 2008.
“Wagner’s Ring is a pretty big thing actually,” he said. “I have avoided it for a decade and a half. I have been offered it a few times but I always said ‘no’. It is pretty big stuff so you want to approach it when you know you will be able to do it. Another reason is that in this particular piece once you start performing it, it is all people will ever offer you, you become a specialist. I have kept my options open by not singing it.”
Heppner, who now calls suburban Toronto home, said that although he doesn’t have any family left in Dawson Creek, the connection is still strong. He was especially humbled when the city named a street after him.
“The City of Dawson Creek was good enough to give me (a copy of the street sign),” he said. “It’s plastered out on the pool fence; it is very proudly hung up there.”
There is even a chance that, in the future, he will find his way back home once again to perform for the first audience that ever appreciated him.
“I’m trying to get a small British Columbia city tour going,” he said. “It’s kind of difficult to find a time period because I try to keep some order on how much time I spend away from home. But if it happens, it seems only natural to stop by Prince George and Dawson Creek.”
Finding fame and fortune in the arts has not always been an easy road, he said, but if he was going to give any advice to artists in a small city like Dawson Creek, it would be to simply follow your heart.
“There was something that kept me absolutely connected with music,” he said. “There is some part of my soul that just felt that music was what I wanted to keep associated with. If you have that feeling with anything in particular, in terms of a career, you should go with that and not worry about the fact that it has nothing to do with computers or whatever is the current craze. (With a career) you spend a lot of time at it, so you might as well enjoy it.”