Talking with singers: Elza van den Heever
South African soprano Elza van den Heever is currently in Toronto to sing one of her signature roles, Bellini's Norma; shared with Sondra Radvanovsky, van den Heever sings the final four performances of Kevin Newbury's Norma at the Canadian Opera Company. Like Elsa in Lohengrin and the Elisabettas of Maria Stuarda and Don Carlo, Norma is one of the enviable roles which fill van den Heever's calendar.
She chats about Bellini's iconic role, singing smart, and her favourite spots in Toronto.
What kind of woman is Norma? What qualities do you think you and her share?
Norma is a woman driven by emotion - deep emotion and feeling. She is bound by duty but also a free spirit. She is impulsive, vindictive and also quite innocent. Her "irrational" behaviour reminds me of a teenager in love - my personal view is that she is still very young. She gets completely caught in a situation where she is living two lives … a "professional" life and a "private" life and it's extremely hard on her as you can imagine. I think her love for this man (who betrayed her), for whom she sacrificed everything, messed with her head. Due to her inherent opulent capacity for love and hate, she is tormented into a bit of a split personality. This is evident as she oscillates so rapidly between thoughts and emotion, especially in her recitatives.
I think I share her "crazy" emotional side - I can get quite irrational and over emphatic.
How do you balance singing healthily, with the kind of strength found in this kind of character?
Singing a character like this can be hard on your vocal cords if you don't know exactly what you are doing. The "screaming" and "crying" can get caught in your throat and then you are in big trouble. The answer is that one can not sing Norma unless you have a good, strong, healthy technique. You can't approach the role if you are not secure in every aspect of performing. This role especially requires such discipline. Every nuance needs to have been practiced and calculated beforehand, over and over and over again. From an acting point of view as well as singing … for Norma one needs to utilise every trick up the sleeve. This includes getting enough sleep and exercise and eating properly. She really takes a lot out of you!
Do iconic roles like Norma come with any particular pressure or high stakes?
Tremendous pressure! Norma is iconic for a reason… the role is super difficult and taxing, but has been performed to perfection by the likes of Callas and Caballé. Every person who loves this opera has a version stuck in their head that they would like to hear and experience live. "Casta Diva" alone is of course that one moment of magic that craves to be sung to absolute precision - problem is, at least for me, that the aria is truly very low in the soprano tessitura and makes it just incredibly difficult and uncomfortable if you're nervous. It’s at the top of the show where you are most vulnerable and scared and nerves often get in the way. And then of course the famous "Mira, o Norma" duet at the top of the second act! Talk about pressure!
But it is oh so rewarding! I don't think I have ever had so much fun on stage as I have had singing and playing Norma.
Do you have any favourite spots in Toronto?
- Favourite restaurant: George.
- Favourite "play time": Ripley's Aquarium.
- Favourite Park: Queen's Park.
- Favourite store: Romni Wools.
- Favourite grocery: St. Lawrence Market.
How do you spend your time between rehearsals and shows?
I play with my puppy, walk with my puppy, snuggle with my puppy, and I knit!