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Soprano Elza van den Heever Opens Up

June 19, 2014

Elza van den HeeverYou may be kicking back for the start of summer, but the San Francisco Symphony is not. On June 26, 27, and 29, at Davies Symphony Hall, the orchestra will present Benjamin Britten’s Peter Grimes with orchestra, chorus, and soloists in what they’re calling a “Multimedia Semi-staged Event.” In the title role will be tenor Stuart Skelton, and opposite him for the second time, fresh from their success in this opera at English National Opera, will be San Francisco Conservatory alumna and former Merolina and Adler Fellow Elza van den Heever, singing the role of Ellen Orford.

Since her time studying in San Francisco, where she arrived as a teenager from her native South Africa, van den Heever has won praise both in Europe and in the States for her portrayal of dramatic heroines of Verdi, Wagner, and Mozart, as well as some in the bel canto repertoire, including her role of Queen Elizabeth in Maria Stuarda, which was her debut role at the Metropolitan Opera early last year.

The native of Johannesburg continues to study with Sheri Greenawald, director of the San Francisco Opera Center, and is a passionate home cook. The latter topic began our conversation, which took place earlier this month via Skype from the singer’s home in Bordeaux, France. 

What is it like to be a cook, when you travel so much?

I always base my surroundings around what the kitchen is going to look like where I’m going. When I’m in the States I always like to be close to a Whole Foods because that’s my daily activity, besides the singing thing: to make my trip to Whole Foods. When I’m in San Francisco I’ll be two blocks away from Whole Foods.

You’ve also said that if you had gone to New York instead of San Francisco when you first came to the States, it would have swallowed you whole. Can you talk a little bit about your culture shock coming here to San Francisco?

Coming from the sheltered environment in which I grew up, at the time I didn’t think it was sheltered at all, but it was. My mother had to drive me everywhere. The notion of going someplace by yourself and your mother not chaperoning you was a culture shock. I think the sheer freedom of living somewhere where I didn’t have to worry about my safety, about “is the alarm system on?” “is the immobilizer activated?” — this kind of freedom was just insane, not being afraid for my life, because in South Africa that’s something you have to take into consideration. You cannot just walk down the street, being a woman by yourself. And all of a sudden I was going to school by myself. I was a grownup. Had I gone to New York, my sheer innocence and fragility of soul — because I’m very fragile — I think it would have been too much.

You said you had to check if the immobilizer was activated. What’s an immobilizer?

An immobilizer is a thing in your car that’s not the alarm system; it’s above the alarm system, and if you’re smart you have more than one installed. So let’s say your car gets hijacked or stolen, the smart criminals know where to disarm the alarm system and they know where to disarm most of the immobilizers, and immobilizers immobilize the car and keep the car from moving.

Many singers these days do not go to Europe to establish themselves before singing in big houses here. You’ve said that along with your manager at the time, Matthew Epstein, you decided to establish your career in Europe. Can you explain that decision?

In all candidness, I wanted to stay in the States. I applied for a green card and I got denied. In December 2006 I went in an audition tour in New York, 13 auditions in 11 days. And not one single job stemmed from that audition series. I will not name the company, but I remember distinctly an audition for one of the regional houses; I was singing an aria from Don Giovanni, “Non mi dir,” and the person I was auditioning for stopped me midway and said, “Why are you auditioning for us?” And I said, “Because I need a job.” And she said, “If we hire you, who do we hire to sing with you?” She said, “First of all, you’re not technically secure; second, you’re six feet tall; the size of your instrument is a little bit too big for us to just hire you and make sense of the rest of the cast.”

That was the first time I understood that I’m going to have kind of an uphill battle with regards to staying in the States and singing in regional houses. I didn’t stand a chance. And then — thank you, God — Germany happened. Not Germany, Frankfurt. Sometimes I’m just standing in awe of the chances people take on a complete unknown. When I sang for Loebe [Bernd Loebe, Intendant Oper Frankfurt], I think it was June of 2007, Matthew called me on a Wednesday to tell me that I had to be in New York on a Friday to sing for this guy from Frankfurt, and eight contracts stemmed from that audition. And that’s how that happened. Decisions made not by me, but on my behalf by circumstance, by life, by the universe and by angels.

Decisions made not by me, but on my behalf by circumstance, by life, by the universe and by angels.

There’s a great picture of you just after you’d been presented the award at the Wagner competition in Seattle and you look very emotional. What did winning that award mean to you?

I don’t know what competitions mean. I don’t know if they mean anything, per se. [Laughing] I had only done the regional Met competitions prior to that, and I got the Encouragement Award, and then I did this Wagner audition and I won. And I was clearly not an audition singer because I cried all the way home, because I didn’t think I deserved it and that was that. I never sang a competition again in my life because I felt inadequate.

Where is the self-confidence now? You have a career. You’ve made your Met debut. Do you feel you deserve “it,” this success you’re having?

