Rising Stars: an Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part 2

[This is the second part of an Interview, the first part of which took place at the Santa Fe Opera (see Rising Stars: An Interview with Elza van den Heever, Part I) in August, 2009.]

Wm: In the past two years, I have reviewed your performances as Donna Anna in Mozart’s “Don Giovanni” in San Francisco and Santa Fe. At the time of this interview (February, 2010) you are singing Fiordiligi in “Cosi fan Tutte” at the Dallas Opera.

You sang Elettra in Mozart’s “Idomeneo” in Bordeaux and  Vitellia in his “Clemenza di Tito” in Frankfurt last Fall.  (You also have sung the First Lady in his “Magic Flute” in San Francisco and Frankfurt.) What special appeal does Mozart have to you? Do you have a special favorite among these roles? If so, explain why.

EvdH: I think what makes Mozart so extraordinary, is that it is a pleasure to listen to and is gorgeously beautiful. To contribute one’s interpretation of his music is an honor. Once you delve into a Mozart score, and see what is going on in his orchestration, and then think about where he was in regards to his family and his career when he wrote this music, you begin to understand his genius.

One of the characters he wrote for so wonderfully is Donna Anna. That was my first role, and soon after that I sang Elettra, so I got an early taste of what Mozart is like. It is extraordinary to see that each role is so different. He gives each of his soprano roles the right music for their part. All these arias I had only listened to, but now I am creating the characters on stage that sing them. It brings me great pleasure to be one of the lucky few that gets to do that.

Wm: Fiordiligi’s part usually is considered to be difficult because of the great aria Come scoglio. Yet, her other big aria, Per Pieta, ben mio,  also makes its own demands.

EvdH: You  can’t sing Fiordiligi before you are technically able. Everything is demanding. But Fiordiligi is like a goal that you have to work towards. You cannot tackle it before you are ready. What  makes Come scoglio so difficult is that it requires a technically secure soprano voice. But if your voice is properly prepared and you know you are meant to sing the role, then you should do it.

What makes Per Pieta difficult in its own right is that it is so exposed and so quiet. You have to be so still and confident in yourself.  I consider singing Fiordiligi to be an accomplishment. This is the payoff for hard work during the last two years. To put my stamp on this role – that is a reward!

Wm: When we spoke last in Santa Fe, you had mentioned that almost every role you sing is a new experience. If I’m not mistaken, since last Fall, every role you’ve sung was or is a role debut. Since you have been performing regularly throughout this period, this means that you likely were preparing Vitellia in Mozart’s “La Clemenza di Tito” and the title role in Donizetti’s “Anna Bolena” for Frankfurt while you were in Santa Fe and preparing Fiordiligi for Dallas while singing in Frankfurt. Is this how you expect your career to progress for the next few  years?

EvdH: I hope that it is not this diffficult – having to learn Anna Bolena, Vitellia, Fiordiligi and the “Der Freischütz” Agathe  in succession. What has made it so difficult is that with every new role debut I feel pressure on my shoulders to maintain the success of my previous roles. With every role I get better, but that weighs on me.

I do feel pride in what I’ve accomplished – that I’ve gone from success to success, which could not have happened if I did not have the security in the breath support that came from my training with my teacher, Sheri Greenawald at the San Francisco Opera. I started out as a mezzo-soprano and did not sing a single soprano role until my Donna Anna in 2006. But that is o.k. I couldn’t have done that as a student. When I get to start repeating roles, it will be much easier. It keeps me young.

Wm: Having now interviewed both you and your teacher and mentor, Sheri Greenawald, it’s  clear that your collaboration has been an important milestone for both of you. She talks about the need for any artist to have both the  musicianship to be able to master the art form and the ability to consult another person who knows the singer’s voice and whose advice can be trusted. To whom do you go for advice on your vocal technique?

EvdH: Oh, Sheri, without question. I think one has to trust your teacher with your life. When Sheri says do it this way, I know she is usually right. I know I have a good technique because she teaches having a free breath support, even though it took me years to figure that out. Usually, a problem will be because of the tongue or the breathing. When one masters both technique and breath control, the voice works properly. When the voice works properly, it is the difference between night and day.

For me, Sheri is a saint in my life. i can’t praise her enough. She changed her life.

[Wm: For my interview with Sheri Greenawald, see: Interview with San Francisco Opera Center’s Sheri Greenawald.]

