Features

Queen for a Debut

Dramatic soprano Elza van den Heever, who has won raves for her performances in San Francisco, Chicago and Santa Fe, makes her Met bow as Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda. MARK THOMAS KETTERSON reports.

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Elza van den Heever, who this month makes her Met debut
© Dario Acosta 2013
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Van den Heever as Armida in Rinaldo at Lyric Opera of Chicago, 2012
© Dan Rest 2013
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© Dario Acosta 2013

"If I had to imagine what it is like to fly," muses Elza van den Heever, "I'd think of singing above the staff, full throttle over an orchestra. That is, to me, the embodiment of freedom." Listeners who encounter the South African soprano in performance are bound to have quite a high-altitude musical adventure themselves. With her laser-bright top notes and pointed interpretive intelligence, van den Heever, who bows at the Met on New Year's Eve as Elisabetta in Donizetti's Maria Stuarda, has quickly ascended to the front rank of singers among her generation. She is that rare vocal breed, a dramatic soprano of Wagnerian proportions whose shimmering instrument is also a "fast" voice with the requisite agility for negotiating the difficult passagework of the Baroque repertory, as well as the power for the Verdi canon and the jugendlich dramatische German repertoire. 

Van den Heever's direction appears to have been genetically determined. Born in Johannesburg as one of a set of triplets, she comes from a highly artistic family. Her grandmother was a music teacher, her mother an actress turned producer, her father a filmmaker. One brother, Jaco, is a very successful charcoal artist, another, Johann, a photographer and graphic designer; younger brother Andre is a deer-hunter-cum-gourmet chef. "We were singing from the age we could open our mouths," she recalls. "Opera was always in my ear. My father loved Maria Callas, and I fell in love with her. We listened to opera on Sundays. An effort was made that nobody would do anything on Sunday that you did during the week. We were encouraged to paint, or draw. Television wasn't allowed to be on. It was a special upbringing, and I'm very grateful for it."

At fifteen, van den Heever began study with vocal instructor Hantie Prins. "She was very enamored of the American way of teaching. At the time, I didn't know what that meant. Now I can say that voices in America are trained to access resonance as needed to project in a 3,000-seat house, where in Europe it is a little different. The size of an instrument is not determined by anything other than how resonant the voice is." Van den Heever consequently applied to numerous American music schools. She was finally accepted at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, to which she remains profoundly indebted for giving her a shot. Like many large-voiced sopranos, she initially studied as a mezzo. "It was the right place at the right time," she affirms. "I was sheltered. Had I gone to New York, it would have swallowed me whole. It was good to have time to simmer. Dramatic voices take longer to develop. You can cause damage if you are not mature enough to understand how to access the full extension of your voice." 

The transition to soprano occurred in 2003, when van den Heever entered the Merola Opera Program at San Francisco Opera and encountered Sheri Greenawald, with whom she still studies. "I sang 'Disprezzata regina,' from Poppea. Dolora Zajick was there. They pulled me into a room and said, 'You are not a mezzo, you are a soprano.' Then Dolora warmed me up to a high G! I started to cry. It was like the carpet was ripped from under my feet." "She was wailing!" Zajick laughs. "But the greatest mezzo-soprano in the world wouldn't be able to hit a top G. And her passaggio was high. She was an astonishing musician. When she did an ornament, there was meaning behind it." "Elza doesn't resist change," Greenawald asserts. "She will try anything! When she came back for her next summer, she sang the Female Chorus in The Rape of Lucretia and was a revelation."

The soprano's industriousness and Greenawald's no-nonsense teaching approach proved a potent combination in developing the dazzling assurance she projects onstage today. "We understand each other, because we get our point of view from the inside," van den Heever explains. "She was renowned as an actress. I have that acting gene. At the conservatory, it impressed people that I was able to go into myself and find a character. I didn't know then that this is a difficult thing to do, but I don't know how else to do it. I guess I am fearless, because I am willing to do anything. If I find out something inhibits my vocalization, I will rethink things, but I'm willing to go there." 

Van den Heever's breakthrough came in 2007 when, now an Adler Fellow, she jumped in at the eleventh hour as Donna Anna in SFO's Don Giovanni, replacing soprano Hope Briggs, an artist with a respectable Bay Area following who was removed from the role by general director David Gockley following the final dress rehearsal. The incident created a storm on a hungry blogosphere that theorized all manner of unseemly reasons for the substitution, ranging from backstage politics to absurd accusations of racism, riffing on van den Heever's South African birth and Briggs's African–American heritage. "It was sad, the fact that people chose to exploit a story based on non-truths," says van den Heever. "I learned one has to handle gossip gracefully, and that you cannot trust everything you read. And don't read blogs — that has the ability to destroy you." 

