Yesterday, the soprano answered Examiner.com’s questions about her upcoming Metropolitan Opera debut as Elizabeth I, Queen of England, in Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Maria Stuarda. Today she speaks frankly about jealousy, Mozart characters, and other favourite roles.
Ex: You said in yesterday’s column that your character feels all-consuming jealousy toward the title character, Maria. How much of a challenge is it to convey Elisabetta’s jealousy?
Elza: In this case, I don’t have to pretend. Joyce [DiDonato, who will sing the title role] is such a beautiful petite woman. I am actually jealous of how she looks. And then she opens her mouth and this gorgeous sound emerges. I truly wish I could sound like that. So it’s no stretch for me to portray first, Elizabeth’s genuine astonishment at seeing Maria for the first time or her intense jealousy.
Ex: Typically, singers “break resonance” in Maria’s venomous retort (on the lines “Figlia impura di Bolena, / Parli tu di disonore?), resuming singing by the third line: “Meretrice indegna e oscena”. Is that practice score-driven? If not, how would you declaim them?
Elza: That’s a hard question to answer. To me it’s an emotion driven by the moment. If I were singing that role, I don’t think I could know ahead of time how it would come out each performance. One night it might come out as a soft moan. Another night it might come out like an explosion! I don’t think that’s something you can predetermine. I think that a lot depends on what you’re feeling within your body at that moment.
Ex: What are your favourite roles?
Elza: Ask me in three months, and the answer might be different from the one I give now. Right now, I love Elisabetta in Maria Stuarda. But I also love Desdemona… I love all my Verdi roles, Elisabetta in Don Carlos for sure. Leonora [in Il Trovatore]. Even though I find the character a bit insipid, her music is incredibly glorious.
Ex: Do you find it difficult to engage with her character?
Elza: No! I have no qualms about being vulnerable onstage, being that pitiful “Poor me” character—I can do that. In fact I enjoy it. But after singing a string of these dying characters, and then you get to sing this? [Eyes wide open in amazement, both hands touching the table a foot apart, as if carrying a velvet cushion.] It’s like being given a jewel! She is so powerful and larger-than-life, not someone who’s weeping all the time.
Ex: What about dream roles?
Elza: Mimì [in Puccini’s La Bohème]. Done! I want to sing Mimì. I will never sing Mimì. I want to sing Mimì.
Ex: Can’t your agent make that happen for you?
Elza: [Bending forward, arms extended at hip level, palms facing forward] Do I look like I’m dying from consumption? I don’t feel like I’m dying from consumption.
Ex: But I’ve read that you’re a very convincing actress.
Elza: Oh, I love to act, but you can only go so far. I mean, if I’m Mimì, who are they going to get to play Rodolfo? No, I’d love to sing Mimì, but maybe in concert. Let’s see. I’d also love to sing Tosca—one day, not now. I’d love to sing Sieglinde—one day. Fidelio—one day. Those are landmark roles. I think you have to grow up before you can sing them. So many things have to occur between the start of your career before you’re ready to take them on. Unless you were born with that sort of voice. You know, like Birgit Nilsson. She would never get to sing Mimì, not with all that power.
Ex: How about Mozart roles? Would you ever consider a pants role like Sesto in La clemenza di Tito?
Elza: No, not Sesto. I’m Vitellia. Vitellia is crazy and wonderful. I love her. She is not meek. She’s so wicked, so dense. She probably won’t come up again for me because her tessitura is so low. And then in the trios she’s got those high C’s. That role is very hard. Think of dipping into a chocolate factory, then flying into the stratosphere. It’s like Elettra in Idomeneo. Her first aria is quite low. Second aria, kind of in the middle. And then she’s got this crazy high-speed cackling. That’s hard. I love her.
Ex: Don’t take this the wrong way, but I saw your high-speed cackling on YouTube and had to turn the volume down because the people in the next room complained.
Elza: [Aghast] Oh! Ha! That was five years ago, when I was 28. No, I don’t take that the wrong way—she’s not supposed to sing softly.
Ex: When did you know you had a voice?
Elza: I guess everyone in my family knew before I did. I could always carry a tune, but I didn’t think that meant I would become a singer. I studied privately with my vocal teacher in South Africa [Elza’s homeland]. When I finished high school, aged 17, she wildly encouraged my parents to send me to United States to study voice. I can’t believe how everything kind of fell into place, because truly, not in my wildest dreams had I ever thought I could become an opera singer. People dreamt it for me before I ever knew to dream it. I was supported by so much love and encouragement. Had I not had that, I wouldn’t have pursued it. My parents said, “If this is what you really want, then you should go after it. We will rob a bank if we have to, to support you.” If it weren’t for them, I wouldn’t have become a singer.
Ex: It sounds like you really like them.
Elza: My parents, oh, yes, I do! I owe them everything. I feel such a debt of gratitude toward them for having dreamt my dream before I did.
Ex: Will anyone special attend your debut?
Elza: My parents. They’re very excited about it.
Ex: What’s good about life?
Elza: Currently? Everything. I’m working where I want to work and singing the roles I want to sing, with colleagues I like to work with. I have to pinch myself and remind myself that this is what I do for a job. Life is amazing!
Throughout the interview, her frequent gestures came large and freely. No one in the surrounding area, though, was harmed.
Elza van den Heever has been making quite a splash wherever she appears. The press has lavished praise on her voice—calling it “gleaming, powerful [with] daunting agility,” “radioactive … with inexhaustible breath,” and “worthy of Bayreuth.” She also enjoys critical acclaim for her acting, both in comic and dramatic roles.
One gets the impression that Maria Stuarda will justifiably prove to be one of the hottest tickets of the Met’s current season. One thing is certain: With Elza van den Heever onstage, the audience will be in the very presence of a fearsome queen.
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