Wm: The John Cox production of “Cosi fan Tutte”, that the Dallas Opera is presenting with Robert Perdziola’s beautiful sets and costumes, is one that was performed at the San Francisco Opera when you were in that company’s Merola program for Young Artists. Does it surprise you five years later to have the starring role in this production?

[Below: Elza van den Heever is Fiordiligi; edited image, based on a Karen Almond photograph, courtesy of the Dallas Opera.]

EvdH: Absolutely. You know I kind of feel that I am stuck in a slingshot. Every time I am in a new production, I can’t believe it . Five years ago I could not have believed I would have been in this production. I am so lucky and so grateful. It is a bizarre thing when you are in the midst of the beginning of a career and you still remember being a student when you couldn’t imagine this would happen.

Wm: What is it like working in a John Cox production?

EvdH: I said  to John that it was a privilege to learn Fiordiligi from him.  I am so happy that my first Fiordiligi was in this production. I kept wanting to be this young and vivacious Elza. I was a wild horse but he completely reined me in. I now know that if I were running around on stage as Fiordiligi, I would have found so much more to overcome.

He forced me to be a still and dignified lady. The Cox-Perdziola production is a setting where you can just be graceful. I was able to think character and technique. It gave me a secure environment to think about how to do this gracefully.

In “Cosi” I was able to work again with Jennifer Holloway, who was Idamante to my Elettra in “Idomeneo” at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux. I am drawing strength from Jenny, who is so strong. Also, it was wonderful being in the “Cosi” cast with Nuccia Focile. What an artist! and with Sir Thomas Allen, who all of us girls think is so charming. It is a wonderfully symbiotic cast. We are all working well together. I have had such wonderful colleagues in my experiences so far.

Wm: As an Adler fellow at the San Francisco Opera in 2007, you had the opportunity to create a role in a new opera by Philip Glass. What was that experience like?

EvdH: Being a part of Glass’ “Appomattox” was a great honor for us Adler fellows.  It was a major new production by a major composer, and that type of opportunity does not fall into the laps of young, unknown artists, so we felt very privileged. We were contributing to history, and for me personally, it was rather exciting playing a character, mean and old, bound to a wheelchair.

[Below: Elza van den Heever creating the role of Mary Custis Lee at the world premiere of Glass’ “Appomattox”.]

Wm: Each day that you are in Dallas for Fiordiligi, you are preparing the role of Agathe in Weber’s “Der Freischütz” for the new Stefan Ruzowitsky production in Vienna. You begin rehearsals for that next month. I assume this is the first time in your career that you are starring in a new production directed by an Academy award winning film director.

Have you been briefed about Ruzowitsky’s ideas for the production? Have you seen sketches of your costumes?

EvdH: No, I will see these on the 3rd of March. I’m really looking forward to it. When I was introduced to regietheatre I found love. All that realism and doing crazy things on stage.  We have seven weeks of rehearsal and it will be intense. I love the rehearsal process. For me seven weeks is really great. It gives me a chance to understand my environment.

Agathe’s music is so beautiful. The role of Agathe is a third of the length of Fiordiligi’s in this production in which I was forced to be still. It will actually be easier for me to be moving around over the  stage.

Wm: Would you discuss how you schedule learning a new role when you have performances of ongoing productions every few days?

EvdH: Fiordiligi took a lot longer to learn than I had expected. It took up some of the time that I would take to learn “Freischütz”. On the days between “Cosi fan Tutte” performances I am in coaching sessions two hours in the morning and two hours in the late afternoon to get Agathe into my  voice. I am in the practice rooms by 8 a.m. I just have to study, study, study.  But on the day of a performance, I’m quiet.

Wm: The Weber operas, even “Der Freischütz”, his most famous, have not fared particularly well in the United States. As you begin to get into the role of Agathe, are you beginning to understand the relatively greater appeal of Weber’s operas to German speaking countries, and do you see the possibility of them developing larger fan bases in the Anglophone countries?

EvdH: Maybe it has to do with the fact that so many operas are new to me, I cannot answer that question. Agathe’s two arias are two of the most beautiful arias I sing, but I’m too new to singing Weber to understand the answer to that. I’ve not delved into how the opera itself fares in different places, but to me my music is beautiful.

[Below: Elza van den Heever as Agathe in Weber’s “Der Freischütz”; edited image, based on a Josef Fischnaller photograph for the Staatsoper Wien.]

