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Young Artists Take Flight: From Adler Fellow to International Star

One of music’s greatest joys is watching young artists develop at home, then soar to success. For those who have nurtured and cheered South African soprano Elza van den Heever and Mexican tenor David Lomelí as they have blossomed in San Francisco Opera Center’s Merola and Adler Fellows programs, the joy is compounded by the fact that, as each prepares for local performances this week, both are launching major international careers.

Van den Heever, 31, is already there. She moved to San Francisco at the age of 18 to pursue her bachelor’s and master’s degrees at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. There she remained for six years. Those of us who heard her in Elly Ameling’s master class at the old SFCOM were astounded by the depth and beauty of her voice. In retrospect, it is equally astounding that, during all those years of study, she considered herself a mezzo, with barely an inkling that she was gifted with a soprano instrument of Wagnerian proportions.

In her final year as an Adler Fellow, van den Heever received worldwide attention when David Gockley drafted her at the last minute to sing Donna Anna in San Francisco Opera’s 2007 production of Don Giovanni. A year later, she swept Seattle’s International Wagner Competition, winning both the critics and the Audience Choice Awards.

Van den Heever is currently a member of the resident ensemble at Oper Frankfurt. After singing Mozart, Wagner, Offenbach, Verdi, and Strauss in Santa Fe, Frankfurt, Dallas, Paris, Bordeaux, Vienna’s Theater an der Wien, and the Bayerische Staatsoper, she will give a Dec. 5 recital at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. Sponsored by San Francisco Performances, it comes between her recent performances of Strauss’ Four Last Songs with the San Francisco Symphony, and a reprise of that song cycle with Colin Davis and the London Symphony Orchestra in Lyon and London next March. With debuts at the Metropolitan Opera and Lyric Opera of Chicago on the horizon, she is one of today’s stars of tomorrow.

Contrasts

Lomelí’s story is quite different. In 2006, even before he arrived in San Francisco, he became the first singer to receive first-place awards in both the opera and zarzuela divisions of Plácido Domingo’s Operalia competition. Other awards followed. After a stint working with Domingo in Los Angeles Opera’s Domingo-Thornton Young Artist Program, he traveled north to the San Francisco Opera Center.

Now 29, he concludes his apprenticeship here when he performs in the Adler Fellows’ “The Future Is Now” concert at Herbst Theatre on Dec. 1. His calendar is already overflowing with opera and orchestral concert performances in Wisconsin, Michigan, Basel, Tel Aviv, Los Angeles, Berlin, Prague, Oslo, Puerto Rico, and Munich. With only three weeks free this year and next, he dreams of a home in Barcelona, but is prepared to live among his bags.

Especially exciting for him are upcoming dates with Deutsche Oper Berlin for Alfredo (La traviata), New York City Opera for Nemorino (L’Elisir d’amore), Opéra de Lille for Macduff (Macbeth), and another much-prized tenor role, Rodolfo (La bohéme) in Santa Fe. A stageful of young tenors would give almost anything to sing these roles in such major houses. With Glyndebourne, Frankfurt, Houston, and Oper Köln scheduled for future seasons, he may follow van den Heever to the Met, or may find himself more at home in less humongous houses.

In person, during recent chats in the offices of San Francisco Opera, the two artists projected quite different energies. Van den Heever was extremely serious. Measuring her thoughts, and only occasionally breaking into a lovely smile, she spoke with disarming frankness, yet left the impression that there was more to be revealed.

Lomelí seemed wide-open, but less disciplined in his sharing. He came across as an immensely lovable, open-eyed eager pup. A veritable kid let loose in the candy shop, exhibiting some of the same youthful energy he showed in his ever-delightful Rinuccio in SFO’s Gianni Schicchi.

Van den Heever’s Journey

After singing in school choirs for what she terms “all her life,” van den Heever began voice lessons at age 16. Two years later, she decided to attend the San Francisco Conservatory. Leaving behind her beloved and totally supportive actress-turned-producer mother, filmmaker father, and three siblings (two of whom are now artists), she discovered another supportive and protective family in San Francisco.

