Arts & Events

Katja Heuzeroth: Young Opera Singer on the Move

Profile by James Roy MacBean
Sunday February 04, 2018 - 02:40:00 PM

As a veteran opera-goer who has seen almost 800 live opera performances, I hardly expected to encounter in one afternoon in Alameda a wonderful opera I had never seen or heard even though it was by a major composer, and, moreover, to discover a new, unheralded young singer who was sensational. But lucky me, such was my good fortune on January 21, when I attended Island City Opera’s production of Nikolai Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey, the Immortal, on which day German-born mezzo-soprano Katja Heuzeroth happened to sing her only performance of the role of Kashcheyevna, daughter of the superannuated, tyrannical sorcerer, Kashchey. For Katja Heuzeroth, a young singer whose career has been on temporary hold due to the recent move from New York to the Bay Area and the birth of her daughter, the role of Kashcheyevna, she hopes, will jump start her career.  

The opera itself was a wonderfully fantastic fairy tale. Based on Russian folk tales, Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey, the Immortal offers a different version of the downfall of the wicked sorcerer than that presented in Stravinsky’s L’Oiseau de feu/The Firebird. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, Kashchey is undone when his daughter, Kashcheyevna, finally experiences the pangs of love, and, weeping, sheds the tear in which Kashchey has magically locked up his own mortality. Kashchey, you see, has raised his daughter to be stone-hearted. Thus, confident that she will never weep, Kashchey lives to an overripe old age gloating in his immortality. He has also enlisted his daughter in a plot to kill off any would-be successors to his despotic rule. Kashcheyevna uses her beauty and charm to seduce any young aristocrat bold enough to aspire to win her and become the successor to Kashchey’s rule. Then she uses a magic potion to put the suitors to sleep, and, while they doze, she chops off their head and sends the severed head to her father, who attaches it to the outer wall of his forbidding castle. Rimsky-Korsakov’s music is full of unusual harmonic effects and exotic orchestral coloration. 

What Kashchey doesn’t consider, however, is that his daughter might someday become enamored of one of her suitors. In Rimsky-Korsakov’s opera, this happens when young Prince Ivan loses his bearings in a snowstorm and finds himself in the garden of Kashcheyevna’s castle. When Ivan and Kashcheyevna meet, romantic sparks ignite. But let me back up a bit. When Scene 2 of this one-act opera begins, Kashcheyevna sings exultantly as she picks herbs from her garden and mixes them to make a magic potion. She is proud of the way her charms and beauty seduce men, and she seems to revel in beheading them when they are under the spell of her potion. Then Kashcheyevna sings a propulsive, rhythmic aria while she sharpens the blade of her sword on a wheel-stone, exulting all the while over her many victims thus far and looking forward to the next victim. At this point Kashcheyevna seems totally complicit in her father’s evil scheme. 

At the January 21 Island City Opera performance I attended of Kashchey, the Immortal, mezzo-soprano Katja Heuzeroth made an immediate impression in her opening passages. Her voice has dark, burnished low tones and radiantly bright, clear high tones. After these opening moments in Scene 2, things got interesting when Prince Ivan appeared in Kashcheyevna’s magic garden. In Island City Opera’s excellent staging by Richard Bogart, Prince Ivan, ably sung by baritone Igor Viera, was clearly attracted to the beautiful Kashcheyevna in spite of the fact that he dearly loves his fiancée, the Tsarevna, and longs to be reunited with her. Nonetheless, Ivan is soon under the spell of Kashcheyevna; and she invites his courting, though whether it is simply part of her seduction routine or something more deeply felt is hard to say at this point. Kashcheyevna does note, however, in an aside, that Ivan is quite handsome. After she has offered him a drink of the potion, things heat up quickly. Ivan forgets his fiancée and declares himself totally beguiled by Kashchyevna’s charms; and she returns his wooing. A beautiful, dreamlike love-duet ensues; and this is where the magic of Katja Heuzeroth’s voice truly worked its wonders. As Ivan gave way to blissfully naïve declarations of love, Katia Heuzeroth’s Kashcheyevna simply enveloped Ivan in a dreamworld of lustrous, rapturous sound. As Ivan and Kashchyevna embraced, it was as if Katja Heuzeroth’s voice, in addition to her character’s beauty and charm, had consummated the seduction. But it also hinted that Kashcheyevna, too, might be equally seduced by the young and handsome Prince Ivan. As we see in Scene 3, this was in fact the case. 

