Heidi Melton: The Official Berlin E-Interview

Since I first sang the praises of my friend, soprano Heidi Melton on jcm, she has moved several steps closer to the exposure that her prodigious gifts hinted at. I’m very excited to share with you (Melton fans and newbies alike) my new e-interview with her: she, in Berlin, sidled up to her laptop with frosty brew-in-hand, and me, in San Francisco, eagerly awaiting her return to SFO, in 2011. Ah, it’s the next best thing to sitting down in-person at a pub!

It’s not surprising that, despite the 5,657 miles between us, her appeal, warmth, irrepressible sense of humor, and passion for her art still shine through. Enjoy this glimpse into her life, career and heart…

Photo: Kristin Hoebermann

jcm: What is your very first memory of singing or performing?

HM: I suppose that my first memory of music would be of my grandma sitting next to me on the piano bench, teaching me how to play. It is how I spent the majority of my formative years, and was very gratifying.

jcm: Are you from a musical family? Or, were your gifts helped along in any way in your childhood home?

HM: My family has always loved music, although not necessarily opera. But, they have really started finding an appreciation for it — except for my sister, who still feels that opera sounds like someone is stepping on nails! My grandma went to college for piano performance, so that was always a part of my home, but I will admit to not really discovering opera until I was about 14 or 15.

jcm: Have you always been on track to be a performer, and when did your trajectory shift towards opera?

HM: When I first started applying to undergraduate schools, I did so under music performance and music education. I applied mostly to state schools in Washington, but I had my one “pie in the sky” school, which was the Eastman School of Music. I was accepted into Eastman, but only as a music education major. I wasn’t good enough to get into their performance program. Anyhow, I’ve never been good at accepting a “no,” so I worked hard and juried into performance, and haven’t looked back.

jcm: When did it become clear that your voice was that very special and true dramatic soprano, like one of your favorites, Régine Crespin, or perhaps even a Hochdramatische (“heroic”), like another favorite, Astrid Varnay? Is it a pressure, or instead empowering to know you hold this rare gift?

HM: It does seem to be heading in that direction, doesn’t it? I do consider it a gift, and with any gift comes responsibility, so I am just trying to do all that I can to ensure that I give “the beast” everything that it needs to be the best it can be. But to answer your question, it is both a pressure and empowering.

jcm: I understand that it is harder, or at least takes more time to develop and reign in a larger voice. Have you found that to be true?

HM: YES, YES, YES! I suppose that I can only speak from my own experience, but bigger voices are like unruly teenagers. They change from day to day, and you never really know when they are going to back talk! That is why it is so important to have a solid technique — which can be challenging, considering sometimes it feels like you’re working with a completely different instrument. With bigger voices it is tempting to let go of the reigns and just let the beast run free, but it is important to have an entire color palette to work with. So, sometimes it can feel a bit like driving a Mack Truck down a country lane, but hopefully all the hard work will pay off in a few years. I’ve been told that my voice most likely won’t settle for another 8 years or so(!)…and patience definitely isn’t a virtue that I possess.

jcm: Have you ever sung any roles that you found were not a good/great fit for your voice, that you likely won’t be returning to?

HM: Most of the roles that I have tackled have ended up being good for me in one way or another. That being said, the hardest role that I’ve ever had to sing (and am currently singing) is First Lady in The Magic Flute. It just sits so darn high and is so much about ensemble and effect. It is a difficult sing.

jcm: What really inspires and drives you and your art…whether it be a goal, or a spiritual/religious outlook, etc.

