Mezzo-soprano Charlotte Hellekant, appearing in her first major operatic role in the University Opera's 1990 production of Richard Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos, displayed a strong, lovely voice and a marked flair for the stage. Though my impression of the 1990 performance was quite favorable, at the time it was unclear what her future as a singer might hold. It's much clearer now; she has since gone on to attract considerable international attention as a rising young star.
Hellekant will be featured in a special benefit concert at 8:00 p.m. Friday evening, Feb. 27, at Music Hall on the UW campus. The concert, sponsored by Opera Props, honors Karlos Moser, who for 36 years has been the artistic director of the University Opera and is about to complete his final season in that capacity.
Hellekant was born in Sweden and moved to the US at age 18, when her father, a neurophysiologist, joined the UW faculty. Ambitious, unconventional and impatient, Hellekant found her Madison high school constricting and decamped for Paris, where she enjoyed the city's great charms, learned French and began formal voice lessons with a teacher who could have destroyed her voice. Of this period, Hellekant has said, "It's good I escaped her, because she tried to make me a soprano." She returned to Madison and applied for the voice program at the UW School of Music, but was not accepted at first. She got in eventually, however, and studied with Prof. Lois Fisher-Svitavsky. Soon after the Ariadne production she left Madison, studying first at Philadelphia's Curtis Institute, then at the Eastman School in Rochester, NY.
Moser recalls that the impression Hellekant created in the School of Music early on was not especially promising: "She sang the famous aria "Connais-tu le pays" and was glorious in some places, not so good in others." But her production had evened out somewhat by the time of Ariadne, in which she played the Composer, an extremely demanding part vocally and dramatically. "She can really concentrate," Moser allows, "and has a very compelling presence on stage."
Since leaving Madison, however, Hellekant has proved compelling in a very big way. She achieved a major breakthrough by landing the role of Erica in Barber's Vanessa at the Washington Opera in DC, garnering rave reviews. She went on to debut at the Metropolitan as the Page in Strauss' Salome and later, under the very demanding and temperamental conductor Georg Solti, as Judith in Bartok's Bluebeard's Castle. All of these are extremely difficult roles, from which it's reasonable to conclude that whaever trepidations she may have, Hellekant has plenty of nerve. And it's not like she is otherwise standing still, for she has acquired new material at an amazing rate, including roles in Mozart's Marriage of Figaro, Massenet's Werther, Handel's Semele, Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles, and, earlier this month, in Ligeti's Le grand macabre in Paris. Ever rebellious, she declined Solti's suggestion that she sing Isolde in Wagner's Tristan und Isolde, Moser told me, saying "No, Maestro, I think not."
As a concert performer too, Hellekant has a significant repertory, with an especial fondness for Mahler, performing songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn with the Royal Philharmonic Orchestra under Paavo Järvi in Stockholm just last week. Her Madison recital program, with pianist Melinda Moser, includes Schumann's Frauenliebe und Leben, Debussy's Chansons de Bilitis, arias from Carmen and Werther, and songs by Stenhammar. Hellekant's husband, the tenor Paul Groves, is currently getting rave notices for his role in Bizet's Pearl Fishers at Chicago's Lyric Opera, and there is a rumor that he too may take part in the Madison concert. Fans of singing and of opera will not want to miss this very engaging program and the opportunity to catch up on what has become of a one-time local who has gone on to the Big Time.
Isthmus, February, 1998
Copyright 1998 Jess Anderson