The Dallas Opera has announced the winner of the 2009-2010 Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year Award, the annual honor given to a first-time Dallas Opera performer. And I’ll give two guesses who took home the prize: 1) Ben 2) Heppner. The heldentenor who turned in a spectacular and physically-impressive performance as Ahab, the lead role in the debut opera, Moby-Dick, was a [one] shoe-in for prize, for sure. Though when I thought over the season, the very fact that another name popped up in my mind as a realistic candidate – Morgan Smith in the role of Starbuck in Moby-Dick – I think is evidence of the job the baritone did in his role. A full release is after jump.

Ben Heppner Wins Dallas Opera’s Maria Callas Award

The Dallas Opera has announced the winner of the 2009-2010 Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year Award, the annual honor given to a first-time Dallas Opera performer. And I’ll give two guesses for who took home the prize: 1) Ben 2) Heppner. The heldentenor who turned in a spectacular and physically-impressive performance as Ahab, the lead role in the debut opera, Moby-Dick, was a [one] shoe-in for the prize, for sure. Though when I thought over the season, the very fact that another name popped up in my mind as a realistic candidate – Morgan Smith in the role of Starbuck in Moby-Dick – I think is evidence of the job the baritone did in his role. A full release is after jump.

THE DALLAS OPERA IS PROUD TO ANNOUNCE

TENOR BEN HEPPNER

SELECTED BY SEASON SUBSCRIBERS AS

THE “MARIA CALLAS DEBUT ARTIST OF THE YEAR”

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CREATED THE ROLE OF CAPTAIN AHAB

IN THE CRITICALLY ACCLAIMED WORLD PREMIERE PRODUCTION OF MOBY-DICK

DALLAS, JUNE 24, 2010 – The Dallas Opera is delighted to announce the result of this year’s balloting for the prestigious “Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year” Award: Canadian tenor and internationally renowned artist Ben Heppner.

The award is given to a single performer each season for a particularly remarkable and memorable company debut.  The selection of Mr. Heppner, who created the dynamic yet mad-and-conflicted character of Captain Ahab in the Dallas Opera’s internationally acclaimed world premiere production of Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s MOBY-DICK, was announced earlier this evening by Dallas Opera General Director and CEO Keith Cerny in a brief ceremony in Nancy B. Hamon Hall at the Margot and Bill Winspear Opera House, part of the AT&T Performing Arts Center located in Downtown Dallas.

“I think there is very little doubt that something extraordinary came into being on the Dallas Opera stage this spring,” said Mr. Cerny, “and that is confirmed by the selection of four nominees: Ben Heppner, baritone Morgan Smith, bass Jonathan Lemalu and soprano Talise Trevigne from an amazing ensemble cast.”

“With Mr. Heppner at the helm, the cast and production team of Moby-Dick set the standard for productions yet to come – because the Callas Award, while an acknowledgement of our illustrious past, more importantly points the way to an exciting and ground-breaking artistic future.”

“In the new Winspear Era,” Mr. Cerny adds, “we are determined to create state-of-the-art productions and commission new works that will attract the finest singers, conductors, directors and designers the world has to offer.  And the task of choosing an honoree for this award should become more difficult for our subscribers with each outstanding season.”

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This year, balloting for the award was conducted entirely online.  However, the results were verified by the independent accounting firm of Travis, Wolff & Company, L.L.P

The winner receives an etched-crystal plaque, created for The Dallas Opera by award-winning designers from Tiffany & Co., which bears the likeness of legendary soprano Maria Callas, who launched The Dallas Opera with a 1957 recital at the Music Hall in Fair Park.

The recipient, Mr. Heppner, is currently performing Tchaikovsky’s Pique Dame (“The Queen of Spades”) in Barcelona, Spain and responded to the news, by email, with a statement read tonight by General Director and CEO Keith Cerny:

“To My Dear Friends at the Dallas Opera,

“The camaraderie of the entire crew of the Pequod was a unique experience for me in the world of international opera. I have to say that I was somewhat reluctant to let the show go. It was vocally challenging, physically difficult and completely rewarding from every aspect. As I slipped out on the sled at the end of the night, I would say to myself ‘glad that my night is done’ and in the next breath, ‘I love this role!’  Thank you for trusting me with the responsibility for Ahab.

“I am indebted to Jake Heggie, Gene Scheer and Leonard Foglia for their exceptional work in creating this outstanding new work.  A special ‘thank you’ to Patrick Summers for his incomparable musical guidance of the Captain and his crew into uncharted waters.

“A big ovation to The Dallas Opera for the courage and determination to bring this American classic novel to life in operatic form.  Your willingness to raise money, create a fantastic working environment and make this the most rewarding operatic experience of my career deserves special acknowledgement. Thank you for all the work behind the scenes that made such an experience possible.  Bravo!

“I stand humbled by the honor of the 2010 Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year Award bestowed on yours truly.  As William Shakespeare wrote, ‘I can no other answer make but, thanks, and thanks.’”

Ben Heppner

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Heppner’s bravura performance (peg leg and all) was praised by Steve Smith of The New York Times who wrote: “…it would be difficult to imagine a performer better suited to convey Ahab’s complex mix of demoniac compulsion and fleeting heroism.”

Locally, The Dallas Morning News Classical Music Critic Scott Cantrell proclaimed “Ben Heppner simply is Ahab. Hobbling heavily on his peg leg, he exudes both macho charisma and hints of schizophrenia. And he sings a role of Wagnerian heft with a beefy tenor of many colors and textures, and strikingly clear diction.”

Wayne Lee Gay of D magazine’s FrontRow blog concurred: “Ben Heppner, the leading dramatic tenor of our time, was born to musically embody Ahab—and those 2000 lucky opera buffs present Friday night will probably be bragging for decades about seeing Heppner create this role.”

In Opera Today, Wes Blomster described Heppner’s Ahab as “sung to perfection” while William Burnett of the blog OperaWarhorses added, “One must admire Heppner’s mastery of Heggie’s intense, often monochromatic, but sometimes sweetly lyrical, music assigned Ahab.”

Perhaps the final word comes from William Littler of The Toronto Star who called Heppner’s Ahab “one of the most challenging and rewarding roles of his landmark career.”

The other 2009-2010 Season nominees (artists making outstanding company debuts in a principal role) were (in alphabetical order) baritone Thomas Allen (Don Alfonso in Così fan tutte); baritone Lado Ataneli (Iago in Otello); Alexandra Deshorties (Desdemona in Otello); soprano Elza van den Heever (Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte); soprano Adriana Kucerova (Norina in Don Pasquale);  Jonathan Lemalu (Queequeg in Moby-Dick); tenor Norman Shankle (Ernesto in Don Pasquale); Morgan Smith (Starbuck in Moby-Dick); soprano Talise Trevigne (Pip in Moby-Dick) and Maria Zifchak (Suzuki in Madame Butterfly).

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The Maria Callas Debut Artist of the Year Award was launched during the 1991-1992 Dallas Opera Season.

Sharon Sweet was the first recipient for her impressive performance in the title role of Aida.  Subsequent winners have included Cecilia Bartoli, Mary Dunleavy, Elizabeth Futral, Hei-Kyung Hong, Denyce Graves, Indira Mahajan, Mary Mills, Patricia Racette, Latonia Moore, Christopher Ventris, Catherine Naglestad and last year’s winner tenor James Valenti (Rodolfo in La bohème).

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Photo: Ben Heppner as Ahab in the Dallas Opera’s production of Moby-Dick (Credit: Karen Almond for the Dallas Opera)