Elza van den Heever in ‘Maria Stuarda’ at the Met

January 1st, 2013

The title character in “The Bald Soprano,” the absurdist Ionesco play, never shows up, but watch for her at the Metropolitan Opera.

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Elza van den Heever shaved her head for a role at the Met.

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Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Elza van den Heever as Queen Elizabeth I in the Met’s production of “Maria Stuarda.”

Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

Jimmy Cortés, a makeup artist, fitting a wig on Elza van den Heever.

Elza van den Heever, 33, a promising South African soprano, has had her head shaved for the role of Queen Elizabeth I, the wig-bearing monarch whose portraits often depicted her with an unusually high forehead, in the Met’s new production of “Maria Stuarda” by Donizetti. It opens Monday, and also stars Joyce DiDonato as Mary Stuart and Matthew Polenzani as Leicester. David McVicar is the director; Maurizio Benini, the conductor.

It is not exactly as radical as Robert De Niro adding dozens of pounds of fat to play the boxer Jake LaMotta in “Raging Bull.” But it still is not an easy step for a diva to sheer off her locks.

“Usually hair is part of the look,” she said, emphasizing that she does not particularly consider herself a diva. Instead, “as an actress, it was an opportunity to delve as deep as I could” into the role, Ms. van den Heever said, taking the view that the queen was bald, a subject of some debate. (Smallpox is often blamed.)

A regular at the Frankfurt Opera who has also sung in San Francisco, Chicago, Munich and Paris, Ms. van den Heever is making her Met debut. She said she was moved to shave her head as a way of contributing to the professionalism she saw around her at the Met, taking note of the highly detailed and rich costumes.

“I did my part,” she said during an interview, while a makeup artist, Jimmy Cortés, worked on her face before a rehearsal last week. Ms. van den Heever met with a reporter despite expressing reservations about discussing her shaved head, fearful it would be perceived as a publicity stunt.

Practical reasons also came into play. The bald cap that would have been necessary took a long time to apply and caused glue to get stuck in her hair. And Ms. van den Heever will appear in the movie theater simulcast of the opera, when high-definition cameras pick up the tiniest of details — including the edges of a bald cap. “People will be looking for it,” she said.

She said she decided spontaneously to expose her scalp about 10 days before opening night. She made pigtails, cut them off with a scissors and then had Mr. Cortés shave her head with an electric trimmer.

Was it tough to do? Not so much, she said, adding that she has held a secret desire to shave her head since seeing a bald Demi Moore in the movie “G.I. Jane” and was used to changing her hair length. Still, she shed a tear when the deed was done. “I look in the mirror and hardly recognize myself,” she said.

One of triplets, Ms. van den Heever displayed her new look to her parents in Johannesburg during a Skype session. “My father fell out of his chair, laughing so hard,” she said.

Ms. van den Heever said she planned to braid the shorn pigtails and give them as gifts. As she put it, “Here’s a piece of me.”

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