Interview: Elza van den Heever Takes on Beethoven's Leonore in FIDELIO at Caramoor and It's 'No Joke'

By: Jul. 27, 2016
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Elza van den Heever as Elisabetta in MARIA STUARDA
at the Met. Photo: Ken Howard/Metropolitan Opera.

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?

Photo: Roberto Giostra

Van den Heever laughs, "I think I will go out in a man's suit--that's about as exciting as it will get. And my hair's pretty short right now, anyway. There's no need to do something more dramatic," she tells me, speaking from her home in Bordeaux, France, before the start of rehearsals. She clarifies further, "Not that I'm against doing extreme or strange things that a director may ask of me, if I feel it's justified. I just do it--and ask questions later. But for Leonore, who's a great character, concert attire is as far as I will go."

"As a role, I think she's just phenomenal, very single-minded," says van den Heever. "She is calculated and, in her only real solo aria ("Abscheulicher!") , she reveals how steadfast she is: It's 'I've made up my mind, I'm going to pursue this (her rescue of Florestan).' From the way it's written, you know it's not impulsive, not anything irrational. It's all very clear in her head what her mission is and, of course, it all stems from love--which I love. I very much believe in doing things that you're passionate about and using that as a driving force behind action."

She adds, "In addition, she's obviously very, very creative in the way that she disguises herself. Well enough that the girl, Marzelline--the daughter of Florestan's jailer--falls in love with her. I excited to be singing her because I identify with the character in terms of, you know, being a strong female and going out and doing what you believe in. I like the character and I can't wait until I walk her shoes."

As Armida in Handel's RINALDO
at Lyric Opera of Chicago.

"Walking in her shoes" means not just getting the score under her skin, by herself and with her coaches--and classic recordings by Flagstad, Rysanek and Behrens and the more contemporaneous Christine Brewer and Nina Stemme who sound "effortless and so comfortable in the role "--but being at Caramoor. It's a big thing to be in the same place as her fellow cast members and conductor--even one like maestro Pablo Heras-Casado, with whom she's worked before.

"While you may have learned the opera, you don't know whether you've learned it the way they're expecting you've learned it. I don't know the tempi, the dynamics he will take. Those are things you discover when you get there--especially important when you're making a role debut. It's very difficult memorizing it and singing by yourself because it's such an ensemble piece. When you're together, I think you feed off of the energy from your colleagues. So I can't wait to put her on stage with them and to see what she feels like in real life, interacting with the other singers."

Being excited about creating this character doesn't mean that she isn't a bit apprehensive about it as well. I asked her about her "Step One" after she said, Okay, I'm going to take on this role. "Well, it meant telling myself that my technical abilities are up to this--to convince myself that I can do this and it's going to be great," she says honestly. "Because singing Beethoven is not a joke.

"He treats the voice like an instrument and that means the writing often sits in an uncomfortable place. Actually, it really took me years to come to terms with the fact that, yes, I would probably sing this part--and that I was going to have to play cheerleader with myself, you know. I would have to get out of bed every morning and say, 'Yes you can do this.'

"Because when you start studying the role you think, 'Oh my God, this is just too hard; the voice gets so fatigued as you're trying to fit it in,'" she explains. "It's so uncomfortably written. It just sits in the passaggio"--the points in the voice where the registers change--"and it's relentless. And it's low for a, uh, 'dramatic' soprano. (I don't know exactly what I am, dramatic, spinto. Whatever.)

"But, in general, my voice likes to lie a little higher and this, on the other hand, really sits quite in the middle. This is where I must rely on my experience as a singer--and I just close my eyes and say to myself, 'Wow, you've done this and you've done that, and all those things were just as difficult at the beginning. Then, at the end, you saw you could do it.' However, the more I sing Leonore, the more I realize that getting to the end will mean I'm going to have to be very calculated, very smart about where I can give emotionally, where I can save my voice, where I can take my time."

(FIDELIO is not the only Beethoven in her repertoire. She does the Ninth Symphony and the concert aria and scene "Ah! Perfido" but doesn't find them any easier on the voice than singing Leonore. "Beethoven made unbelievable demands on the voice.")

I asked whether there was a point when she asked herself whether this role was not right for her and she would pull out. Absolutely not, she responded.

"I mean, sometimes you feel something just sits uncomfortably for you and you have to rely on all the people that you trust in your life-your teacher, your manager who tell you, yes, this role is for you and you can do it-- and just trust that it's going to be okay."

