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)
Comments Off on Artist Basics: Elza van den Heever
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?
South-African soprano Elza van den Heever comes back to the Grand-Théâtre de Bordeaux, this time for Norma as a role debut. Opera-Online met this magnificent dramatic soprano, one of the most accomplished of our time.
Opera-Online : When did you realise you had a voice ?
Elza van den Heever : I never know how to answer this question, because what I have to say might sound strange ! I did not personally know – in my heart – I had a voice until I sang Elettra, here in Bordeaux, in 2008. After the first performance of the role here, and after feeling the confidence rush through my veins…that was the first time I realized that I had a voice that might actually sustain a career…Before that, I did not really believe in myself. However, I was told from the age of sixteen on that I was due to have a career as a singer, and I sort of followed the dreams of my mother in particular and my voice teacher all the way to San Francisco when I was eighteen to study voice.
Nous rencontrons Elza van den Heever au lendemain d’une superbe représentation de Norma au Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux. Malgré une prise de rôle toute récente, la soprano montre une totale adéquation avec le personnage écrasant de la prêtresse de Bellini, se jouant de toute fatigue vocale pour parvenir au terme de l’œuvre avec une énergie tout bonnement hallucinante. Pas le moindre faux pas n’émaille cette incarnation malgré l’aspect physique de la mise en scène de Christopher Alden, servie par ailleurs par une distribution rarement aussi cohérente. Jamais une note approximative, jamais une situation qui ne soit pleinement vécue, mais une parfaite disponibilité à la scène et cela, avec un naturel confondant.
Lorsque Elza van den Heever nous reçoit, nous sommes tout autant séduit par sa spontanéité que par cette énergie qui se conjugue à une envie d’opéra exprimée avec simplicité mais aussi passion…
Star-making Performance – Female: Elza van den Heever in Maria Stuarda as Queen Elizabeth I. This formidable young South African soprano went all out in her Met debut and was a wonderful match for Joyce DiDonato in the title role.
Image: Ken Howard / Metropolitan Opera
Comments Off on The First Annual Excellence in Opera Awards (AKA The Freddies)