When I met with Katja Heuzeroth about a week after her stunning performance in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey, the Immortal, I asked her how she happened to be invited to sing the role of Kashcheyevna in this Island City Opera production. “I had sung various Russian pieces before,” she replied. “And I sent to Island City Opera a video of myself singing the role of Joan of Arc in Tchaikovsky’s Maid of Orleans. They liked my singing on the tape and invited me to cover the role of Kashcheyevna, which Sylvie Jenson was scheduled to sing. After I signed on, they invited me to sing Kashcheyevna in the January 21 performance. When I studied the role, I was pleasantly surprised at how much I loved Rimsky-Korsakov’s music.”  

I asked Katja how long she had been based in the Bay Area. “Not long,” she replied, “two and-a-half years.” During this time, she added, she had given birth to her first child, a daughter named Juliette. Now she finds herself ready to make a push to expand her singing career. I inquired whether she found it hard to establish herself as a young singer in the USA. “It’s harder than I thought it would be,” was her answer. “I thought that with the Bayreuth Festival roles on my resume, doors would immediately open to me anywhere. But when I asked for an audition at Ft. Worth Opera, they didn’t even respond.” 

Katja Heuzeroth’s association with Bayreuth came at an early age. Having grown up in Wiesbaden, where she attended an opera school, she first went to Bayreuth for an Art Song Masterclass as part of the International Youth Festival Encounter that runs concurrently with the Bayreuth Festival. Katja was then only 19 years old. At the end of this six-week masterclass, Katja was among four singers offered an audition by the Bayreuth Festival. Her audition was successful, and she was offered a contract. At age 21, she made her professional debut at the Bayreuth Festival singing small roles in Wagner’s Parsifal under Giuseppe Sinopoli, Die Meistersinger under Daniel Barenboim, and Der fliegende Höllander under Peter Schneider. Later, Katja sang the role of an apprentice in Die Meistersinger under James Levine in Lucerne, Switzerland. During these years, Katja Heuzeroth held stipends from Germany’s Richard Wagner Foundation and the Meistersinger von Nürnberg Foundation. 

Next stop for Katja Heuzeroth was New York, where she sang with Dicapo Opera and ventured to upstate New York to sing the role of Adalgisa in Bellini’s Norma. She also sang the role of Cherubino in a concert performance of Mozart’s Le Nozze di Figaro with New York Opera Forum in 2009. In 2012 she sang Flossilde in Wagner’s Das Rheingold in St. Louis. While still based in New York, Katja sang Sieglinde in Wagner’s Die Walküre at Opera Bravura in San Jose in 2014. Next came marriage and, eventually, the move to the Bay Area.  

Katja Heuzeroth’s next Bay Area performance will be in Mozart’s Requiem with San Jose’s Winchester Orchestra on May 12; and she will follow that with a concert on May 13 with Cal Arte Ensemble at the Triton Art Museum in Santa Clara, where she’ll sing excerpts from her Kashcheyevna role in Rimsky-Korsakov’s Kashchey, the Immortal. That role, she hopes, will jump-start her career; and Katja credits her Island City Opera guest conductor, Lidiya Yankovskaya, with introducing that opera, which had apparently never before been performed in the USA, though it is a favorite Rimsky-Korsakov opera in Russia. Katja also credits Lidiya Yankovskaya with being a wonderful mentor to her as she prepared the role of Kashcheyevna. We can only hope that, thanks in part to Katja Heuzeroth’s singing, this delightful opera will be heard often in the USA, and that it will indeed catapult the career of the immensely talented Katja Heuzeroth.