Oration honouring Ben Heppner
May 28, 2003
Dr. Annette Staveley
Deputy Public Orator
Our poets and legislators constantly try to come up with prescriptions for the perfect life, but no-one has done it better than that poet of Irish descent, Edie Fitzgerald, not one of the Newfoundland Fitzgeralds, Edie was from the lesser branch of the family, the ones who went East instead of West, and tried to make a living in the wilderness of Suffolk.
I'm glad to report that our learned arts graduates have lived by Edie's famous lines that give the secret of happiness. All you need is
A book of verses under a bough
A jug of wine, a loaf of bread, and thou
Beside me singing in the wilderness -
Oh, wilderness were Paradise enough.
Vice-Chancellor, under your judicious guidance, Memorial University has provided the verses, in the library and on the internet, has trimmed the pine trees, planted the rose garden and the occasional magnolia tree, has built the Smallwood Centre where the hunger and thirst of the righteous can be sated in the Breezeway, and at Mr. Sub and Extreme Pita - and today you have brought into our fellowship of scholars the singer, Ben Heppner, one of the foremost heldentenors of this century - we are in Paradise, indeed.
Ben Heppner comes to this stage most immediately from the grand stage of the Metropolitan Opera in New York, after his transcendent performance as the mythical hero, Aeneas. The New York critics, not given to hyperbole, described his performance as approaching “pure, operatic Nirvana”. In a world not overpopulated with heroes, or with tenors, Ben Heppner's uniquely recognizable voice brought roars of approval from the New Yorkers — who for awhile forgot the threats of terrorist attacks, and the freezing February cold, in the catharsis of Berlioz's story of the Trojan hero's quest to found a safe civilization.
In the multi-voiced, frequently unreliable, contemporary interpretations of reality, Ben Heppner's enthralling voice and powerful dramatic performances provide us with harmony and hope. In the epic form of opera, his voice renders with great intensity the primal emotions of our species.
What a voice it is. At once powerful and sensitive, seductive and spiritual, unpretentious and transcenden — for there is indeed,
A brightness in the ring of words
When the right man sings them
Fair is the fall of songs
When the singer sings them.
And in giving his voice expression, this man plays many parts in the major operas of Wagner, Berlioz, Dvorak, Puccini, Strauss, Beethoven and Britten — and it is just as well that he is the sensible man you would expect, being Canadian, and coming from Dawson Creek, the only other place in Canada where if you don't like the weather you just wait a while. Otherwise he'd never survive playing demented fisherman, thwarted lovers, confused princes and beheaded prophets. Admittedly, in some of his roles, he gets to play a happy man — like Walther von Stolzing in Die Meistersinger — who, although he endures wholesale public scrutiny, he actually wins the money and the girl — the only opera by Wagner that is the nineteenth century version of Canadian Idol and Joe Millionaire.
Fortunately, for the opera world, Ben Heppner is grounded in both the aesthetic and material aspects of life. His passion for excellence in his art is balanced by his passion for his family and his faith in God. In this he is a thoroughly modern man, juggling his responsibilities to career, family and community and giving so generously to all. He supports groups and communities all over Canada and, in this province, has endowed a major music scholarship at Memorial, and encouraged the Newfoundland Symphony Youth Choir. He has paced his career to respect the needs of Karen, Ashleigh, Lowell and Aaron and, though he may play autocratic and lugubrious lovers on stage, at home he still fixes the blender, cleans out the basement and listens when his children say he's singing too loudly. He is indeed precious in their sight, in ours, and in the Lord's sight who gave him the gift to sing the Lord's song in many a land.
Ben Heppner has come to Gather Lilacs in the Spring, Again in Newfoundland and as a Memorial graduate, we hope he will walk together with us down many a St. John's lane.
Therefore, I ask you — in the words taken from the Old Testament text, that has inspired Ben's life —
To rise up, my fair one, and come away
For lo, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone;
The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come,
And the voice of Ben Heppner is heard in our land
and to confer on him the degree of Doctor of Letters, (honoris causa), for making our hearts sing again.