Elza van den Heever, a new presence on the world’s stage

OperaMetro (OM) had the privilege of interviewing soprano Elza van den Heever (EvdH), who stars in this season’s Idomeneo as the Princess Elettra, to be telecast in HD live from the Met’s stage on Saturday, March 25. As is my custom here, the interview is formatted as if she and I were chatting while on a break from a brisk walk through Central Park on a warm March day, the sun streaming through the trees, just wonderful...but, actually, we did this by telephone separated by miles, subfreezing temperatures, snow and sleet blowing horizontally about by a fierce gale force wind.

OM: (warmly) Elza, it’s a pleasure to talk with you.

EvdH: (warmly also) My pleasure as well.

OM: I was one of those maniacs shouting Brava! Brava! Monday night. You brought the house down.

EvdH: The Met audiences are very kind. I feel quite welcome here actually.

OM: This is your third opera at the Met, correct?

EvdH: Yes, but my fourth season. Elisabetta in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda twice, Donna Anna in Don Giovanni in between and now Elettra in Idomeneo.

OM: I missed your Donna Anna, unfortunately, but your Elisabetta was for me a total conception, riveting, as is your Elettra. Do you have any special methods for getting into the personalities of your characters?

Elza van den Heever as Elettra in Mozart's  Idomeneo  at the Met

Elza van den Heever as Elettra in Mozart's Idomeneo at the Met

EvdH: Well, I very much enjoy delving into the psychology of my characters, but the music always comes first. It’s not ‘oh I’d love to play this character,’ but rather ‘I’d love to sing this role,’ with an eye toward the bonus that the character also has several psychological dimensions to her. It’s wonderful when the role is rewarding both to sing and to play on stage. At the onset, then, I spend a lot of time at my piano learning the music, mastering the style of the music if it is new to me, putting the text to the vocal line. I’m always asking myself if the music really fits my voice. If it does, I keep going, if not I might set the part aside for a few years. But from there I place the music and text in context of the whole drama, and from all these elements the concept of playing the part on stage sort of evolves in my mind. But I try not think too much about the stage part beforehand. After all, I’m fitting into a director’s vision and I have to more or less fit the stage directions. I find I can be molded.

OM: Having seen previous seasons of Idomeneo here I recognize Ponnelle’s directions for Elettra. She’s a strong character, but I was aware little things you added.

EvdH: I enjoy playing edgy characters.

OM: Your voice too is interesting. Would you call yourself a dramatic soprano?

EvdH: No, but that’s not to say I’m not, just to say that I don’t wish to be voice typed. You know, once you’re boxed into this or that type of voice I feel like you’re sort of pushed into certain roles and, as a consequence, prevented from doing others. At this stage of my career I like to keep my options open. I want to call my own shots, in other words...Be creative, keep the joie of performing alive as long as I can.

OM: You did Leonore in Fidelio at Caramoor this past summer. I previewed the performance here on OperaMetro but was out of town. Leonore is getting pretty close to dramatic soprano…

EvdH: Yes, but before saying yes to that role I did a lot of soul searching. I thought to myself, ‘no, no, Leonore is not something one should sing until she is over 40. I like to err on the side of caution with these new roles, try to stay a step behind other people’s recommendations rather than a step ahead. And I’m always going back for advice to my teachers, my coaches, my manager, the team of people whom I can trust. So Fidelio, Fidelio, this is too soon to sing in Fidelio, I’m not going to touch Fidelio. The vocal line crosses back and forth over the passaggio, I mean, what was Beethoven thinking!? Be patient, just wait, everything will fall into place eventually. But I sat down at my piano and played with it…I found that my voice wants to be there, the tessitura is on the low side, a place I can live in, and the back and forth across the register break wasn’t a problem. In fact it felt really good, the role fits my voice like a glove. It was fun to do last summer.

OM: And so?

EvdH: And so now I realize that these roles, my so-called over 40 roles, are totally in my future.

OM: Cool. New Roles?

EvdH: Richard Strauss.

OM: Ah! Now you’re talking! He LOVES sopranos!

EvdH: Yes, but the roles are pretty scary, scary vocally, the chords, the intervals, just the music itself is complicated. It’s tough to wrap myself around what I’ve seen so far.

