“I have always felt like the odd one out. The way I put my voice together. No one knows what to do with me. In terms of my height, I was a six-foot girl since I was 10-years-old. I have always been the outsider.”
This was Elza Van Den Heever’s response to my question regarding how she relates to the character of Elettra in Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” which she sings for the third time in her career on Monday, March 6.
Van den Heever always felt that she would never belong in the world of opera and if not for some incredible decisions made by others regarding her future, she would never have been one.
“I kind of just fell into it to be completely honest. I wasn’t even good at it,” she stated during our interview.
She just happened to sing in the school choir and got an opportunity to do a solo. An audience member immediately told her mother that she should get some training and her mother acquiesced to the recommendation.
At the age of 16, voice lessons got underway and her teacher realized that she had the real deal on her hands.
“She told my mother to take me to the next level of development because she felt I could really be a true opera singer,” van den Heever revealed. “But I just wanted to be a chef or a cook. Music was not my thing. I was terrible at music theory and I had terrible stage fright. I was really shy growing up.”
She got accepted into the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where she made the discovery that would help her overcome one of her many confidence issues.
It happened during a production “The Crucible” in the role of Tituba.
“The moment I discovered the acting part of singing, I fell in love,” she noted. “I discovered that when I am onstage, I am not Elza. I get to be somebody else.”
La soprano Elza van den Heever interprètera les “Quatre derniers Lieder” de Richard Strauss à l’opéra de Limoges, vendredi 3 février. Artiste internationale, la chanteuse, d’origine sud-africaine, vit à Bordeaux. C’est la première fois qu’elle se produira à Limoges.
C’est une grande voix de l’opéra aujourd’hui. Elza van den Heever se produit dans les plus grandes salles européennes et américaines. Formé notamment au conservatoire de San Francisco, en Californie, elle a remporté en 2008 le “Seattle Opera International Wagner Competition”. Elza van den Heever est née et a grandi à Johannesburg, elle possèd ela double nationalité sud-africaine et française. Elle vit aujourd’hui à Bordeaux.
Elza van den Heever pour la 1ere fois à Limoges
Pour sa première apparition sur la scène de l’opéra de Limoges, elle sera l’interprète des “Quatre derniers leader” de Richard Strauss. Une oeuvre composée en 1948 et chantée par les plus grandes cantatrices, dont Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, Jessye Norman, Kiri Te Kanawa ou Renee Fleming.
Lors de ce concert dirigé par Robert Tuohy, chef de l’orchestre de l’opéra de Limoges, seront également joués “Totenfeier” de Gustav Malher et les “Variations Enigma” d’Edward Elgar. Une composition dont est tiré le nom de cette soirée “Enigma”, concert unique vendredi 3 février à 20h.
Du Metropolitan de New York à Francfort en passant par Cologne ou Bordeaux, les plus grandes scènes se disputent Elza Van Den Heever. Elle se confie.
Comment se rythme votre quotidien de grande diva ? Une hygiène de vie digne des sportifs de haut niveau ?La vie d’un chanteur est une vie de discipline, effectivement comme celle d’un athlète de haut niveau. En production, j’essaie toujours de chanter les répétitions à pleine voix, car les muscles de la gorge doivent s’exercer comme tout autre muscle du corps. J’accorde aussi une grande attention à la façon dont je me nourris. J’ai une grande passion pour la cuisine. Tous les jours, j’essaie d’être inventive, de trouver de nouvelles recettes, avec des produits sains et beaucoup de légumes et légumineuses. Surtout, j’essaie de marcher chaque jour entre 14 ou 15 kilomètres, quand je ne suis pas à la salle de gym.
Comment est née votre passion pour l’art lyrique ? Mon premier contact avec l’opéra est venu à la maison, car nous écoutions tous les dimanches Maria Callas que mon père aimait beaucoup. J’ai hésité entre faire des études pour être « chef de cuisine » et des études musicales. J’ai été admise au Conservatoire de San Francisco et… En plus des études de chant, j’ai découvert, le plaisir d’incarner un personnage sur scène. C’est certainement une partie fondamentale de ma passion pour la scène.