Only when she got into Merola, did it dawn on her that she might have the potential to build an operatic career. Even then, she didn’t fully comprehend or believe in her ability until she made her European debut. Only when she stepped into what she calls “reality,” and found confidence within herself without the help of her support system, did she realize her potential.

“I know this is a strange thing to say, but people dreamed success for me before I could dream it for myself,” she declared at the start of our chat. “Even when I was studying, it didn’t dawn on me that I was actually going to be an opera singer. I was trying to make ends meet, do everything right, and please a whole bunch of people before pleasing myself.”

At the General Director Auditions for the Merola program, van den Heever sang mezzo arias by Monteverdi and Richard Strauss. The next day, Program Director Sheri Greenwald and mezzo-soprano Dolora Zajick pulled her into a room and declared that she was not a mezzo. In retrospect, she’s glad that the transition happened later rather than sooner.

“I’m a person who needs time. I need to simmer. To me, everything is about time and balance. As a mezzo, I got cast in all the operas at the conservatory. So what if it turned out that I’m not a mezzo? I still got a great education, great stage experience, and learned things that I probably wouldn’t have, had I been one of the many sopranos there.”

Soaring With Feet on the Ground

“I suppose if I never fell into the hands of Dolora Zajick or my remarkable teacher, Sheri Greenwald, I probably would have been a successful mezzo. But now that I have seen the light, the opportunities and possibilities are endless. And once you sing those full-throated high notes with full force, nothing on earth can come close. To me it feels like freedom, like flight. It’s as if I could just take off and fly. If you’re doing it right, it feels like you could just soar, like an eagle.

“When I’m onstage, I don’t know how to separate the being from the sound. Sometimes I get into trouble. If I’m sad and emotional, I’ll just burst into tears. Maybe it’s pompous to say, but I just bare my soul. I don’t know how not to do that. You can’t fall in love or have your heart broken without that being reflected in your voice. Whether I’m portraying crazy, or in love, or sad, or happy, what you hear is me. Especially when I perform something like the Four Last Songs, where it’s just my interpretation, I feel naked and exposed and vulnerable. In some narcissistic way, I like that.

“What I like about opera is that you get to forget yourself for a second, and you get to be in the body of a different character. You get to express yourself in a way that you would never get to do in real life, and you get to be vulnerable in front of 3,000 people and have them share in your emotions. Like I said, it’s maybe a bit narcissistic, but it’s somehow freeing. I like that. I like being someone different, but always my interpretation of this difference.

“It’s a fun thing. How lucky are we!? We get to act and sing. It’s liberating. As long as I can maintain balance, and as long as I can keep my feet on the ground, I’m OK. I never want to be swept off and not have my feet on the ground. That scares me.”

Lomelí’s Twists and Turns

Lomelí was born into a musical family. His grandmother was a contract mezzo at the Palacio de Belles Artes in Mexico City during the era when Maria Callas, Giuseppe di Stefano, and Mignon Dunn performed in Mexico. Although she abandoned her career to have nine children, all her daughters sang.

In his first 12 years in the capital city, before the family moved to Monterey, young David spent much of his time at home with his mother and grandmother. Whenever he would come home from school singing a song, they would teach him how to properly support and place his voice.

“Because of that,” he says, “I never really had a break in my voice because of hormonal changes. My voice was placed so high that if it lowered a tone or so, it didn’t feel like a lot.”

After entering an international school in Monterey, where he learned to speak English, Lomelí took advantage of a huge music and arts program in an all-boys Catholic school.

“I suddenly found something that I was very good at, and that identified me as a person,” he says. “But I always liked soccer even though I played terribly, and was more decent in American football, volleyball, and basketball. The college in Monterey where I wanted to study engineering and computer science was very expensive, but they gave me a 50 percent sports scholarship without even watching me, because my size was right for American football.” (He currently works with a trainer, lifts weights, and runs.)

