//  Feature

A Recipe for Success on the Opera Stage

by Fred Plotkin | Operavore | WQXR

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.

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