South Africa does not offer many opportunities to kick-off a career in opera but this has not stopped home-grown soprano Elza van den Heever.
Her role as Elizabeth I in David McVicar’s production of Donizetti’s Maria Stuarda premiered at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on December 31 2012.
After completing high school in South Africa, Van den Heever sought opportunities in America. She attended the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, took part in the Merola Opera Programme – which seeks out talented opera singers and prepares them for a professional career – and the Adler Fellowship, a young artist programme that offers intensive individual training.
She did not sing professionally in South Africa but it was here that she discovered a deep love for opera.
“I think opera awoke a part of me that I did not really know existed until I sang my first role on stage ... I love to perform. I love to bring to life a character through music. It’s powerful and the joy that comes from singing is unlike anything else I had ever experienced," said the soprano.
“I feel free when I sing. I feel like I can fly when I sing over a full orchestra, and it’s liberating and extremely rewarding.”
When she visits South Africa she enjoys her mother’s cooking, spending time with her family and friends as well as “droëwors and biltong. I love the Pilanesberg and the Kruger and I love to speak Afrikaans.”
Van den Heever has also sung roles such as Elsa in Wagner's Tannhäuser and Desdemona in Verdi's Otello. “Both of these roles were turning points in my vocal development, and both productions dearly memorable. I think I can say that I especially love all my Verdi roles, Desdemona in Otello, Elisabetta in Don Carlo and Leonora in Il Trovatore.”
She said that her role as Elizabeth I in Maria Stuarda was life-changing. She was approached to sing the role just over four years ago and had to make a lot of preparations to perfect the role and the design concepts. Shaving her hair was one of them.
“I prepared the role of Elizabeth I as I would any other role: coaching the music with a specialist, working on my diction and technique and reading about and listening to the opera. The most important thing I had to do was learn and memorise the words and music. At the same time I had to let the music lead me into creating a sense of the character," she said.
“The decision to shave my hair was not really in preparation for the role, but rather a decision I took to help bring to life the designer's concept. Maria Stuarda was to be shown in HD and my make-up artist and I decided the overall look would be much better if I simply shaved my head. Together we made little pony tails all over my head and chopped them off one by one,” she said.
Speaking on her future plans, Van den Heever said: “The various opera houses don’t like it when we discuss future roles that they have not yet announced but I can say that Lohengrin, Anna Bolena, Donna Anna and Peter Grimes are all on my schedule for future seasons.”
She is currently in Frankfurt rehearsing for Mozart's Idomeneo in which she will sing Elettra, followed by Helene in Verdi's Les Vêpres Siciliennes.
Maria Stuarda is screening at Cinema Nouveau and selected Ster-Kinekor theatres from March 5 to March 7.