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Tenor Ben Heppner will take the stage Friday at the Orpheum.

Bruce Dynes/Bruce Dynes

The last time Canadian opera luminary Ben Heppner performed Benjamin Britten's Saint Nicolas with the Vancouver Chamber Choir, he was a 20-year-old University of British Columbia music student and a chorister – but for both Mr. Heppner and choir founder Jon Washburn, that 1976 performance would be one they would never forget.

"Ben was a tenor in my choir, and we had him step forward and do the solo parts," remembers Mr. Washburn. "And it turned out to be a rather auspicious night, because it was also the night that Britten died. So I have always felt especially connected to the piece, and to Ben because of the way that worked out."

Now 36 years later, and with a stellar international career, Mr. Heppner is returning to perform the work, which tells the story of the third- and fourth-century bishop whose generosity and miraculous ways inspired the story of Santa Claus.

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Mr. Washburn says that ever since that fateful night in 1976, he has wanted to present the work again with Mr. Heppner, and even had it scheduled once. "But then Ben got some minor other job – some debut at the Met," Mr. Washburn says with a laugh. "So we said, 'Ok, we'll let you go.' "

But how does Mr. Washburn feel about revisiting Mr. Britten's famed work with Mr. Heppner after what happened the last time? "You know, I've always worried that it was our performance that actually did it," Mr. Washburn jokes. "But maybe if we do this one right, it will bring him back to life. I'll make that my goal."

Saint Nicolas is at the Orpheum on Friday (

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