Vous avez fait sensation en 2015 à Bordeaux dans le rôle de Norma… Que représente pour vous cet ouvrage de Bellini ? Norma ! Norma… l’aura impressionnante qui entoure ce rôle mythique. Il s’agit en effet d’un des rôles les plus difficiles du répertoire.
Quand on sait qu’on va le chanter, on est nerveux, on doute, on pense qu’on ne va pas y arriver. Pour moi, c’était mon « Everest ». J’ai commencé au camp de base et, petit à petit, j’ai gravi cet Everest en montant mon matériel moi-même, sans sherpa. Je me suis donc préparée pendant 5 ans, en étudiant aussi avec mon professeur et mon agent, en acceptant des rôles qui m’y préparaient, pour l’agilité de la voix, l’endurance, le style.
Le succès de 2015 fut un accomplissement car j’ai su surmonter ma peur, tout en assumant les difficultés techniques. Mais en fait, je n’aurai atteint le sommet qu’après l’avoir franchi plusieurs fois. Une fois ne suffit pas pour dire qu’on a vaincu. Cette année, je l’ai chanté à Toronto, puis je vais le chanter à Dallas, après Idomeneo de Mozart au Met.
Julia Child, whom I was fortunate to know, liked to say that the key to successful cooking was 85 percent shopping. By this she meant that the accomplished chef or home cook was someone who understood what ingredients were required to make a dish and had the ability to find and select the best available. And, when one item could not be located, the able cook would know what could be used in its place.
Such an approach, I think, can be applied to casting the roles in an opera production, including the stage director and conductor (who are, in their ways, chefs as well). I was thinking about this on July 31 while attending a concert performance of Fidelio at the Caramoor Festival. This is a notoriously hard opera to cast because Beethoven, for all of his genius, wrestled with much of the vocal writing and created music that is glorious but often difficult to sing. Some of the singers, to me, were revelations in their roles, and I was mightily impressed.
I later enquired about who did the casting and was told by a press representative that it was “Will Crutchfield [Caramoor’s artistic director for opera], conductor Pablo Heras-Casado and the artistic team at Caramoor.”
For the record, the cast included Elza van den Heever (Leonore), Paul Groves (Florestan), Kristinn Sigmundsson (Rocco), Georgia Jarman (Marzelline), Andrew Owens (Jaquino), Alfred Walker (Don Pizarro), Xiaomeng Zhang (Don Fernando), Cameron Schutza (First Prisoner) and Andrew Munn (Second Prisoner). Heras-Casado conducted the Orchestra of St. Luke’s, and the chorus was composed of the Caramoor Bel Canto Young Artists and apprentices, some of whom were the covers (understudies) for most of the scheduled singers.
I had heard van den Heever, Groves, Sigmundsson and Jarman in other roles and always with great pleasure. In particular, van den Heever caught my eye and ear as a young artist (she still is quite young) because she is a superb singer and actress. Her memorable 2012 Met debut (captured on DVD) was as Queen Elizabeth I opposite Joyce DiDonato in the title role of Maria Stuarda. Van den Heever famously shaved her head and wore wigs, making her feel closer to the way the formidable monarch might have felt. She later was a powerful Donna Anna at the Met, and we will hear her as Elettra in Mozart’s Idomeneo when that opera is scheduled to be revived in March 2017 with James Levine conducting.
While van den Heever — who is from South Africa but lives in France and did much of her training in the United States — showed early on her abilities in romantic dramatic repertory (Wagner, Weber, some Verdi), Leonore is still an audacious step. Arias such as “Abscheulicher! Wo eilst du hin?”, with some of the most treacherous passages in opera, have challenged the likes of Birgit Nilsson and Hildegard Behrens. And yet van den Heever sang it at Caramoor with seeming ease, making beautiful sounds where even the most accomplished singers have sounded labored. The audience recognized how rare this was and gave her a huge ovation.
South African soprano Elza van den Heever is currently in Toronto to sing one of her signature roles, Bellini’s Norma; shared with Sondra Radvanovsky, van den Heever sings the final four performances of Kevin Newbury’s Norma at the Canadian Opera Company. Like Elsa in Lohengrin and the Elisabettas of Maria Stuarda and Don Carlo, Norma is one of the enviable roles which fill van den Heever’s calendar.
