In search of Saint Nicolas with Ben Heppner

With the help of choirs and an orchestra, Ben Heppner digs deep into the legend of the man who predated Santa Claus
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Every so often, you’ll hear something in an interview that beggars belief. It doesn’t happen very often, and it’s even more surprising when the speaker is someone as honest and unpretentious as Ben Heppner. So when the celebrated tenor stated, toward the end of a recent telephone chat, that he didn’t have strong views about the work he’s performing with the Vancouver Chamber Choir this week, it was hard to take him seriously.

“I’m just an empty vessel,” he said, when asked about singing the role of Saint Nicolas in Benjamin Britten’s cantata of the same name. But it’s unlikely that Heppner was lying. He’s just egregiously modest—and in any case he’d already made his feelings known.

“I do love the fact that it concentrates on the message of what Christianity’s about, rather than this other stuff that’s been stuck on top,” he told the Straight from Medicine Hat, where he was resting before a lieder recital. “Saint Nicolas has now become Santa Claus—and these horrible things you hear in the stores every day, ‘Jingle Bells’ or ‘Santa Claus Is Coming to Town’. It’s a little grating.”

That’s a viewpoint shared by conductor Jon Washburn, who’ll lead Heppner, the Vancouver Chamber Choir, the Pacifica Singers, the British Columbia Girls Choir, and the Vancouver Chamber Orchestra in performance this Friday.

“The thing that might surprise some people who come is that, because of the name, they may think it’s about Santa Claus,” he said, in an earlier interview from his Vancouver home. “Of course, it’s not. It’s about the real thing. But I was thinking that if young people come to the concerts, maybe they’ll realize that there was a real Saint Nicolas somewhere, before there was a Santa Claus, and that there’s more to that tradition than we sometimes acknowledge.

“There’s something sweet about the legends, you know—the miracles, and the goodness of Nicolas, and the incredibly sympathetic way that Britten depicts him,” the Chamber Choir’s artistic director continued. “Music can do that: it can take something and heighten its emotion incredibly. One of the best movements, the third-to-last movement, is called ‘Nicolas and the Pickled Boys’. And it’s this initially gruesome story where Nicolas is travelling and comes into town, and they know that they have to serve him a meal but they’re all poor and they have no meat, so they butcher three little boys and try to serve that up on a platter. And he realizes this, and he says ‘No! Do not eat!’ And then he brings them back to life, and the three little boys come down the aisle in their choirboy outfits singing ‘Alleluia.’ It’s just incredible—and there are beautiful moments like that throughout the piece.”

Heppner and Washburn share another connection through Saint Nicolas. The first time the tenor performed the starring role was in 1976, at the very start of his career as a soloist. Washburn was in charge that time, too.

“I had two wonderful years singing with the choir—with Jon and the whole gang, some of which are probably still with the choir,” Heppner explained. “So this is a return home, although it’s going to sound a lot different. I mean, I was 20, just on the way to 21. So, yeah, wow! That’s a lot of water under that bridge.”

Washburn has clear memories of that initial performance, but not necessarily because of his young star’s delivery.

“We were both babes at that time, babes in the woods. But if I remember back, it was pretty stunning the very first time,” he recalled. “One interesting thing was that the leader of the strings was Norman Nelson, who was the concertmaster of the VSO for a long time. He was a Brit, and he had played in the premiere performance of Saint Nicolas, so we were all feeling very close to Britten because of that. And the next morning—because in those days, you got a review the next day—we turned to the newspaper, and there were two articles on Britten: one was the review of our concert, and the other was his obituary. He had died during the night. So, again, we’ve always felt especially connected with him, because we were doing his music as he was dying. It’s kind of a special feeling.”

Heppner’s return will be similarly charged. For one thing, it’s long overdue: an earlier attempt to revisit Saint Nicolas was scotched when Heppner was offered a starring role with New York City’s Metropolitan Opera, an offer no singer would refuse. And then there’s the fact that the singer will be rediscovering a role that, remarkably, he never sang again after that initial breakthrough.

“I think I get the text a lot better now than I did then,” Heppner revealed. “It just speaks to me. I love the intensity of the poetry, the clarity of it—and that it’s about caring for your fellow man. I’m not harping on how good I am at practising that, but it’s something I attempt to do.”

For a self-described “empty vessel”, Heppner certainly has a good handle on what made the real Saint Nick tick—and what makes the Christmas season special.

Ben Heppner and the Vancouver Chamber Choir present Saint Nicolas at the Orpheum on Friday (December 7).

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