Wm: You are scheduled to sing with some of the artists that I have found to be most interesting, such  as Simon O’Neill as your Max in the Vienna “Freischütz” and Carlo Ventre as  your Don Carlo in Frankfurt. When you have a future engagement with an artist such as O’Neill  with whom you have not worked, and probably not seen in performance before, do you “scout them out” – say by checking their performances on YouTube, or do you just wait until you arrive for rehearsals?

EvdH: I have worked with Carlo Ventre. We both were in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro”, although we have not done “Don Carlo” together.

I’m not one that scouts singers. I’m wary of the Internet in general. When I don’t know the people I am to sing with, I don’t want to decide beforehand what I think about that person or that voice.

Wm: Some of the roles you performed in Frankfurt suggest moves into quite different repertory. For example, you sang Giorgetta in Puccini’s “Il Tabarro” under the baton of Conductor Nicola Luisotti? What was that like?

EvdH: Incredible. I cannot ask for a more inspiring, wonderful European debut. I showed up very prepared. We had a great time together. Luisotti understands Puccini so well. The production of the Puccini’s three “Trittico” operas  by Claus Guth was a brilliant example of  regietheatre.

[Below: Giorgetta (Elza van den Heever) stands with her estranged husband Michele (Zeljko Lukic) and the apparition of their dead son; edited image, based on a Monika Rittershaus photograph for the Oper Frankfurt.]

That entire experience remains as one of the most exciting of my life. Hopefully, some day in the future, I will return to the San Francisco Opera, where Luisotti is musical director.

Do you expect to be adding the big Puccini and verismo roles?

EvdH: Not yet. There’s so much time. I have ten years before I have to think about these great Puccini roles. I am fortunate to have a manager and teacher that agrees with me that I can wait. That is one of the most exciting things I do, making the decisions about what roles I am going to add to my repertoire.

Wm: You also have moved into Verdi in one of the inner core of great Verdian dramatic soprano roles, Elisabetta in “Don Carlo”, in the five act Italian version, in a production designed by David McVicar. Since your main stage operatic debut was in the San Francisco Opera premiere night of McVicar’s “Don Giovanni”, what is it like to have experienced two McVicar productions?

[Below: Elisabetta (Elza van den Heever) with Don Carlo (Yonghoon Lee) in the David McVicar production of Verdi’s “Don Carlo”; edited image, based on a Wolfgang Runkel photograph for Oper Frankfurt).]

EvdH: Love, love, love, love! McVicar’s “Don Carlo” is a simple set with elaborate and beautiful period costumes. The McVicar production is all about the text and music. I am so looking forward to singing it again. Both of the McVicar productions in which I have performed were revivals, but he is a brilliant director whose ideas carry through the revivals.

Wm: Are you planning to take on other major Verdi roles at this point in your career?

EvdH: Yes. I will do Leonora in his “Il Trovatore” at the Grand Théâtre de Bordeaux. I  would also love to do Elvira in “Ernani”.

Wm: When we spoke last, we did not have much time to discuss your winning of the Seattle Opera’s Wagner competition in 2008. By 2007, it was evident that you could have built your career as a Mozart specialist. How did you come to decide to compete in a competition for young Wagnerians? Did it surprise you that you won the grand prize?

EvdH: Yes.very much so. How can I answer that? I was blessed with a voice with which I could do many things. I have a team consisting of my teacher and my agent that allows me to explore my capabilities. However, I don’t think that winning a winning a Wagnerian voice competition with arias of Elsa’s from “Lohengrin”  and Elisabeth’s from “Tannhäuser” is indicative of a Wagnerian career.

Wm: What are your thoughts about the role of Elsa in Wagner’s “Lohengrin” now that you have had an opportunity to perform it?

EvdH: It was  wonderful singing a role with the same name as mine. We had the most amazingly brilliant, inventive stage director, Jens-Daniel Herzog. He staged it from Elsa’s perspective. Elsa was caught in a dream. The opera started and ended with the spotlight on me, which allowed me to really play and explore the role. That role is so big.

Wm: A successful Elsa surely opens up the other jugendlich roles such as Elisabeth in “Tannhauser”, Eva in “Meistersinger” and, perhaps, Senta in “Fliegende Holländer”.

EvdH: Elisabeth, which I’ve done once, is not as big a role as Elsa. What she endures is so real and so painful. To get the opportunity to express that emotion on stage is so fantastic. I enjoy it when I can really act on stage, especially when I can be crazy. At the end of the opera, you get to sing with a full Wagner voice with full orchestra. That was amazing. It was not a “park and bark” role.  It was incredible. I cannot imagine, have sung the role, doing it any way but very lyrically. What a great opera!