HM: I believe that I’ve been given a gift. I’m not sure why I’ve been given this gift, but I believe that it is my responsibility to develop it to its full potential. Sometimes I wonder why I do something like this…if I should be doing something more helpful to society. But I had a huge a-ha moment this past year. I sang a concert, and afterwards a lovely man came up to me. He told me that while he had been in constant pain most of his life, when I sang, he felt no pain. This was by far the most meaningful compliment that anyone has ever given me. If I can heal a heart, or help people feel joy or excise their pain in any way, then I feel that I have a purpose and that my singing has a purpose.

jcm: I see that you sang Alcina with the Curtis Opera Theater. That role is in a very different Fach from the one you currently embody. Can you speak to any changes in your voice that you’ve experienced? And, do you even prescribe to the Fach system?

HM: I don’t necessarily prescribe to the Fach system. I think that there is a rhyme and reason to it, but I DO believe in faching around (poor taste in jokes, but I couldn’t resist). Alcina, surprisingly, fit beautifully. I don’t believe that Handel has to be precious. I think that Handel can be sung with “Wagnerian” voices, and in some ways, it can be even more exciting. I would kill to do the role again!

But as far as changes in the voice, they happen all the time. I used to be a “mezzo,” and people would always tell me that I was a “soprano.” And now that I’m a “soprano,” I still have people telling me I’m a “mezzo.” So, I’ve decided to just be “Heidi.” I will sing what FEELS right, not only vocally, but theatrically. I don’t want to sing roles that I don’t have a connection to. That is just cheating the audience and myself.

jcm: Now that your current homebase is Berlin, can you share any favorite food item, beverage, or pastime there?

Marzipan piggies in Berlin window (Photo: Heidi)

HM: I actually feel like my current homebase is my suitcase. It is amazing how compact one’s life becomes when you are made to live out of two suitcases for a year! But yes, Berlin is where I am for the next six months. I’ve recently discovered Apfelschorle, which is basically apple juice with fizzy water. I’m obsessed. It is surprisingly delicious: I have a penchant for bubbles! And, also Kräuterquark, a spreadable herb cheese that is much lighter in consistency than cream cheese. It is scrumptious.

Right now, it is extremely cold and ICY, so I haven’t been able to discover much of Berlin, or its history. But, I’m a bit of a history nerd, so this is something that I can’t wait to do. In the meantime, I have developed a major hankering for KaDeWe!!!

jcm: Congratulations on your December 10th Met Debut (Second Maid, Elektra). What was that experience like?

"Met" Elektra Poster (Photo: Heidi Melton)

HM: It was lovely. I had a wonderful time at the Met, and I hope to be returning there soon. It was nice to make my Met debut in such a low-stress role. I was able to really enjoy it. And, it was thrilling to be able to work with Debbie Voigt and Felicity Palmer…absolutely brilliant!

jcm: How much were you prep’d for the role of Chrysothemis, for which you were covering? Did you get any stage rehearsal time in that role, or an opportunity to observe Debbie’s process?

HM: I was memorized and ready to go. You have to be. I learned that when I stepped in at the 11th hour for the Verdi Requiem. “Covers” are serious business. I didn’t get any stage rehearsal time, but I am sure that I would have if something had happened. Debbie has done the role quite a bit, but she was always incredibly intent on the music and the drama. It was magnificent to watch.

jcm: Did you find the acoustics of the Met favorable?


jcm: Do you get starry eyed when working with the likes of Debbie, Christine Brewer, and Dwayne Croft? Or, does it feel more like friendly collaboration?

HM: Totally! I have been soooo exceptionally fortunate to work with the people that I have so far in my career, many of them already legends. But, I have to say that Debbie, Christine, Dwayne, Joyce DiDonato, Stephanie Blythe, and Maestro Runnicles, while at the absolute top of their game, are also remarkable people, stunning musicians, and funny as heck. And, even though I am starry eyed, it still is a collaboration, with music making at the forefront — and joke-telling a close second!

jcm: You are a very gifted and personable recitalist. Do you plan to continue nurturing that skill and repertoire as well? Frankly, not many dramatic sopranos out there seem to make or have time for that.

