A Conversation with Elza van den Heever

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By Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Photo by Lynn Imanaka

The season before Elza van den Heever’s 2007 debut with San Francisco Opera in Don Giovanni, I attended a small salon concert at which she was scheduled to sing. Like my own vocal studio – the concert was performed in a high-ceilinged Victorian. Great acoustics. Soprano Christine Brewer was the evening’s very special guest. Ebullient and flawless, but limping. She had been singing “Isolde” over at the War Memorial and had slipped on the very-raised set. An incredible Wagnerian soprano, Christine treated us to a sweet and gently nostalgic rendition of “Mira” from the Broadway musical, Carnival. Baritone Brian Leerhuber – whose performances in Die Fledermaus were dovetailing with Tristan und Isolde – used his beefy baritone on Cole Porter’s great song about obsession, “Night and Day”. And then there was Elza van den Heever. She was in the Adler Fellows Program. Elza presented a favorite Afrikaans song. While she was still a student at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, I’d been aware of the buzz about her – “Unbelievable!” “She’s the one to watch!” That night, I became this huge gushing fan and asked for her autograph on the Recital program. Straight into the Archives marked: RARE

Elza has become the talk of the international Opera Community. Now a resident of Frankfurt, in a few weeks she will be singing the role of “Elsa” in Wagner’s Lohengrin at Munich’s Bayerische Staatsoper. A few weeks ago, Elza was back in The City doing Strauss’ Four Last Songs with the San Francisco Symphony. After hearing her trumpeting soprano in Mahler’s 8th Symphony, it was easy to assume she would be as powerful and confident in this repertoire. The Four Last Songs are ultimately demanding and generally associated with long-careered opera divas, particularly those who have a proven track record with the operas of Strauss. Such artists thrive on sustained phrasing, ecstatic output, and soul-searching poetry. The whole Artistic Experience seems obtainable through this challenging set of songs. Elza is still in her twenties. I attended the third of her four performances. Her voice was rich and powerful, the text was nuanced and glorified. Conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the Orchestra were all at once mystical and profound. Beginning in March, Elza will perform the Four Last Songs on tour with Sir Colin Davis conducting the London Symphony Orchestra. Elza and I got together to talk about her experience with the songs and her daily life as a singer. I also squeezed-in a barrage of rapid-fire Fan Magazine-type Q&As. She’s booked solid through 2013 and, so far, San Francisco is not on her schedule.

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Elza van den Heever

Elza: I work hard to obtain certain goals. If I couldn’t be what it is I wanted to be in life, then I would have wound up doing something else altogether.

Sean: You arrived at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music as a freshman. Did you have this vision in mind when you got there?

Elza: Back then? No. I was so naive. Naive about Life and what I was launching into. Just completely blissfully ignorant. I think – in retrospect – had I known what was ahead, I probably would have been freaked-out by the whole concept, the whole idea of it all. I was so green behind the ears.

Sean: Did you have any background in opera?

Elza: No! At that point, I had only seen one opera.

Sean: What was it?

Elza: La Traviata. I had listened to none other than Callas, who was basically my inspiration. But I really didn’t understand the career or the demands. It was all just kind-of romantic. At that time I was probably realizing other people’s dreams for me rather than me realizing my own dreams.

Sean: Did you feel pushed into it?

Elza: I wouldn’t say pushed. I was led to it by people identifying my potential and saying, “You would be great at this.” Then I sort-of followed suit.

Sean: Why did you choose San Francisco Conservatory?

Elza: I wanted to study in the States. I applied at different schools, but San Francisco was the only one that took me. Again, in retrospect, how grateful am I?

Sean: Did you first submit an audition tape?

Elza: I had to fly to New York. At that time, you could still schedule a live audition in New York which they then taped. It was my first time abroad.

Sean: What did you sing?

Elza: It was probably “A Refiner’s Fire” from Handel’s Messiah.

Sean: Uh-huh. Eeew.

Elza: That and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” or something. [Elza rolls her eyes and giggles.] You know? No clue!

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DON GIOVANNI, Santa Fe Opera, 2009.
Lucas Meachem (Don Giovanni) and Elza van den Heever (Donna Anna)
Photo, Ken Howard

Sean: Then it’s May 2007. I was at “Opera In The Park” in Dolores Park the weekend before you sang the opening night of Don Giovanni. Was that your first time on-stage at San Francisco Opera?

Elza: Yes, it was my first soprano role. Officially, my first soprano role was “Female Chorus” in The Rape of Lucretia. But it doesn’t have the long sustained very high moments. Sheri [Sheri Greenawald, her primary vocal coach] and I tackled “Donna Anna” together because she could see me in it and heard the flexibility in my voice. So, we started with the arias. It was a slow process, one of those case studies where you slowly but surely start to learn a role. And then we put it on in 2006 at the Lincoln Theater in Napa Valley.

