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From Wagner to Sedaka: Heppner’s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do,” His (& Beal’s?) Swansong (with video)

Ultimate compliment? Opera tenor Ben Heppner tells Dallas Museum director Max Anderson that he wishes he had Max's voice Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Ultimate compliment: Opera tenor Ben Heppner tells Dallas Museum director Max Anderson that he wishes he had Max’s voice
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

My reward for sitting through several days of intermittently interesting museum-administrators’ panels, held in New York under various auspices, came at the end of today’s “New Face of Museums” panel of the Leadership Nouveau conference, presented at the Museum of Modern Art by the HEC Montréal business school.

Celebrated Wagnerian tenor Ben Heppner, whose astonishingly robust and moving “Tristan” was one of the top-10 highlights of my more than four decades of operagoing, served as emcee for the conference. When things had wrapped up, he surprised us by sitting down at the piano and accompanying himself in the conference’s coda.

His rendition of Neil Sedaka‘s “Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” (the 1975 ballad version) was poignant to me for several reasons: Although he hasn’t publicly explained the reason why he is “setting aside my career as an opera and concert singer,” as he announced on Thursday, Heppner, 58, told me afterwards that he was no longer satisfied with the quality of his voice and also wanted to spend more quality time as a grandfather. The Canadian is now heard in other roles—as host of CBC Radio‘s “Saturday Afternoon at the Opera” and “Backstage with Ben Heppner.”

“Breaking Up Is Hard to Do” could be seen as an apt swansong for his departure from the opera-and-recital world. It also brought to my mind a possible artworld departure, related to the person who was sitting directly behind me during Heppner’s farewell concert:

Graham Beal, director, Detroit Institute of Arts Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

Graham Beal, director, Detroit Institute of Arts
Photo by Lee Rosenbaum

I had already chatted yesterday evening with Graham Beal, the Detroit Institute of Arts’ doughty director, after another panel that he and I had attended, this one organized by the American Federation of Arts in association with the Leadership Nouveau conference.

I observed that he was looking a lot better than the last time I had seen him, and he said it was because “things are feeling better” (my link, not his). He added that he feels an obligation to stick with the Detroit Institute through the resolution of its epic crisis. But he also noted that he was “turning 67″ this week and that his contract with the museum “expires at the end of June next year.”

When I asked what he might do next, after laboring tirelessly to save his embattled institution, he mentioned that he was already engaged in a writing project about painter Augustus John and that he also hopes to write about Richard Caton Woodville Jr.—both Brits, like Beal. He indicated that it was unlikely he’d want another post in museum administration.

That said, join us now for a brief, intimate concert by the renowned singer who vowed he wouldn’t do any more concerts. You’ll see that I briefly turn my video camera towards Beal at a key moment in the lyrics:

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