Debuts at Arizona and Santa Fe came quickly. Her 2009 European debut, as Giorgetta in Il Tabarro, initiated a fest contract with Frankfurt and was followed by debuts in Munich, Vienna's Theater an der Wien, Paris, Opéra National de Bordeaux and Dallas, in an eclectic repertory that included Elsa, Elettra, Fiordiligi, the Trovatore Leonora, Handel's Alcina,Agathe in Der Freischütz and the Composer in Ariadneauf Naxos. Her repertory in Frankfurt has been similarly diverse, encompassing Don Carlo, Otello, La Clemenza di Tito and Donizetti's Anna Bolena. A spectacular Lyric Opera of Chicago debut came in 2012 as Handel's Armida, opposite the Rinaldo of David Daniels. The critical response to her portrayal of the wily sorceress was laudatory, invariably citing the gleaming fluidity of her powerful upper register and the theatrical panache she used to vanquish a dueling harpsichord in "Vo' far guerra."

Now comes the Met. Constructing a portrait of Elizabeth I, an icon of Western Civilization, is a daunting task that has challenged sopranos and mezzos alike. "I would be lying if I didn't confess my nervousness. It is the Metropolitan Opera, and I'm singing opposite Joyce DiDonato! It is a lower tessitura than most of what I sing, and the strength of my voice is the top. However, it is bel canto, so I can embellish, and I fully intend to cash in on that! I am researching as many recordings as possible. I kiss the ground that Cate Blanchett walks on. The minute I found out I was singing Elizabeth, I ran to the video store and rented the movies! But I have chosen not to look at them anymore, because I want to come up with my own interpretation. Elizabeth must have been an extraordinarily fierce woman, magnetic and tough, and when we examine paintings of her, that inspires me more than any actress, because she speaks volumes for herself. I will draw on the fact that I am a tall, imposing person, and it's a David McVicar production, so if history is any indication, I will look fabulous! But mostly the paintings, and reading about her, as one should. If you sing the music of any composer, you need to understand the political surroundings of the period, examine the paintings and understand what shaped the world at that given time." 

Though van den Heever won the 2008 Seattle Opera Wagner competition, she has limited her Wagnerian roles to the lyrical Elsa and Elisabeth. "I could say tomorrow that I am going to focus on the German repertoire and have a successful career. But there is so much opportunity for roles that are possible now that will not be possible later in life. You wouldn't listen to a voice like mine singing Elsa in Lohengrin and think it is a voice that can move, but it can. I want to keep the voice agile and sing as much Handel and Mozart as possible. And I am finding my voice is very well suited for bel canto. Bolena was a stretch, but it was the correctstretch. Again, thank you Frankfurt. They have given me opportunities that few are afforded."

Van den Heever's gratitude to Frankfurt, indeed to anyone who has supported her development, courses through her conversation like a leitmotif; she obviously wants it understood that this business called Elza van den Heever is not one she built entirely on her own. "I think that is residual in coming from South Africa. We just don't have the financial resources you do in Europe or America — we are in the other limb of the universe. Our currency is worth nothing. It took an army to make my career a possibility, to raise money just to go to the United States to audition. I have to take a pause to remember how I got here. Otherwise I have let down people who made this possible."

Van den Heever marvels that her career has reached a place where she is now partnered by luminaries such as DiDonato and Daniels, but she draws particular inspiration from colleagues of her own generation. "I love Luca Pisaroni — just the most fantastically wonderful person on two legs. He is enormously giving onstage — you can go anywhere with him. I just did my first Desdemona with Carlo Ventre. He is vulnerable and emotional onstage, so easy to work with." Callas remains her favorite singer, but she also admires Caballé, Lorengar and Margaret Price, singers who possess unique timbres and exude confidence, "which I think is the most beautiful thing in the world."

As for her vocal regimen, she says, "Vocally fit means fit in body and mind." Van den Heever has homes in Frankfurt and Bordeaux, where she enjoys jogging and listening to classic pop, jazz and what she calls "corny music" — especially Christmas music, because it is "an injection of happy. If I don't get an ultimatum, I will listen to it the entire year." Her first concern when traveling is to find a Whole Foods, which she visits every day. "I don't remember the last time I looked at a recipe. My real creative outlet is to create flavors and express myself that way." 

At the moment, however, her mind is firmly focused on Elisabetta, Maria and the Met. "Again, so lucky. It could have been at a younger point in life, when I was less secure. That I should be making my Met debut when I am young, but a little established, in a major part, but not the title role, and it's going to be broadcast! Brilliant!" spacer 

MARK THOMAS KETTERSON has written for Playbill and Chicago magazine, as well as for the publications of Washington National Opera, the Ravinia Festival, Houston Grand Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago. 

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Current Issue: December 2014 — VOL. 79, NO. 6