Sean: My first vocal coach was one of these Bel Canto maestros, a dramatic soprano, who sang – way-back-when – with what became known as “the second” San Carlo Opera Company. Her teacher had been another such Bel Canto master. So, it was similar to the traditions of the Guilds – where the craft is passed on by the master to the apprentice. My teacher would describe various roles that you grow into over a period of time as you advance in your career. I don’t think she mentioned “Donna Anna” since we never delved into a lot of Mozart. But she did talk about Don Carlos and her experience with “Elisabetta” – an example of a role one grows into over a period of time rather than jumping into, as you have, at such a young age.

Elza: That’s exactly what I’ve done.

Sean: So, going back to the Sunday afternoon in May 2007 at Dolores Park. Don Giovanni is scheduled to open the following Saturday and some of the cast members will be singing at this annual concert, including soprano Hope Briggs who was scheduled to sing the role of “Donna Anna”. As she was singing, I’m sitting out there on the lawn with an “I don’t think so!” running through my mind. By the following Thursday I’ve received the press release that she’s out and you are in. It was a glamorous rush, like something out of a Hollywood Classic! I’m ecstatically happy for you and the recently installed General Manager of San Francisco Opera, David Gockley, is suddenly my new hero. After consulting with Donald Runnicles and various members of the Board, Gockley stated the soprano was “not suitable” for the production and announced you would take over. I found this incredibly exciting – that whole network of people who know people and the circuit of who knows what roles and where those singers are right now. And you are the Chosen One to take over this responsibility. I was there Opening Night. Your performance was amazing. And now it’s four years later and you’ve just performed Strauss’ Four Last Songs with the San Francisco Symphony – yet another example of a work that most sopranos save for later in their career. These women have acquired the bearing and musical finesse that comes with a career. Now they have the vocal chops to sustain a particular set of songs that sits on this high plain of ecstasy throughout. You were fascinating! So, out of your four performances, which was your favorite?

Elza: I think they grew every night. When you do something for the first time and you only have two orchestra rehearsals – you have to consciously try to improve every night, because it’s all happening so fast. I had a piano rehearsal with MTT on Monday evening, Tuesday we had an orchestra rehearsal. Wednesday morning was the dress rehearsal and we opened that night. I’ve been studying these songs very intensively for the past four months and listening to them for the past two years, ever since I found out I would be performing them. My priorities are always about what’s coming up next. Every time I open my mouth – it’s a new part. So, it’s only been since the summer that I could really tackle the songs. I’ve been working on them by myself and coaching them as much as possible, but you can’t know the tempi of the conductor until you show up. Michael’s tempi were a little bit different than what I had expected, but in a good way. And you can only fix so much during a rehearsal and there were only two orchestra rehearsals. Every night we would concentrate on a different aspect. The first night – let’s just say I was concentrating on remembering my words and coming in at the right time and trying to be in the moment. Thursday we had off, Michael and I spoke on the telephone. We discussed certain areas, certain nuances or textures in the orchestra that I was to be mindful of the next time we did them. I’m so happy he took the time to go through the score with me again because on Friday night it felt like it was almost a new piece. I was more at ease, I knew what it felt like to sing by myself in the Hall when it was filled. I knew that I could keep my nerves under check, I could settle onto the music, concentrate more on the line, the dynamics, and the tempo changes. Saturday night was better, obviously, and Sunday night was great. I felt so comfortable, just finally relaxing into the piece. Four performances – that’s nothing. Still, the songs became more a part of me and I was able to better express what I was feeling inside. The poetry, of course, is so profound.

Sean: Can you hear your voice traveling out in the Hall?

Elza: More so when I’m singing in my top range. I can feel it fly.

Sean: What was the most difficult challenge about the songs? Were you asked to sing them before you knew them or were you already acquainted with them?

Elza: Not intimately, but of course I’d heard them. The last time I heard them was here with Renée Fleming and the San Francisco Symphony. I started studying them about four months ago.

Sean: Were you contracted to do the songs or was it more like ‘what do you know / let’s do that’?

Elza: No, I was contracted to do them about two years ago. That led to me listening to as many people as possible. I ended up with an iTunes playlist of about fifteen artists doing the same work.

Sean: And during that time I’m seeing all of your performances with San Francisco Opera.

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Dwayne Croft (Robert E. Lee) and Elza Van Den Heever (Mary Custis Lee)
APPOMATTOX – SFOpera, 2007.