HM: I positively LOVE recital work. It is the time when I am singing that I am most “me.” I want to do as much recital and concert work as I possibly can. It is incredibly important to me to be able to continue to do that. And, I have tons and tons of repertoire that I’m dying to crack open!

jcm: How do you experience German operagoers and fans as different from those in the States?

HM: THE BOWS!!! The curtain calls here are insane. They go on forever, and the people are remarkably enthusiastic. I also would say that people in Europe, in general, are much more opinionated…you know whether or not they like something. I find it terribly exciting.

jcm: Are there any big differences in the way that you work or are handled in a European house, versus in the States?

HM: So far, in Germany, I’ve been involved with remounted productions, which is not something that I experienced in San Francisco, Philadelphia or the Met. For the current production of Flute that I’m in, I had a total of 1½ hours of rehearsal before I gave the performance. I had never sung in the house, or with the orchestra. I met the conductor about 15 minutes before the show, and I didn’t know a majority of the rest of the cast. It was a true baptism by fire, but it was a wonderful experience!

Photo: Kristin Hoebermann

jcm: San Francisco eagerly awaits your return, on June 29, 2011, as Sieglinde, in Die Walkure (and the Third Norn in Götterdämmerung). What does that return mean to you, and in such an iconic role?

HM: It means everything to me. I am so honored and excited and thrilled and humbled. I can’t wait.

jcm: How long do you take to learn and prepare a role. For example, have you begun that process for Ada (Die Feen), which you are debuting at Oper Frankfurt in 2011?

HM: Frankfurt was kind enough to release me from Die Feen for my performances in the Ring Cycle in San Francisco. But to answer the question, every role takes a different amount of preparation. Some roles are easier to get into the voice than others, and some require much more time with memorization, etc. It just depends.

jcm: Ada is one of three fairies in Die Feen (well, technically, she’s a “half fairy”). At the beginning of the opera “(the) fairies amuse themselves in a fairy garden” (priceless!). Were you praying that you got to wear a little set of fairy wings?

HM: I was totally excited for the possibility of fairy wings (AND perhaps a tutu). That is just how I pictured it! Hopefully, that will come along again in the career…who knows.

jcm: Have you ever had any exposure to Die Feen in the past? Surprisingly, it had its American premiere at NYCO as recently as 1982!

HM: I had no idea! When I knew that I was being offered the role, I started studying it and got a recording. But, it really is a rather unheard of opera.

jcm: I see that you performed the title role in Ariadne auf Naxos with the Curtis Opera Theatre, and will be performing it again in 2011 at Opéra National de Bordeaux. Do you still really have that role in your body, or are you having to completely relearn it? And, how different does that feel the second time around?

HM: Bordeaux is one of my absolutely favorite houses…it is really a dream. I have Ariadne in my body, heart and soul. I know that there are vocal differences from the first time that I did it, but I will tell you, it feels goooood!

jcm: Most divas who are capable of singing Wagner get billed as “Wagnerians”, and subsequently get booked with nearly all Wagner. If that became your course, would you embrace it as your fate, or do you feel strongly that you’d like to work to maintain a more diverse repertoire?

HM: Oh, Wagner…I do treasure his music so! I would be happy to be billed as a “Wagnerian”. I realize that the majority of my career will be in Wagner and Strauss repertoire, and I am so thankful for that. I do wish, however to do other things as well: Les Troyens, Alceste, Alcina, tons of Britten, and some newer works. But, in the big scheme of things, I am along for the ride, and am so eager to see where it takes me.

jcm: As you mentioned, you are playing the First Lady in Flute, at the Deutsche Oper Berlin. From the glimpse of your costume I got on facebook, it is quite memorable, to say the least. What can you tell us about it?

HM: I am playing First Lady in both the regular version and in the children’s version. The regular version costume isn’t that spectacular…black everything: fur and guns. But my children’s costume is perhaps one of my most favorite ever! I am the blue lady (they are reminiscent of Flora, Fauna and Merryweather from Sleeping Beauty). I have a huge dress made of neoprene, with a hoop skirt that gets caught on EVERTHING (but it is worth it). I have a clingy blue dragon that wraps around me (I’ve named him Luther”), a blue Baroque wig, and quite striking makeup!

