“I have always felt like the odd one out. The way I put my voice together. No one knows what to do with me. In terms of my height, I was a six-foot girl since I was 10-years-old. I have always been the outsider.”
This was Elza Van Den Heever’s response to my question regarding how she relates to the character of Elettra in Mozart’s “Idomeneo,” which she sings for the third time in her career on Monday, March 6.
From Outsider to Singer
Van den Heever always felt that she would never belong in the world of opera and if not for some incredible decisions made by others regarding her future, she would never have been one.
“I kind of just fell into it to be completely honest. I wasn’t even good at it,” she stated during our interview.
She just happened to sing in the school choir and got an opportunity to do a solo. An audience member immediately told her mother that she should get some training and her mother acquiesced to the recommendation.
At the age of 16, voice lessons got underway and her teacher realized that she had the real deal on her hands.
“She told my mother to take me to the next level of development because she felt I could really be a true opera singer,” van den Heever revealed. “But I just wanted to be a chef or a cook. Music was not my thing. I was terrible at music theory and I had terrible stage fright. I was really shy growing up.”
She got accepted into the San Francisco Conservatory of Music where she made the discovery that would help her overcome one of her many confidence issues.
It happened during a production “The Crucible” in the role of Tituba.
“The moment I discovered the acting part of singing, I fell in love,” she noted. “I discovered that when I am onstage, I am not Elza. I get to be somebody else.
From there she was received into the Merola Opera Program where her life would take a major twist.
To that point, van den Heever was starting to gain comfort as a mezzo-soprano. But after singing for Sheri Greenawald and Dolora Zajick, the two pulled her into a room and gave her “traumatic” news.
“ ‘You are not a mezzo. You are a soprano.’ That’s what they said to me! I started to cry immediately because I had no idea what to do with my voice.
An identity crisis ensued for van den Heever who admitted to being lost during that period.
“I had so much trouble with the upper range of my voice and sometimes thought I wouldn’t ever get a handle on it. I could not sing a high C with confidence,” she noted before explaining that her challenges were not only vocal.” I wasn’t sure of who I was as a human being. It took me a long time to find myself. My whole personality and insecurities were all reflected in my voice and it took me a long time to find my voice.”
Enter super agent Matthew Epstein. The man behind the career of many great artists over the past few decades heard the South African soprano sing one day and immediately approached her.
“I don’t know what he saw because when he heard me sing for the first time it was a hot mess,” she explained. But sure enough, he put her to a test asking her to learn arias from “Tannhauser,” “Ernani,” “Pique Dame” and “Peter Grimes.”
A few months later she performed them for him and he immediately asked to engage her.
From there, the agent designed a road map that would develop her career with flexibility, programming a lot of Mozart and slowly throwing in Verdi and bel canto roles.
“It was all him being able to foresee something,” she noted. “He could hear potential when many others never heard it.”
The Elevator That Goes Up and Down
The path that Epstein charted has allowed the soprano to develop a truly versatile voice that enables her to jump from Britten to Puccini to Verdi to Mozart to Handel and then to Strauss. But this transition through different styles is always done with great care and consideration.
“There’s that famous story of Callas saying that her voice was not an elevator that could go up and down at will,” she noted. “I agree with her completely. To jump from one character to another, it has to make sense. Right now I am singing ‘Idomeneo’ and then I will be going to ‘Norma.’ If I had to do it the other way around, it would be more difficult because the voice would be too heavy.”
She notes that the variety of her repertoire is both an exemplification of who she is and who she was.
“In many ways, I am still trying to figure out where I belong. And slowly I am finding that certain things are where my voice wants to be. For example, ‘Fidelio’ suits me perfectly,” she enthused. “But at the same time I have so many interests and it is so much fun to be able to sing so many things that I love.”
The soprano pinpointed Strauss’ music as a major part of her future, despite the challenge he holds for her.
“I find listening to Strauss and learning Strauss extremely difficult because I feel like I am attacking a math problem I cannot figure out,” she joked.
She knows that Wagner’s “Tannhauser,” “Die Flieglende Hollander” and “Lohengrin” are in her future, though she is quick to note that her voice does not possess the “heavy middle that his music demands. Maybe someday it might. I don’t know.”
“Tosca” is a dream role and she wants to continue indulging in her “sugar,” Verdi.
“I just love singing all of his operas. I can’t pick a favorite.”
But she does have a role that she wants to “sing until she dies.”
“I love ‘Peter Grimes’ and the character of Ellen Orford and her music and her relationship with Peter. She is a complete outsider and I just find the opera so devastating and poignant. It is truly delicious and inspiring,” she revealed. “I would kill to sing this role as often as possible.”
Life Through Art
If we were to pick one character that best epitomizes van den Heever’s trajectory to date, it might just be Mozart’s Elettra. While van den Heever is no murderess or a raving lunatic, she sees a lot of the character’s main features throughout her role.
For one thing, Elettra’s three arias are very indicative of vocal instability and shifts that van den Heever found throughout her career.
“The first aria is written for high mezzo or contralto. It is so low and dramatic. With the second aria, I feel like it was written for someone that sings Ilia. It’s so lyric and kind of uncharacteristically beautiful,” she described. “The third aria is for a dramatic soprano. It’s full and over the top. Mozart is incredible in how he brings her craziness to life, her outsider status, the fact that she just doesn’t fit into this society through this shift in her music.”
Elettra was one of the first roles she ever sang. When she took it on in 2008, she was fraught with insecurity and looking back, she can finally smile about the experience, knowing how much she has grown.
The greatest source of pleasure is coming from that third aria where she can simply “go insane without having to worry about judgment or anything. This production, with its over-the-top costumes and massive sets, gives me the license to go there.
“What’s most rewarding is that while I’m singing this last aria, I look in the pit and Jimmy Levine is sitting there with the biggest smile on his face. He is enjoying it just as much as I am,” she noted.
“He encourages me to just go for it and embrace the madness of the role. He makes you feel like you are the only one that can sing this role and that you are the only one he wants to hear singing this,” she emphasized. “He also keeps reminding me to have fun with it. I used to be scared of her and I am not scared of her anymore.”
“I have not had as much fun as I am having at the Met right now in a long time.”