Elza: Yes. I did “First Lady” in Magic Flute, “Mary Custis Lee” in Appomattox, and “Lady in Waiting” in Macbeth. But I would not compare these roles with my experience of Strauss – which was pretty daunting. He requires such a line in the music. I always get the feeling it has to sound effortless – like you’re not working too hard. In actual fact, it’s not easy. The songs just have a different texture, it’s a different sound, a different language – which I was not familiar with. Singing your first Strauss is a pretty big deal!

Sean: Especially because the Four Last Songs are an ultimate Strauss experience condensed over a shorter period of time.

Elza: Right. And as you say, they usually are sung by those with longer experience. But I’ve always thought of myself an old soul. I love poetry. I understand the text and I feel it. It’s kind-of like a love affair – just getting to know these songs – and having the privilege to sing them with Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.

Sean: What’s coming up next for you?

Elza: I’ll be back in Frankfurt to sing “Antonia” in Les Contes D’Hoffmann, then to Munich to sing “Elsa” in Lohengrin with the Bayerische Staatsoper. After that, I go to Bordeaux to sing my first “Komponist” in Ariadne auf Naxos opposite Heidi Melton.

Sean: Ah, nice! Wish I could be there. I love Heidi Melton.

Elza: Yes! Then I sing my first “Leonora” in Il Trovatore – also in Bordeaux. Then back to Frankfurt for Verdi’s Requiem with Nicola Luisotti. On to London where I will sing the Four Last Songs with Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra. Then to Paris to sing “Fiordiligi” in Così fan tutte and then to Hamburg to sing “Donna Anna” in Don Giovanni. It’s going to be a very intense period of time with very intense study.

Sean: When you’re traveling, what do you do for your daily vocal workout?

Elza: I get up early. I’m usually in the practice rooms by 8:00 – 8:30. I like to work about three hours in the morning, take a substantial break in the afternoon, and then go back to work late afternoon or early evening.

Sean: Do you do a warm-up before you start working on the material.

Elza: Always. The first half-hour is just humming – just getting the voice in the right place, in the mask of the face, so that I can hum through my passagio. If I can to that, then I know I’m on track.

Sean: Your passagio sits between which notes?

Elza: My break is D through F-sharp. Those are my problem areas.

Sean: What do you notice as you’re working through those notes?

Elza: The sound falls back into the throat, it doesn’t stay forward as much. It’s not in my resonance.

Sean: Is this a daily thing for you?

Elza: Absolutely. I’ve discovered it’s partly due to my native language, Afrikaans – which is very far back in the throat. I have to work especially hard on those notes just to get them forward enough so that they travel and don’t fall back into the throat. The same break at the bottom of my voice is G–F#–F, getting those notes in the same resonance so that they don’t separate the voice as a “low voice / middle voice / high voice”.

Sean: Correct. Then, following the humming, you do scales?

Elza: Yes. I have over two and a-half octaves. So, yes, scales – I warm-up for about 45 minutes. I have had to really work on my chest voice – it’s one of the things that came very late to the ballgame. You can’t sing Verdi without it. Sheri and I found the chest voice while I was working on “Elisabetta” in Don Carlos. It was a real breakthrough.

Sean: Did the character herself bring that out of you?

Elza: Yes, my God! In the last aria – when she’s settled, completely – there’s no hope. She goes into the deep rafters of the instrument. You have to sing with your chest – “la pace dell’ avel!” – you have to dig down so low. If you don’t have the proper technique you can’t really pull it off. So, it’s always in my reality check.

Sean: It also helps to have the constitution to sing it. What do you do to keep yourself in physical condition to sing these roles?

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Elza van den Heever – as “Elsa” in Lohengrin

Elza: You have to be very active and keep fit as much as possible.

Sean: What do you do?

Elza: I walk / run and go to the gym.

Sean: And do you do this on a weekly–regular–daily basis?

Elza: I try to do it on a weekly–regular–daily basis. [Much laughter.] I go to the gym maybe three times a week, but I walk everyday.

Sean: Even when you’re away from home you find a place to do all that?

Elza: Yes, this is the most important – keeping physically active and physically fit. Otherwise, you cannot do what we do. We need to be so healthy in the lungs. They need to work properly.

Sean: I did a tour – and found out I am not a good traveler. It’s that constant battle with the air conditioning in the planes and the hotels. I walk in a tenor and exit a bass.

Elza: I take a handful of ten vitamins every morning. During the flu season – you get the slightest bit of cold and it can just screw everything up. I got so sick at the beginning of the season I had to cancel my premiere in Frankfurt. Terrible! I was so sick. And then I took a course of antibiotics which I think killed every good bacteria in my body. Getting sick is not a joke.

Sean: Who arranges those cancellations for you? Or do you just call the director and say, “Can’t do it (hack, hack)!”

Elza: That’s exactly what happened. I had to call-in and say, “I’m sorry.” I had no voice. I had laryngitis and sounded like a bass-baritone.