On learning that, if he agreed to sing with the school’s opera company, they would pay for his entire education, he left football for music. After 4½ year in Monterey, he continued his studies in Barcelona and Milan. There he fell in love with opera.

Four months after graduating in computer science, Lomelí commenced auditioning for young artists programs in the U.S. and abroad. No one felt he was ready. Perhaps, he speculates, he had such a strong desire to prove that he was technically accomplished that he didn’t let himself transform, and touch people. Now he has bookings from most of the companies that rejected him.

Lomelí ended up in a young-artists program in Mexico, studying alongside future Merola participant Eleazar Rodriguez. He began studying with Cesar Ulloa, who then became a primary teacher for him in both the L.A. and Adler programs. “I always feel that God gave me an angel to take care of me,” he says.

Just as he was prepared to quit because of a lack of opportunity, Ulloa secured him an audition with Domingo, who immediately offered him a position in L.A. Opera’s Young Artists Program. Guiding his career, even inviting him to live in the home of one of his sons, he dissuaded Lomelí from accepting an early offer to sing Tosca at La Scala. Instead, he helped Lomelí transition from heavy roles to lighter fare.

Then, in San Francisco, Lomelí developed the ability to pace himself. With that came the stamina to perform in full-length operas.

He recalls the moment when the umbilical cord was cut. In his first stage performance here, as Alfredo in La traviata, he watched in terror as Donald Runnicles, with whom he had not previously rehearsed, intentionally put down his baton and let him lead the way.

“Now that I remember, I still get the chills,” he says. “I turn back, and I see Elizabeth Futral, relaxed as ever, smiling at me while I’m going ‘Oh my god.’” The experience made him feel ready for his next Alfredo, in the opening gala at Deutsche Oper Berlin on Dec. 22, for which he will only have three rehearsals.

At this point, Donizetti feels best in his voice, he says. He just sang his first Lucia in Pittsburgh. Wanting to “play intense” and take risks, encouraged by conductor Anthony Walker to do what hardly anyone does, he hit a high E flat in the first duet, lofted a high D in the frequently cut “Wolf’s Crag” duet with the baritone, and sang the optional C sharp in his final aria.

In His Own Words

“When I sang pop, it was only 10 percent of what I really wanted to say. It was not the soul-to-soul experience I have when I use my whole technique. When I sang as a classically trained singer, I always felt that my full body was vibrating. I felt that I could explore my emotions in a more total, raw experience.

“I love the high-adrenaline thrill that a high note is coming, or a piano is coming, or when you have to soar over an ensemble. This personal rush when I sing I don’t obtain in other activities in my life.

“Music playing on the radio can last a month or two, but classical music survives through the ages. I can work out to pop music, but when I hear the chorus sing during the three riddles of Turandot, or I hear ‘Nessun dorma’ or ‘Niun mi tema’ (from Verdi’s Otello), I have to stop and focus attention. This music gives me peace, focus, and concentration in my life.

“When you hear a classical singer who has made a legendary career, you experience, for me, God’s work. For me, it’s like everyone has a bell inside. I sang with Montserrat Caballé in 2007. When we were doing the duet of Mimi and Rodolfo, she attacked the last high C, and remained center stage as she began to pull back as if we were going offstage. When she did that, I felt my inner bell ringing. It’s a certain soul that is there that just makes you feel happy, or feel a certain rush of adrenaline. That extrasensorial experience and need for concentration is what keeps me addicted.”

By Jason Victor Serinus

Jason Victor Serinus writes about music for Opera News, Opera Now, American Record Guide, Stereophile, San Francisco Magazine, Muso, Carnegie Hall Playbill, East Bay Express, East Bay Monthly, San Francisco Examiner, Bay Area Reporter, hometheaterhifi.com, and other publications. 

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