When Canadian tenor Ben Heppner opens in his second run of the Willy Decker production of Peter Grimes at the Royal Opera House next week, he will still not have met the director.  Such is the way international opera productions work these days. 

Both this and the first run seven years ago were rehearsed by revival director François de Carpentries and, if last time was anything to go by, he holds to the German director’s vision with a taut and visually beautiful take on the opera.  There’s not a hint of sea or fish to be seen and some may baulk at the austere grandeur of the staging that’s a million miles away from the traditional view of 19th Century East Anglian life.

“People often want to see the boats, the nets and a pictorial representation of the Suffolk coast,” Heppner tells me,“but that misses the point of the opera which is about the whole interaction of the people.  This production achieves that.”

“Coming back to the production seven years later I found I could remember nothing.  That’s because there’s nothing there!  No furniture, just the people.  And the rake we have to work on!   It’s variable; at the lowest it’s, I think, 16%, which is a very intense rake already but the pub scene is at 24%, which is very steep and then the hut scene, the crux of my role, is at 27%.  It’s a tough job.  In the hunting scene (which I’m not in), it even goes to 30%.”

I ask him how that affects the singing, remembering something Bryn Terfel told me about the difficulties of performing on the raked set of the Royal Opera’s latest Der Fliegende Holländer.  “It’s very hard to sing,” he says, “for the hut scene, you have to manage your breath supply very carefully.  It makes a very demanding part even more difficult.  But it creates an inner agitation in the audience and heightens their awareness so there’s a real sense of danger.”

Heppner has been playing the role of the wayward fisherman for nearly 20 years now.  His first appearance as Grimes was at the Barbican in a concert performance conducted by Rostropovich and I throw back at him something he said in an interview at the time: “there are certain moments you have to say that only Pears could do without hurting himself.”

He guffaws, not quite remembering that he’d said that: “I think that probably refers to ‘The Great Bear.’  It has to be eerie and unearthly.  An E natural, depending on your voice type, is right in the range of your passaggio, a difficult acoustical point in your voice.  I’ve probably gotten better at doing it and it is easier now.  I can remember Andrew Davis squinting at me once and pointing down, indicating that I was singing sharp; one of the big dangers for tenors.  We don’t sing flat but slightly above the note. But the role has such complexities in it and I love coming back to it.  It’s dark, complex and a real joy to do.”    

As one of the finest heldentenors of recent decades, Heppner is perhaps most often associated with the great Wagnerian roles and the last time we saw him at the Royal Opera House was in Christof Loy’s controversial Tristan und Isolde. That production also eschewed any sense of the sea, setting the opera in a whited palace room.   I ask him if he was aware of the fury that it aroused in some Covent Garden regulars.  “No, tell me,” he says, “I never read the reviews and I don’t scour the internet to see what people are saying.”

He talks passionately about Loy’s production, which sent some of us (me included) into raptures and others screaming for the exit. “It’s fine as long as a director doesn’t force something on to the opera that isn’t there and I don’t feel he did that.”  I’d agree, although there are others who wouldn’t.

We don’t talk about vocal troubles or cancellations (which surfaced again during Tristan), as those things have been well-covered elsewhere, but Heppner brings up the subject himself of his pulling out of the Met’s new Ring cycle, in which he was due to appear as Siegfried next season.

“I just felt the window of opportunity for me has passed.  I probably should have started it earlier, when I first did Tristan, at the age of 42.  I’ve done the opera at Aix-en-Provence but now that I’m in my mid fifties it’s no longer doable.  James Levine said to me for the forging scene ’Just hammer the crap out of it and every once in a while sing a high note.  Don’t take it too seriously.’ But I felt I should step aside and let a younger generation have a go.”

He tells me that he has no new roles imminent.  There are Tristans to come and next year he’ll reprise his role of Captain Ahab in Moby Dick by American composer Jake Heggie, best known for Dead Man Walking (The Melville adaptation was Dead Man Strapped to Whale he laughs).  Sadly, there’ll be no more Aeneas’s, a role he performed so memorably in concert with Colin Davis and the LSO.

It’s always fun to chat with opera stars about their favourite singers and influences and Ben talks admiringly of Wunderlich and Björling (“Oh Wow, Oh Wow”), Pavarotti and Domingo (he’s less endeared to female voices although cites Tebaldi and Sutherland as spectacular exceptions).  Of Domingo, he talks about  “the extreme musicianship, amazing singing and great acting.”   

It would be easy to say the same of Ben Heppner and London operagoers have the chance next week of seeing the tenor in one of his finest interpretations.

- Simon Thomas

Peter Grimes opens at the Royal Opera House on 21 June and plays for five performances.