Heidi Melton in conversation with Aparna Halpé

American Dramatic Soprano, Heidi Melton, is in Toronto singing Sieglinde for the Canadian Opera Company’s production of Die Walküre which runs until February 22nd  2015 at the Four Seasons Centre for the Performing Arts. Ms. Melton has been described as poised to recapture the glory of Flagstad or Nilsson. She brings a masterful depth and range to her performances, and most notably, has mesmerized audiences around the world with her wise and deeply human portrayals of Wagnerian heroines.

In this interview, Ms. Melton opens up on being an artist and a woman. Her powerful voice, on the stage and in life, is an inspiration to us all.

AH: In an earlier interview, you mention that your first experience singing opera was in a production of La Bohème for the Spokane Opera. You were only 12, and yet you were cast as an adult. Can you take us back to this moment?

HM: I auditioned while in the Spokane Area Children’s Choir in hopes of being cast as one of the kids in the show. I was so excited when I found out I had been cast, but slightly surprised when I was cast as  a mother instead of one of the street urchins. I was an early bloomer, and at 12 was much taller and louder than all of my friends, and I suppose I neither looked nor sounded too much like a child. It was a very fun experience and most importantly, I learned how to use liquid eyeliner.

AH: Being cast as a member of the opera chorus also suggests that you must have had to find your way into playing characters, and channeling the drama of being someone different, at a very early age. Was this something that came naturally to you?

HM: I suppose it did! Once the music started, I was a mother who had to wrangle an unruly child. Period. I had a mission. It was just a bit odd that I was singing in choir with the colleagues playing my  kids. In fact, one was even a year older than me. Quite the scandal for those pre-teen years.

AH: You have talked about how you loved Baz Luhrmann’s Romeo and Juliet as a teenager (I too watched and listened to it obsessively). Did you think, back then, that you would become a soprano who could one day sing that transcendental Liebestod?

HM: I had absolutely no idea. None. I don’t know that I even knew an opera singer was something that someone could be. I just knew that music was a huge part of me and that I didn’t know how to live  without it. As an angsty and hormonal 14 year old- that soundtrack spoke to me- and of course, Baz Luhrmann’s interpretation of it was revolutionary to my young mind.  The Liebestod is such  transcendental music- I had never heard anything like it, and it was completely addictive. But I had no clue that I would one day sing it.

AH: Being a soprano is incredibly tough; being a dramatic soprano specializing in Wagner, is the mother of them all. What drew you down this particular road? Did anybody try to warn you off?

HM: What drew me down this road- I really don’t know. It is just the road that has opened up to me. I consider myself insanely lucky. I knew I wanted to sing but I had no idea that Wagner was going to be  such a huge part of my life or that my voice would end up the way it has. Once I started singing Wagner, however, it was like a drug I could not get enough of. I became addicted. People have tried to warn me off of many things. Everyone has advice and most of it is incredibly well-meaning. I have been told not to sing Wagner, not to sing Strauss, not to sing as a Soprano. I’ve been told I am a mezzo. A contralto. A Lyric soprano. Basically people have tried to warn me and steer me in all sorts of  directions. You just have to have a very few people on your board of trustees and trust their ears and just continue on your own path.

AH: Faced with the sheer physical and psychological demands of being a dramatic soprano, how do you manage to keep the balance and stay centered? Do you ever get to goof off? What’s life like outside the opera?

HM: I think there is always that struggle to find balance and center. So much of my life revolves around singing. When I am not singing, or studying for my next role or packing or traveling, there are lots of things I enjoy doing. I love exploring whatever city I am in, I enjoy photography and going to the movies. I love skyping with my nieces and friends. And goofing off…yes. But I am not going to disclose what that entails!

AH: In the COC’s production of Die Walküre, you play Sieglinde, a role for which you are now renowned. Your Sieglinde is a real woman with deep fears, anguish and passion. Can you talk to us about this woman?

HM: Thank you! More than anything I have to remember what a fighter she is. She has had an insanely hard life and has been forced to endure horrible circumstances, but she almost never gives up hope. When she meets Siegmund, there is immediately a spark of hope that he is the one that is meant to save her. I think she figures the whole thing out much sooner than Siegmund does. I believe she knows rather early on that he is the one and she loves him almost from the beginning because of it. When Siegmund is killed and Brünnhilde rescues her, this is the moment that we see her lose hope. Just for a split second. She cannot think about living without love and without Siegmund. It is too unbearable – until Brünnhilde tells her that she is pregnant with Siegmund’s child. She knows that she will be in the  forest, hungry, thirsty and alone but she is so filled with love and with fight that she delivers Siegfried. She dies in the process but she knows that her mission is complete and her love is fulfilled. Once she has found love, she is unstoppable.

AH: At the heart of this love story is the issue of taboo – the unforgivable. This is incredibly dark psychological territory. How do you find your way through it?

HM: This is difficult. So many people have asked me how hard it is to play that I am falling in love with my brother. Yes. Incest is never a palatable thing to discuss. We all know the justifications that  happen with it- it is a myth- it is common among gods and goddesses. I, however, choose to look at it in a different light. I think we have all met people in our lives that we have met and instantly felt at home with. That is what I see with Siegmund and Sieglinde.  Home. Neither of them have had it. Both of them are looking for it. They find it instantly within one another and once they’ve found that kind of love, it is worth dying for.

AH: You’ve sung Sieglinde around the world, what was it like to bring her to the Canadian Opera Company, and to work with this ensemble?

HM: This cast is insanely talented and I am so lucky to be a part of it. Each artist in this cast has such a unique and incredible talent and so much to say. It is like a master class in singing and acting in every rehearsal. Working at the Canadian Opera Company is wonderful. They are such a fun, energetic, enthusiastic and supportive company to work for. It all feels like a very lovely dream.

AH: Can you tell us a bit about the production? What has it been like to work with Atom Egoyan?

HM: This production is very special. In many ways it is rather traditional and in other ways it is very risky. Atom is such an absolute genius, that it is hard for me to explain with words. He has incredible vision and brings such integrity to the story and the music. He has thought absolutely every moment through and has new and fresh takes on things while still keeping the vision of the original story. More than anything, he trusts the music, and he trusts the artists. It is so very inspiring to be around. He will  strip everything down and just let the music do the work. And when we get out of the way, then the magic that Wagner wrote can actually come to life.


AH: Can you talk to us about the challenges and celebrations of being an artist and a strong woman?

HM: It is a wonderful, beautiful, painful, and difficult quadruple-edged Wagnerian sword that can cut every single way. How’s that for dramatic? I love striving to be a strong, opinionated, artistic woman.  The only time it can make things difficult is if you’re working for (or dating) someone that doesn’t want you to be these things. But in that case- I figure- I am better off without them anyhow. I am who I am, by the grace of God and I am pretty happy with the strong woman I have become.

AH: Do you have any words of wisdom to share with young women who want to find their own voices?

HM: I love talking with young singers. I didn’t have a super easy path and I am always here to talk to or help out the next generation of young singers if I can. My biggest piece of advice to young singers is be yourself. Find out what makes YOU special. Find out what makes YOU tick. Do not listen to anyone who tells you that you sound like this singer or that you are the next fill in the blank. You are you.  There is only one of you, and you are enough. It is ok if you don’t fit into a certain box or if you like to dip your toes in multiple ponds. Do what makes you happy and find out what makes you special. Also, hire a good accountant.