Ben Heppner remembers a frightening experience in Grade 11 as a formative moment. Now he's a famous tenor who sings in the most celebrated opera houses in the world. He feels comfortable at La Scala, the Metropolitan Opera and the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden.
But in 1973 the awkward teenager faced a critical crowd in an intimidating hall: his classmates in the auditorium at South Peace Senior Secondary School in Dawson Creek, BC.
"I can remember being knock-kneed nervous," he says now.
Who convinced him to stand up and sing that day? Anne Matheson (then Anne Exner), the energetic drama and art teacher at the school.
"I wasn't in drama. And art wasn't my strength. In fact, I didn't have Mrs. Exner as a teacher until later. I had been singing in the church community. She heard me and insisted I sing at the Christmas concert at the school," he says. "This was quite abhorrent to me because I didn't sing the kind of music that was popular."
At that point Ben wasn't taking private singing lessons. He sang in church and he played the euphonium in the school band. He admits to getting only average marks in music in high school. "I guess I didn't like the theory part. My wife jokes that I didn't work to my potential!"
Ben was the youngest of nine children in a Mennonite farm family. Everyone sang. "They're all amateur singers," he says. "My family was used to hearing me sing all the time."
But a school concert was a different matter entirely. He sang a tune called Ring the Bells. "I wasn't sure my friends would like this. They were listening to Black Sabbath and Santana.
"She made me do it. She saw rough qualities in me and wouldn't let it go. She didn't really encourage me," he says. "She just told me I had to do it. I probably wanted to but didn't have the courage. The response was overwhelming. I was quite confused by it all."
Confused but not paralyzed.
That evening at South Peace Secondary marked a turning point.
"I took drama from her afterwards. And I ended up in a few small community endeavours."
Anne Matheson remembers one of those endeavours.
"It was my habit to produce a play for the community every year. One of my colleagues had written a delightful musical for children that required a large, singing king. Both his size and his voice qualified Ben for the part. So when I saw him in the hall one day, I said, 'Ben, I need you.'
"The music teacher had written the music, I taught Ben some stage disciplines and the rest is history. The project was a success. We produced it several times.
"My push to get him into voice training was not well received by his family at first," she recalls. "But I insisted that hiding such a voice under a bushel was nothing short of a sin. His God-given gift had to be given back to the world."
Soon after, Heppner did take singing lessons at the Canadian Bible College in Regina. Then he enrolled in the music program at the University of British Columbia.
"I was very happy when he got to the University of British Columbia," says Matheson.
Heppner fondly remembers one of his UBC teachers as well. "I joined the UBC Chamber Singers; Cortland Hultberg was the conductor. He was important because of the way he related to music. His personal response was wonderful to see. Not theoretical. He had a real emotional response.
"One time, on tour in Fort St. John, in a restaurant, this song came back to him. He called for napkins and wrote out the music line by line. He handed us each our napkin and we sang this piece of music. It was a barbershop thing in eight parts. Can you imagine the memory? The following year it became one of our standard pieces. He was that way all the time, doing mental exercises to keep sharp. Amazing guy."
Heppner first came to public attention when he won the CBC's Talent Festival in 1979. When he studied at the faculty of music at the University of Toronto, his focus turned to opera. A few years later he won the inaugural Birgit Nilsson Prize at the Metropolitan Opera's auditions in New York.
Since then he has won Grammys and Junos, performed around the globe, become an Officer of the Order of Canada and received several honorary doctorates. He is recognized as one of the finest dramatic tenors in the world, having performed challenging roles - from Wagner's Tristan and Lohengrin to Verdi's Othello and Berlioz's Aeneas - with leading orchestras in prestigious venues. Recently, he became an exclusive artist with Deutsche Grammophone.
Since those early days in high school, Ben Heppner has stayed in touch with Matheson, who retired many years ago. "She moved back to Slovakia to teach English as a second language. But I saw her four or five years ago. She came to a performance in Vienna with one or two of her students, and we had dinner together."
Cortland Hultberg, his early mentor at UBC, died in 2002.
"Both these teachers moved me to a higher plane in music. They didn't see the fat kid with the bad haircut. They saw the rough potential. That was the gift they gave me."
Ben Heppner is touring the US and Europe this spring, with a stop in Ottawa during March to perform in a gala concert for the Governor General at Rideau Hall.