I think it’s a work in progress, to be quite honest. I think I’m going to always suffer from this thing; I don’t know where it comes from, but I just feel inferior in general. I’m starting to believe in myself and it’s having a huge impact on the way I am performing onstage. Believing in yourself gives you the courage to believe in your instrument, and believing in your instrument gives you control over your technique, which in some bizarre way gives you the freedom you desire onstage. I’m just highly insecure in life and onstage. I think it keeps me back and it also keeps me humble. I don’t wish anybody to be insecure, because it sucks, because you’re just crying all the time. I cry all the time. However, it’s getting a little better. With every year, with every passing job, it gets a little bit better.

Believing in yourself gives you the courage to believe in your instrument, and believing in your instrument gives you control over your technique, which in some bizarre way gives you the freedom you desire onstage.

Opera News called you “a dramatic soprano of Wagnerian proportions” and for now, I believe, you’ve kept your Wagnerian roles to Elsa and Elisabeth.

Elisabeth, I’ve only covered [stood by in case of the principal’s illness]. I’d love to sing it someday. I hope somebody hires me for it.

Is there going to be a time when you will simply be a Wagnerian soprano singing Brünnhilde, Isolde, etc.? Or if that is too big a question, what is the next role, beyond Elisabeth, of Wagner that you would like to add to your repertoire? Are you studying anything?

No. I’m not touching it with a six-foot pole. I think next would probably be Sieglinde or Senta, but I’m talking about 10 years from now, at least. I’m starting to have fun with my instrument and I’m starting to really enjoy exploring the bel canto repertoire and Verdi, which I think suits my voice particularly well. But I’m not touching Wagner for a very long time. It’s too dangerous. What am I going to do when I’m 44? I’m 34. I feel like there has to be something to look forward to. And I think prior to singing Wagner I’ll probably sing Fidelio first. There’s a whole bunch of things that can come before I sing Wagner. Unless the voice, all of a sudden, develops a middle voice, which [laughs] is still a bit lacking. The strength of my voice lies at the top, not the middle. That’s what these Wagnerians have: They possess strong, sausage voice [places her hands evenly apart] from the bottom to the top, and I don’t have that yet.

Your debut at San Francisco as Donna Anna was a great success, but also the center of a firestorm of media, coming as it did as the result of David Gockley’s well-publicized firing of another singer after the dress rehearsal. What did you learn from that about the business, and about how to protect yourself from the very hard side of the business?

I’m starting to have fun with my instrument and I’m starting to really enjoy exploring the bel canto repertoire and Verdi, which I think suits my voice particularly well.

I learned humility. I learned that it’s not all sunshine and roses. I was 27 and I got thrown into this situation that was beyond my control that I had nothing to do with. One should think that one’s operatic debut is a happy, happy, happy occasion, and this was riddled with every emotional extremity possible. It was the happiest of the happy and the saddest of the sad. It’s conflicting.

Obviously, you’re a sensitive person, as many singers are. What are some of the ways that you have learned to go into these situations and still take care of yourself?

I’ve learned not to read … anything! [Laughs] I’ve learned not to go on the Internet, not to read reviews, what people are saying on blogs. I am very sensitive, and that whole situation was so blown out of proportion and conspiracy theorists — the fact that it made the Financial Times and the New York Times, and people turning it into a racial issue — this was so hard to digest. The only thing I’ve learned is to be secure with what I feel in my head and my heart and then move on from there.  

Did you learn anything about yourself or about other people by being bald when you shaved your head for Maria Stuarda? Did you walk around bald in New York?

Afterwards, it was the most liberating feeling in the entire world! Having no hair and not caring about it. I didn’t care. I went to the opening night party with a bald head, and I didn’t care. I would’ve stressed over it, with pin curls and glue stuck in it, and “what am I going to look like?” and all of that was gone. I encourage everybody to shave their head at one point and just walk around with a bald head. The sucky part is when it grows back. This [she touches her pageboy-length hair] sucks, I have to tell you. [Laughs] And now I’ve seen the DVD, and the makeup job looks so spectacular that I know it was the right decision.

Your character in Peter Grimes begins the opera so optimistic, saying, “Life will be kind,” and she cares so much for Peter. Does this story destroy her?

The realization for her is so traumatizing. At least that’s how I experienced it when I sang it at ENO [English National Opera] in that amazing staging of David Alden with Stuart Skelton. It was easy to say I’m in love with him and I want to see the best in him, and then she sees the bruises on the apprentice and she realizes that he’s too far gone. He’s too damaged. It’s like he can’t help himself. He’s just stuck in a rut and he’s not going to escape it. He’s just living the future that everybody sees for him, instead of trying to help himself. He’s unable to help himself. The confrontation by the chorus, when she’s explaining to the whole choir that she thought she was going to help, she honestly thought she could make a difference. And that’s what makes the role so juicy, and that’s what makes the “Embroidery” aria so heart-wrenching.

Lisa Houston is a soprano and writer from Berkeley. This season she will sing Beethoven’s “Ah Perfido!” with the Kensington Symphony Orchestra.