OM: What role are you looking at now?

EvdH: I’m looking at Chrysothemis, tentatively, just tentatively. There is a trick to it, and I’ll get to it, and the role someday will fit like a glove. But on this side of it, it is daunting.

OM: Do you listen to other singer’s recordings to get an idea of the role before committing to learning it?

EvdH: No, not really. I mean, I do listen to recordings, but not for the singers. I listen in order to figure out the orchestration and what the orchestra is saying at the moment to complement my singing. It wouldn’t necessarily be contained in the vocal score in front of me, maybe the dynamics, but certainly not the orchestration.

OM: Interesting.

EvdH: Actually, I find James Levine’s recordings of the operas very helpful because of the balance and articulation he gets out of the Met orchestra. I hear more of the instrumental voices in the score.

OM: And now you’ve worked with the man himself.

EvdH: It’s been wonderful working with him. He is really a singer’s conductor. It’s more than just the entrances or the cues: he worked with me, helped me achieve the style of the music, the feel for the music. And not just with me; he works with everyone on stage, in the pit, even the rehearsal pianist. Mr. Levine is amazing, inspiring, so supportive, just golden. He makes every artist feel at home at the Met.

OM: Well, as to that, Elza, what is your home theater?

EvdH: Home theater? That would be Frankfurt. I’ve had the majority of the starts there. It’s embracing, like a good old friend, like the home where you know your way around. But the Met is comfortable for me now to some degree. I know my way around here more and more. I feel happy here too.

OM: Other opera houses to conquer? Your bucket list?

EvdH: Yes and no. My criterion is I want to sing with companies that really want me, where the atmosphere is positive. So it’s not about just saying I’ve sung there.

OM: What are the biggest challenges facing young singers today?

EvdH: Honestly? Trying not to get sick. Viruses more aggressive these days, you’re in airplanes, subways, trains…closed environments. Should I go to this party during flu season? If a singer gets sick and has to cancel she doesn’t get paid. But right up there as number two is traveling 10 months out of the year, being away from family, OMG! eight countries in one year last year. Sometimes alone. And it’s fine with me, I travel comfortably, it’s an adventure for sure, but it has its lonely side too. I very much look forward to getting home for a spell.

The real  Elza van den Heever, without the fright wig from  Idomeneo

The real Elza van den Heever, without the fright wig from Idomeneo

OM: I’ll bet. Tell me, were your family for or against this career?

EvdH: Totally for. I thank them every day. Other music students with me were told ‘oh no, don’t put all your efforts into singing, take the LSATs, have a backup plan,’ but no, my parents were totally behind me. They’re artists: my father makes documentaries, my mother was an actor, now a producer, one brother is a painter, one is a photographer, the last was a professional chef until he decided to be a hunter.

OM: What do you do for fun, apart from stress about Strauss?

EvdH: I love to walk, outdoors, not a treadmill. Walking is my great escape. If I can’t walk I think I’ll die. When I’m home and not walking, I’m in my own kitchen. It’s how I relax.

OM: Favorite meal?

EvdH: Just whatever mood strikes me. I go to the market place, see what looks good, and invent something. Love to cook.

OM: Music?

EvdH: I LOVE country music, I just love it. Actually I don’t listen to classical music very much. I like a cappella groups, I adore Barbara Striesand more than I can say (I’d love to meet her, what an honor!) and Christmas music. I just can’t wait for the first of December. It’s my favorite time of the year.

OM: Among mine too. Elza, I wish we could chat for another hour. Thank you for talking to me, congratulations, brava! on your Elettra, and best wishes in the future. Please keep in touch.

EvdH: Thank you.

Photos: Metropolitan Opera production of Elza van den Heever in Idomeneo by Marty Sohl; Ms. van den Heever publicity photograph by Robert Glostra.

Please see OperaMetro’s review of the Met’s Idomeneo on the page Met Sixteen Seventeen. Catch the HD telecast of Idomeneo in a local theater near you.

Also have a nice day! No, we didn’t all get kidnapped and taken to the Arctic Circle during the night. It just came down to visit us Tuesday…