So who does she trust most? "My teacher and I think she knows my best better than I do myself--knew I could do things before I knew I could." That would be Sheri Greenawald, renowned soprano and better known teacher, who has been director of the San Francisco Opera Center since 2002 and artistic director of the Merola Opera Program--two lauded organizations that recognize, cultivate and nurture the finest young operatic talent. Van den Heever was among them. "She's an amazing teacher and she changed my life."

Still at home in South Africa, at 18, she decided that she wanted to study in the United States and landed in San Francisco, first at the Conservatory of Music, then at the San Francisco Opera's Merola Program and as an Adler Fellow. She met Greenawald (and discovered she was a soprano, not a mezzo) at the Merola and, the rest, as they say, is history. "In retrospect, I was the luckiest girl in the world, because the Conservatory was literally the only school that accepted me," she recalls. "I'm so grateful that happened because it was just the perfect place for me to grow up: I was this green, insecure little girl from South Africa and I had no idea what I was doing with my voice. I obviously had the talent but it was so raw, the bare bones.

"Had I landed in New York or someplace else more competitive, I probably would have been eaten up and spat out because I was just not ready for that kind of environment. San Francisco was a little more laid back and I could really take the time to find my voice."

Greenawald wasn't her only mentor. "Of course, there was the man who started my career, Matthew Epstein; he was able to be clairvoyant and see things that I couldn't have conceived were possible in the future," she recalls. "But he saw it all--he just kind of knew what roles would suit my voice before I knew I could sing high notes or before I knew I could sing coloratura. He just knew it from hearing my throat. So I trusted him implicitly. He retired and my current manager, Michael Lewin takes the role of advisor now. It's just this team of people that I trust. When they say something I listen and then, when the time is right, I try certain things out and so far they've been on the money.

Has she thought about what is going to be different about "the van den Heever Leonore" than any of the versions she's listened to?

"It really always depends on many factors and the conductor counts for a great deal," she explains. "Right now, I believe there are certain phrases I would like to do in one breathe and that there's a way I'd like to portray my strength in the aria or in the quartet when she reveals herself as the wife, not the boy. However, I will bring what I can to the table when I meet with the conductor but I think it will be a great partnership."

What's the one thing that scares her to death about the piece? She has a quick answer: the dialogue. "I personally I really don't like talking in front of people. I mean I don't get nervous singing and I don't have any concern about remembering to put words to music. When I hear my singing voice, it's like breathing, you know, something I don't think about," she explains. "But when I have to talk and I have to hear my speaking voice, I get nervous. I don't understand it, really.

"So, unrealistically, I wish there was no dialogue. However, the dialogue makes the story make sense. Without it, nobody knows what's going on. In this piece, it's absolutely necessary and it was one of the first things I did when I opened the score was to immediately start learning the dialogue, so that it can be in my mouth and be natural, so I don't have to think about it when I actually say the words."

Luckily, most of the other roles she sings are sung-through, like the Elisabetta in MARIA STUARDA ("I'd really like a crack at the title role of that opera"), the title role of Bellini's NORMA (a recent addition to her repertoire) and Elettra in Mozart's IDOMENEO (which she'll do next spring at the Met)--three of the crazy women she often portrays--and Elisabeth de Valois in the five-act Italian version of Verdi's DON CARLO ("If I could just sing Verdi for the rest of my life, I would do that and be so content, particularly the five-act, Italian DON CARLO"). She won the Wagner prize in at the Seattle Opera several years ago, singing arias from LOHENGRIN and TANNHAUSER and has also "put her toe in" the Wagner waters, with her namesake, Elsa, in LOHENGRIN. But the role that really calls to her is Elisabeth in TANNHAUSER; to date, she is still waiting for the call to sing the full-length Elisabeth. (Attention impresarios: Elza is ready and eager to jump in!)

Earlier in her life, van den Heever--one of triplets--wanted to be a chef, but her voice teacher encouraged her vocal studies, telling her she could always take up cooking at a later time. (The other triplets are a photographer and artist, while another sibling is indeed a chef.) For now, however, van den Heever's mind is totally wound up in her rising star as a singer, in particular, on her debut in Beethoven's Leonore--and, like her description of the character earlier in this piece, she's passionate and steadfast, with complete love for her art.