She chats about Bellini’s iconic role, singing smart, and her favourite spots in Toronto.
WHAT KIND OF WOMAN IS NORMA? WHAT QUALITIES DO YOU THINK YOU AND HER SHARE?
Norma is a woman driven by emotion – deep emotion and feeling. She is bound by duty but also a free spirit. She is impulsive, vindictive and also quite innocent. Her “irrational” behaviour reminds me of a teenager in love – my personal view is that she is still very young. She gets completely caught in a situation where she is living two lives … a “professional” life and a “private” life and it’s extremely hard on her as you can imagine. I think her love for this man (who betrayed her), for whom she sacrificed everything, messed with her head. Due to her inherent opulent capacity for love and hate, she is tormented into a bit of a split personality. This is evident as she oscillates so rapidly between thoughts and emotion, especially in her recitatives.
I think I share her “crazy” emotional side – I can get quite irrational and over emphatic.
What she’s doing with us: South African soprano Elza van den Heever is playing the title role in Bellini’s Norma with us this fall at the October 23, 26, 28, and Nov. 5 performances.
The role of Norma is one of the pinnacles of the dramatic soprano repertoire, and van den Heever is no stranger to this role. After her 2015 performance of Norma with the Opéra National de Bordeaux, she garnered both critical and audience acclaim: “The virtuosity of Ms. van den Heever is breathtaking… coloratura at the top of the range, with stunning maturity in the lower range. With her controlled virtuosity, [she] had the audience awaiting every note.” (Bachtrack)
For more information on our production of Norma, click here.
Where you might have seen her: Elza van den Heever has appeared on the stage at the Four Seasons Centre once before in the COC production of Il Trovatore, in which she played the role of Leonore. Her portrayal of this iconic role was widely praised: “Her performance as the piece’s tragic heroine… hit all of the emotional touchstones the part requires: vulnerability, ecstatic love and heart-rending despair. From the opening notes of ‘Tacea la notte placida,’ it was obvious we were in the hands of a singer for whom delicacy and power are not mutually exclusive.” (The Toronto Star)
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One can easily imagine the much-in-demand soprano Elza van den Heever being based in London, New York, Vienna, Paris or Berlin. But Bordeaux is home to the Johannesburg native, who triumphed as Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda at the Metropolitan Opera last season; sings the title role of Norma this month with Canadian Opera Company; and makes her debut in December at the Vienna State Opera singing Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes. Van den Heever has a special affection for this city in southwestern France, and for Opéra National de Bordeaux, where she made her house and role debut as Elettra in Idomeneo in 2008 and has been reengaged for major role debuts including Alcina, Anna Bolena and Norma.
The Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux, a neoclassical construction designed by Victor Louis and considered his masterpiece, opened in 1780. Directly across from the opera stands the luxurious Grand Hôtel, which van den Heever recommends to visitors ready to splurge. The terrace of its fashionable brasserie, Le Bordeaux, is unrivaled—especially in warm weather—for people-watching and a glass of rosé. For a “good, reliable, affordable hotel,” the soprano suggests the Hôtel Majestic, in an eighteenth-century townhouse on Rue de Condé, down the street from the theater’s stage entrance. The Brasserie L’Orléans, nearby, on the broad Place de Quinconces, is popular with opera colleagues. She favors Paus’k, a small spot with an array of prepared takeaway foods, ideal for lunch breaks on the steps of the opera house.
When South African soprano Elza van den Heever made her debut at the Met, as Elizabeth I in Donizetti’s MARIA STUARDA, it was something that was totally memorable in every way–not only for her intelligent and gorgeous bel canto singing but for the lurching gait that helped show her character as unbalanced. She even shaved her hair off, the better to look the part in the HD broadcast, opposite the Maria of Joyce DiDonato. (She repeated it last season at the Met opposite Sondra Radvanovsky’s Maria.)
As Leonore, in a semi-staged production of Beethoven’s FIDELIO–a role debut for her at the Caramoor Festival in Westchester, just north of New York City, on July 31 at 4 pm–she plays a woman (Leonore) disguised as a man (Fidelio) to save her unjustly imprisoned husband, Florestan. Does she have anything unusual in mind for her disguise? Shave her head again or, say, wear a mask, for example?