For Senta, however,  you need a dramatic bottom. I will not touch any Wagner but Elsa and Elisabeth. This is the problem. I do have a voice with a rich sound, but the strength in my voice is not in the bottom, but in the top. As long as I have this team that helps me make these choices,  I will not touch Senta for a long time.

Wm: Sheri Greenawald said that her job as teacher is to make sure that one’s vocal chords are functioning properly, but that it is the artist who develops the technique to sing Donizetti, or Mozart, or Wagner, or Verdi, or Puccini. You sing roles by each of these composers, and Weber besides. Do you approach the singing of, say, Elsa or Giorgetta, differently, than that of Fiordiligi or Donna Anna?

EvdH: I don’t think so. I think I approach them all from a lyrical standpoint. I trust that I don’t have to impose a dramatic sound on a lyric voice. These composers are very smart. If you can figure out how to sing the role free of any strain or constriction, all of their operas  can and should be approached from the same technique. The healthy way is to sing with the least vocal strain.

But figuring out how to sing a role is not where the preparation ends.The difficult part is mastering the language and the style. Fortunately, there are so many people coaching in language and style.

Wm: Are there conductors and stage directors that have influenced you or that you particularly admire?

EvdH: Conductors? Every one I have ever worked with. I have worked with incredible conductors in my short career. In Dallas, my conductor was Graeme Jenkins, and  I was the only member of his cast who was new to their role. The poor conductor that has to deal with a new Fiordiligi!

He made sure to teach me Fiordiligi as he knows it should be performed. He would call me up and say “Now we are going to work on Per Pieta.” He was so gracious and I am so grateful. What a great conductor! God, am I lucky!

I did “Lohengrin” with Bertrand de Billy, and have recorded Mahler with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony. I have performed with Donald Runnicles in San Francisco, Nicola Luisotti in Frankfurt and Karen Kamensek in Bordeaux. Each conductor brings his or her opinions of me, and there is always something in those opinions that causes me to grow.

My experiences with stage directors include Jens-Daniel Herzog’s new production of “Lohengrin” and “Tabarro” with Claus Guth in Frankfurt.  I did a Christoph Loy production of “La Clemenza di Tito” and also two David McVicar revivals.  As an Adler Fellow at the San Francisco Opera, I covered Robert Carsen’s new production of Gluck’s “Iphigenie en Tauride” and Elisabeth in Graham Vick’s new production of “Tannhäuser”. Vick  is an amazing stage director.

I have not found myself in a position that I could not agree with a conductor or director. If you as the artist show up prepared, people will respect you. I learn from each person, even if I don’t agree with them. A person said you have to be like clay, so that you can be molded. How lucky we are to get to know people that you can work with for the next six or seven years of your life. There is so much more to learn about each person.

Wm: And what artists from the past do you admire?

EvdH: My true hero in life is Maria Callas. She speaks to me. Also Regine Crespin, Margaret Price, Pilar Lorengar. This is where I find YouTube to be wonderful.

Wm: You have spent your formative years in South Africa, during a time of great transition, and most of the last decade in an operatic career based in either the United States or Germany. Obviously, your life experiences are unlike everyone else’s. How do you personally relate to these different parts of the world.  Do you find similarities between them, and remarkable differences?

EvdH: There are remarkable cultural differences. I often reflect on the fact that I was born and raised in South Africa. My career came into being in San Francisco and now I live in Europe. Growing up in an impoverished country and then living in two privileged countries gives me a unique perspective into life.

The fact that South Africa is so far removed from the rest of the world, makes it difficult to be with my family. I do think it gives me a unique experience. These cultural differences influence everything in my life.

Wm: How often do your get back to your homeland?

EvdH: Not that often. The last time I was there was in October 2008, and that was the first time in four years. The reason is it is literally on the other side of the world, so getting there is not easy. Time always seems to be an issue, and when I was a student, it cost a lot. Thank God for Skype!

Wm: What are you looking forward to happen in your life?

EvdH: I would like to continue to work with gracious and ambitious people that want to serve the music above all. I would like to continue to work with directors that are inspirers and conductors that want me to strive better at serving the music as much as possible.

I want to grow as an artist and to work with colleagues that bring out the best in my voice and my character. I feel that I have just been put in the shoes of someone who is truly blessed. I hope it continues. There is so much to be learned, to be discovered, to be thankful for – fellow singers, conductors, directors, as collaborators, make it worth giving up a normal life to be an opera singer.