Heidi & "Luther" the Dragon

jcm: Congratulations on your 2009 George London/Kirsten Flagstad Memorial Award, and second place in the José Iturbi Competition! How much do you feel such high-profile wins effect a career? Have they effected yours yet?

HM: They are tremendous for press and for money. The George London Foundation has been especially wonderful to me, and are abundantly supportive.

jcm: Are there any opportunities on the horizon for you to debut your Ellen Orford in Peter Grimes? I recall you having memorized the role in its entirety for your SFO leading debut, before economic belt tightening led them to scrap the production?

HM: Not currently. I am so looking forward to being able to sing it in the future, God willing!

jcm: What is the last album you purchased (or, song, if not album)?

HM: I’m really horrible. I don’t necessarily buy albums (unless they’re opera). I’m picky that way. So, if we’re not talking about classical/opera, then I’ve purchased a few things today. The first is a couple of songs from a group called Vast. They are about 12 years old, but a friend of mine has just turned me on to them. I also purchased some Jorane. She is a Quebecois singer/songwriter/cellist, and is pretty phenomenal. And, some more Dropkick Murphys…celtic music and rock just go so well together. I like a little bit of everything actually!

jcm: What (guilty?) pleasures from pop culture or other genre do you indulge in? Every opera singer understandably seems to need some breathing room from their own genre.

HM: Hmmmm…I adore 80’s Pop, 80’s Hair Bands, 60’s Rock, Fleetwood Mac, Johnny Hartman, 40’s standards, Ella Fitzgerald! And, I enjoy a good Pop tune. As far as TV, 30 Rock is where it’s at for me. And I can’t wait for the Arrested Development movie. And I’m not going to lie…TRUE BLOOD. Vampires are just sexy.

jcm: If you weren’t an opera singer, you would be:

HM: …an obstetrician. I’ve been a part of 5 deliveries, and it is a truly incredible miracle. Or, I would open a bakery. I’m not going to toot my own horn, but I’m pretty good.

jcm: Oh, toot away! Have you finished your beer yet?:

HM: Yes! It was a Leffe. Utterly delicious! Cheers!

jcm: Heidi, thank you for sharing your inspired perspective, and continued devotion to this art we so deeply love! (Afterthought: Interestingly, Leffe is a Belgian, not a German beer. What would the Berliners think?)


7 comments so far

  1. dana on

    I am continully excited to read about dear Heidi, whom I had the good luck to be one of her modest sponsors when she first arrived at the Merola Opera Program!! in S.F. I can remember looking for her new pair of shoes at the Grand Finale, but her dress was too long!! toytoytoy and Love, Dana

  2. jumping clapping man on

    Lucky you to have been her sponsor, Dana! Thanks for your buoyant recollections of Heidi.

  3. alice morison on

    What a terrific interview. I’ve loved following Heidi’s meteoric career and the mark she made in San Francisco as an Adler Fellow. I’m thrilled that Heidi is enjoying Berling — a city that I adore. We are so excited to see her back with us at SFO for Sieglinde!!

  4. jumping clapping man on

    “Word up!”, and thank you Alice!

  5. Todd on

    You’ve captured Heidi very well in this interview. Well done. I can’t wait for her return to SF!

  6. jumping clapping man on

    Thank you very much Todd. I’m so glad you enjoyed it, and feel it reflects her truthfully…which was my aim.

  7. Barbara on

    Heidi’s bubbly personalty comes through so well in this interview. I’ve been fortunate enough to see her many times in SF, from her Merola days on. I, too, am looking forward to her Sieglinde in this summer’s Ring. Thank you for having this site where we can follow not only her, but your opera experiences, also.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: