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Heppner Unplugged: A summer morning in Stratford

It was eleven in the morning, a bright, bright weekday in July.

The good folk of Stratford were going about their morning chores in the market square: getting ripe tomatoes from Eckhardts (and a freshly made devilled egg in passing), perfect bread from the Breadworks (down the alley to the sign of the wooden spatula), their shoes mended, their glasses repaired. Ken's Chip Wagon, on the same corner of Market Square for more than thirty years, would not open until noon.

But then there was evidence of a drift of people in one direction: up the very steep stairs of City Hall, the handsome, Victorian, redbrick cornerstone of the square, which happens to hold an equally handsome auditorium. This morning, instead of a rancorous city council public meeting about leashing dogs and cutting down trees, there is a concert; oh, yes, you can still get tickets at the door, just $25. Pleasant white-haired volunteers take your ticket; the programme is a single sheet of paper: A Victorian Gentleman: the music of Paolo Tosti ; tenor, Ben Heppner, pianist, John Hess.

The auditorium is a serene, square room with a wooden floor, discreet columns and cornices, painted in tasteful, old-fashioned pastels. It has a stage and a gallery with a graceful curved wooden railing. I bought a ticket and went up to the balcony; people strolled in with no sense of urgency or importance or ceremony.

The balcony was a lucky choice on my part because, after a brief, lyrical piano intro by the exquisitely talented Mr. Hess, a door opened right beside me and a man peeked in, smiling, then walked through the door, smiling, and then, extending his hand in warm greeting to patrons, walked up along the back wall and down to the curved gallery railing, where he opened his mouth and began to sing. It was eleven-fifteen in the morning.

The man was Mr. Heppner. He wore a stylish brown suit with a fine pinstripe, burgundy shirt with a silk ascot and a large-brimmed brown straw fedora. He carried a cane and wore brown shoes.

Ben Heppner is the greatest dramatic tenor in the world. His usual venues include the Metropolitan Opera, Covent Garden and the Berlin Staatsoper; his roles include Lohengrin, Idomeneo, Otello and Peter Grimes. He goes directly from Stratford to the Proms in London, and then to do Tristan at the Met, where a seat in a Centre Parterre Box, roughly equivalent to the second-row balcony in Stratford City Hall auditorium, costs US $300.

Ben Heppner was standing not ten feet from me on this fine weekday summer morning and he was singing. His face was shaded by the large hat; this corner of the gallery was not lit, except by Mr. Heppner's voice, which poured out like molten gold, even at this hour, in a graceful little song by Paolo Tosti called "Good-bye." He continued the song, down the stairs, down the aisle to the stage still shaking hands, up the set of wooden steps onto the stage, which was graced with a bit of gilt and red silk hanging to suggest a Victorian parlour, and with the exquisitely talented Mr. Hess and his grand piano.

The conceit for this programme (its premiere performance) is this: Mr. Heppner is a tenor from Canada, doing a farewell concert in England in 1910. He had had the good fortune to study there with the Italian tenor, Paolo Tosti, who taught Queen Victoria, and singers like Melba and Caruso who made Tosti's songs famous. With humour and charm, Mr. Heppner tells little anecdotes about Tosti, doing a concert in a Venetian gondola, entertaining the Empress of Russia. He tells silly jokes: Melba thought she was toast.He has an ongoing mock ego-battle with his accompanist (who at one point dares to join with him harmonically, adorably, in a few bars of song).

But mostly, Mr. Heppner sings, and sings, and sings, for more than an hour. Unencumbered by swords and sopranos and electronic thunderstorms and roaring choruses and large-headed conductors and hydraulic sets. I cannot tell you what songs he sang, because there was no programme. He sang in English and Italian and French, love songs and arias and ballads, music of the parlour and of the opera and the concert stage. He did a little Spanish dance and mimicked the stroke of a gondolier; he mopped his brow, sat on the steps with his hands folded over his knees, like a sad elf. (Mr. Heppner is ninety pounds lighter than he was a year or so ago, so he is trim, lithe (from serious bicyling) and completely graceful on this small stage.) He sang mournfully to a portrait of a mysterious lady; he almost sobbed.

His voice did all those things that a superb tenor voice can do: you are silently begging for him to go higher and higher, and he does, and the skin on the back of your head is tingling and he rings it up another tone or two and your skull is vibrating and then he sinks into unbearable sweetness.well, you know what I mean.

It was the most intimate of artistic experiences, on a weekday morning in July, in the auditorium of the Stratford City Hall. It was for every person in that room a tete a tete, an encounter not just with a legendary voice, but with a modest, relaxed man who clearly just loves to sing.

After the concert (no, after the encore, during which grown men wept), Mr. Heppner stood outside on the steps of City Hall, in his hat and brown suit, and chatted at length and signed autographs. We walked, down the steps and across the market square to Ken's chip wagon, in the bright morning sunshine.

It was lunchtime.