Sean: How many days before?

Elza: I got sick and lost my voice a week before the premiere. I was still doing all the rehearsals – not singing at all – but there for my colleagues. I kept hoping – “I’m going to get better, I’m going to get better.” But I didn’t. The premiere was on a Sunday. By Friday night’s dress rehearsal I still had no voice. So, it was pretty clear to everyone that I was probably not going to make it on Sunday.

Sean: And somebody steps in for you. Was that an opportunity for them?

Elza: I hope so. Frankfurt is an important house and this is an important role. I hope that could be an opportunity for her.

Sean: Frankfurt seats less than 1400. That’s less than half the capacity of our War Memorial Opera House.

Elza: Which is so nice when you enter your first contract in Germany and sing in one of their bigger houses – it’s still not as big as those in the United States. This is partly why I am so happy to obtain a first contract and do a majority of my debut roles and my heavier repertoire in Frankfurt. I sang my first “Elsa” there, my first “Elisabetta”, my first “Vitellia” (La Clemenza di Tito), and “Giorgetta” (Il Tabarro). It’s such a nurturing environment. You don’t have to worry about not being heard in the back of the theater. It’s not a concern, ever.

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DER FREISCHÜTZ – Simon O’Neill and Elza Van den Heever
Photo, Herwig Prammer

Sean: Do you have a “dream role”? You’ve already mentioned these other dream roles, of course.

Elza: That’s funny, because these are dream roles. My biggest dream is to sing “Mimi” in La Boheme. It’s the biggest joke ever because I’m so huge. [Much laughter.]

Sean: It’s still possible to record it.

Elza: From your mouth to God’s ears. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Sean: And you can always do the arias in recital.

Elza: Why not! I keep hoping – before my voice gets too heavy – that I will be able to sing “Mimi”.

Sean: If you could choose, what would your first recording be?

Elza: Are we talking opera or oratorio?

Sean: Do you enjoy oratorio?

Elza: Yes! And concert work in general. I love singing in front of the orchestra. I would love to record Berg’s Seven Early Songs, the Verdi Requiem, the Brahms Requiem. I did Mahler’s 8th. I don’t think I’m going to be a recording artist. I don’t think it’s my forté.

Sean: What do you do for fun?

Elza: I hang-out with my friends. I love to cook. Cooking is my favorite thing to do. I listen to music, go to movies and the theater. I love to walk. I love to read and there’s never enough time to read.

Sean: What do you like to cook?

Elza: I like to invent recipes. I like to go to the grocery stores without a preconceived notion of what’s going to emerge out of the kitchen and then pick seasonal ingredients, go home and be creative. I love to work with vegetables. I’m not so much a baker. I’m more a chef.

Sean: That means, when we go to a pot-luck together – I’m bringing the dessert. What’s on the DVD these days?

Elza: The last one was Winter’s Bone. A fascinating film. Loved it. I’m biting at the bit to see Harry Potter.

Sean: Are you going to stand in line for Harry Potter here?

Elza: You know it. You don’t do Alternate Reality?

Sean: Uhh – no. I just can’t sit through all that stuff. I have enough trouble dealing with this reality.

Elza: But you love opera!

Sean: Crazy, yes? Film-wise, I get my other worldly spectacle-fix through Lawrence of Arabia. That’s the film I’m taking with me. Who is your favorite opera singer?

Elza: Callas.

Sean: On the current scene, who are you listening to?

Elza: I’m an avid Renée Fleming fan, also Patricia Racette, Christine Brewer, and Heidi Melton.

Sean: When will you be back in San Francisco?

Elza: I’m not sure.

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Elza van den Heever – as “Agathe” in Der Freischütz

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Seán Martinfield
Sentinel Editor and Publisher
Seán Martinfield, who also serves as Fine Arts Critic, is a native San Franciscan. He is a Theatre Arts Graduate from San Francisco State University, a professional singer, and well-known private vocal coach to Bay Area actors and singers of all ages and persuasions. His clients have appeared in Broadway National Tours including Wicked, Aïda, Miss Saigon, Rent, Bye Bye Birdie, in theatres and cabarets throughout the Bay Area, and are regularly featured in major City events including Diva Fest, Gay Pride, and Halloween In The Castro. As an Internet consultant in vocal development and audition preparation he has published thousands of responses to those seeking his advice concerning singing techniques, professional and academic auditions, and careers in the Performing Arts. Mr. Martinfield’s Broadway clients have all profited from his vocal methodology, “The Belter’s Method”. If you want answers about your vocal technique, post him a question on AllExperts.com. If you would like to build up your vocal performance chops and participate in the Bay Area’s rich theatrical scene, e-mail him at: sean.martinfield@comcast.net.

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