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Soprano Elza van den Heever to make auspicious Met debut

Elza van den Heever gets to be Elizabeth I, Queen of England, when she debuts at the Metropolitan Opera
Photo by Dario Acosta courtesy of CAMI

Dec. 31 marks the Metropolitan Opera debut of South African soprano Elza van den Heever in Gaetano Donizetti’s opera Maria Stuarda (Mary Stuart, known as Mary, Queen of Scots). Yesterday after a full day’s rehearsals, she told what she loves about life in general and her character, Elizabeth I, Queen of England (Elisabetta), in particular.

As Elisabetta, the soprano’s dramatic skills will be on full display, reaching their zenith in Act I, Scene 2 (or, Part 2), when Maria trumps her in a heated exchange of insults, provoking Elisabetta to venomous wrath. When your life is in her hands, believe me, you don’t want to insult Elisabetta.

During Parts 1, 2, and 3 Elisabetta scarcely leaves the stage. She spends much of her time in fiery anger or justifiable paranoia; her cousin Maria was rumoured to have been connected to more than one plot against her life. Most likely that would make you angry and paranoid too, if it were you.

“Dramatic” aptly describes the figure Elza van den Heever cuts at fully six feet in height. She is statuesque and pleasingly brunette. As she entered a local cafe for our interview, carrying the tiniest Louis Vuitton handbag imaginable—no more than five inches long, three inches wide, and four inches tall, complete with two handles; Multicolore canvas designed by Takashi Murakami (similar to this one)—she struck me as a curious combination of contradictions: down-to-earth refinement, quietly passionate, imposingly approachable … well, you’ll see. Congratulations on your upcoming Met debut.

Elza van den Heever: Oh, thank you. Ching-ching to me! [Raises right hand in toast.]

Ex: What’s good about this, the Met’s first-ever production of Maria Stuarda?

Elza: Oh, simply everything! To start with, I get to perform with an amazing cast under the lead of a fantastic director [David McVicar] and conductor [Maurizio Benini]. The production is beautiful, especially the costumes. They are gorgeous, really, beyond belief: exquisite, huge, dramatic, perfect. When I saw my second-act costume on me, I almost started to cry. It’s going to be a wonderful show.

Ex: You’re not entirely new to the role of Elisabetta.

Elza: No, I’m not. We did concert performances of the opera last month in Germany where I am completing my residency. Thank you, Frankfurt Opera! They basically put it on so that I’d have the chance to sing the role onstage before coming here, which is just such a privilege. It’s very nerve-wracking to show up for a role you’ve never done before.

Ex: It’s a big sing, isn’t it?

Elza: It’s a short role, but it’s heavy. It’s dramatic. It’s intense. We’re still nearly three weeks until the premiere, but it’s so intense on that stage already with everyone bringing it, every single day, everything they have to it. Joyce [DiDonato, who sings the title role] gives her all, every single day. Nobody marks; everyone is using full voice.

Ex: What does a day’s rehearsals involve?

Elza: We have a session from 10:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. with a break at halfway. Then we break for lunch from 1:30 to 2:30, when we resume until 5:30. It’s definitely not something you do on the side. You don’t show up at 10:30 and start to sing. You have to warm up the voice. Fifteen minutes before starting time, you have to get corseted. You have to have had your breakfast by then. It’s like showing up on time for work.

Ex: What does your warmup regimen entail?

Elza: Ideally I spend from 15 minutes to half an hour warming up, all depending on how the voice “gets up” that day. I practice my scales, my humming. If I can’t hum over my passaggio—if the sound gets stuck in the back of my throat—yikes! I know something’s wrong. I have to spend more time making sure it’s flexible.

Ex: From a layman’s perspective, both leads in Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda seem equally distributed among lower, middle, and upper ranges. Have you thought of interpreting the title role of Maria?

Elza: No, not ever. When others have suggested I might try the title role, I go by what Donizetti has put on the page, her character, and I don’t see myself as that person. Physically I’m the wrong type. I mean, I’m six feet tall, so I don’t see myself as this tiny beautiful ultra feminine woman who is such a sympathetically tragic figure. I feel like I embody someone who is more aggressive. Not based on what others have said, in my own mind I just don’t see myself as someone who’s about to be executed. Maybe because I have three brothers I identify more with the woman who had a masculine walk and was powerful in a world dominated by men.

Ex: Elisabetta appears in Parts 1, 2, and 3 and Maria only appears in Parts 2 and 4. So why isn’t the title Elisabetta? What’s up with that?

Elza: Donizetti was totally right. The opera absolutely has to be titled Maria Stuarda. It’s her story, told from her perspective. It’s all about her. Even when she’s not onstage, Maria is the focus of everyone’s attention, the topic of conversation. I essentially play second fiddle as Elisabetta, which I am glad to do, I’m not complaining. The role of Elisabetta is so utterly satisfying.

Ex: From their very first face-to-face encounter, Elisabetta tosses off nothing but insults. The last insult—which provokes Maria to respond vehemently in kind—is difficult to translate to convey Elisabetta’s true meaning: “Wherever is the loving charm / And that face so sweet? / If everyone praised it, / They did so by bribery. / But upon the head of Stuart / Eternal shame fell headlong.” What sense does Elisabetta wish to convey in these veiled words, and why would this be the straw that breaks the camel’s back?

Elza: [Director] David [McVicar] is a genius at paying attention with such finesse to every subtle detail and getting the cast to make the characters come alive. When Elisabetta first sees Maria, whose famed beauty she’s always heard about, she is totally shocked. Here is this stunning woman who is still beautiful, and Elisabetta feels intensely jealous. She already knows that Roberto, Earl of Leicester, is in love with Maria; that had her jealous already in the opening scene. Now she sees him go to Maria, help her to her feet, and reassure her, saying to the effect, “We could still win. Don’t give up. I’m here to save you.” Seeing Maria in Leicester’s arms arouses all-consuming jealousy in Elisabetta. She rebukes him, “Such words I hear in my very presence,” and he instantly back-pedals. He claims he’s pleading for her, not out of love for her, but out of pity. He begs her to have mercy on Maria. So then she directs her insult about Maria at him, as if to say, “Where is the charm and beauty that can save her, now that shame has fallen upon the House of Stuart? I am the queen. Look at me. Who’s going to save her now?” Why that would be the straw that breaks the camel’s back I don’t quite know, but Maria must finally realise that all hopes are dashed, so “What do I have to lose if I haul off and let her have it?”

Tomorrow, in Part 2 of the interview, Elza van den Heever answers questions both simple and difficult about the opera of her Met debut and reveals how she happened to become an opera singer in the first place.

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