Oct 25, 2022
For five decades Manitoba Opera has touched the lives of thousands through music and song, creating memories that last a lifetime. Throughout our 50th anniversary season, we will be sharing just some of these wonderful stories and personal recollections. This instalment features volunteer and opera lover Hedie Epp whose introduction to the art form was less than auspicious.
Long-time Manitoba Opera volunteer Hedie Epp first heard opera when she was growing up in the small Mennonite community of Springstein, Manitoba. Her relationship with the art form didn’t start well.
“My mother listened to CFAM when that station started, and they did classical music and opera,” Hedie recalls. “And I just hated opera. I couldn’t get it at all.”
That changed when she completed her nursing training and celebrated by going to Europe, hitchhiking and working her way across several countries, first in 1967 and then in 1969.
On her second trip she found herself in Vienna. “And when you’re in Vienna, you go to the opera. So I forced myself to go,” Hedie explains. “You could get standing-room-only tickets for 40 cents, I think it was, and stand in ‘the gods.’”
“I dragged myself there, and it was Fidelio, Beethoven’s only opera, and within minutes, it was like a hook in the centre of my chest. I had this incredible feeling, and I was just drawn toward the stage,” she remembers. “And that was it.”
She stayed in the Austrian capital for a couple of months – working as a stable hand with two of the famous Lipizzaner stallions and dating one of the chief riders, for the total Viennese experience! – and she attended the opera five or six nights a week. By that time, people at the renowned State Opera knew her and would slip her tickets for better seats when they were available.
Once Hedie came to know more about opera, she realized in retrospect that her Vienna opera viewing was even more extraordinary than she knew at the time. “There were incredibly famous people I was seeing without really knowing what I was seeing,” she relates. She heard Birgit Nilsson sing and saw Leonard Bernstein conduct; she still remembers the 30-minute standing ovation he received.
Coming back to Winnipeg, Hedie spent some time establishing her nursing career, but the opera kept calling to her. Her first rush of opera infatuation might have been in Vienna, but her abiding relationship to the form has been through Manitoba Opera. She began volunteering with the organization in 1983 and has been a committed supporter ever since.
“I’m so glad we have an opera company here. It’s my conduit to wonderful music, to great staging,” Hedie says. “Manitoba Opera has been important to me ever since I first started working with them. Watching so many operas from backstage has been a privilege, to be able to see the workings of opera from closeup.
“It’s important for our city,” she adds. “And they do such a tremendous job of keeping it going.”
Hedie, who volunteers as much as she can, every single performance plus dress rehearsals, started working backstage doing makeup, mostly for the men’s chorus, jumping right into the grandest of grand operas with a production of Aida.
“The first guy who sat in my chair asked me, ‘How long have you been doing makeup for the opera?’” Hedie recalls. “I thought, this is a professional opera company, so how can I tell him this is my very first time?” She stalled for a moment and then left things deliberately vague: “Oh, for awhile,” she replied. Hedie went on to do makeup for 10 seasons: “The joke was always that I wasn’t good at remembering names, but I knew every scar and every mole.”
Hedie loved the buzz of backstage. “The backstage people are wonderful,” she says. “So warm and generous.” She’s also experienced the thrill of being onstage as a supernumerary, and she’s currently volunteering front-of-house. Seeing the whole process of opera from these different viewpoints has just increased her passion for the form.
“Opera has everything,” Hedie says. “It’s got the staging. It’s got music. It’s got acting. Drama, tragedy, happiness – everything.” Fidelio remains her favourite opera. “My first love,” she calls it.
Whenever she can, Hedie shares this love with others. “Not enough people appreciate opera,” Hedie believes. “They often think opera is for a certain group of people.
“When I’m working at Manitoba Opera and get free tickets, I always bring somebody with me who has never been to the opera. Not one single time has anybody said, ‘Oh, that was awful.’ People are always amazed at the power of opera.”
And Hedie’s dedication to spreading the word doesn’t stop at the Concert Hall doors: “If I pass a cop on the street as I’m heading home after the performance, I say, ‘You should go to the opera on your day off.
“If you don’t like it, don’t go again,” Hedie will tell them. “But just try it once.”
After all, the “just try it once” gambit worked for one young woman in Vienna in 1969.
Photo Above: Hedie Epp as a tavern “wench” in the 1991 production of The Tales of Hoffmann.