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An interview with Liesl-Ann DeVilliers, Principal Violist of the Dallas Opera, by Valeria de Kuspa

Where are you from?IMG_2278

I was born in Bronxville, New York,  but I grew up in South Africa.

What is the most valuable experience South Africa gave you?

I think it turned me into somebody with a lot of perseverance. You have to put up with a lot down there, things are very disorganized. You have to make sure that you want to do it, that is the biggest thing I took from there.

How did you become a musician? Was viola your first choice?

I started when I was five years old, on piano. My mother took me to Yamaha in Canada and when we went back to South Africa she found me a great piano teacher. I got a piano performance bachelor’s degree and I played violin in high school. Viola was not my first choice at all but when I landed on it I realized this is what I want to do.

What characteristics do you value the most about the viola?

It’s a soulful instrument. It’s really flexible, I feel like you can play violin repertoire if you want (the flashy stuff) but if it’s in your nature you’re going to play stuff that is beautiful. You’re an inside voice in the orchestra, so you get to fill out what everyone else is doing. As much as they want to deny it, we make them sound fantastic!

What is the best advice you ever got?

You need to value yourself. You need to feel like you’re worth it and you deserve it. To me that’s been a very valuable thing that I’ve only recently learned. What’s real is who you are and what you can do, not the fear. Don’t feed the fear!

How do you manage any performance-related stress on your body through Opera season?

That’s a multifaceted question. There is emotional stress and physical stress. There are certain things you can do. I think the most important thing you can do is make your body strong through diet and exercise or what have you. You need the physical stamina. I have a chair made for me in the opera that has a longer seat because my legs are long. They’ve added padding to the chair and they added a 2’’ platform. If I sit on a different chair I can immediately feel the difference.

What is your favorite piece of music written for viola?

Honestly, I like a lot of the transcriptions that are coming out now of vocal stuff that has been arranged for viola. The Walton and the Bartók have good learning points in them, but it’s not what I listen to. I would say that I’m a classical girl, the tunes are beautiful and they sound so beautiful on the viola and there’s not enough of them yet! It’ll take time I guess.

If you weren’t a violist, what would you do?

I would be a doctor or a nutritionist or something like that. I wouldn’t be a medical doctor as in medical school because that’s not what I believe in, but I would be educating people on what’s going on in alternative medicine. Definitely more holistic.

What has been a particularly challenging obstacle to overcome as a violist?

There’s a lot of things that can be very challenging. For example, counting can be challenging because I’m not very good at it. I work it out and I can do it, but it’s not something that comes very naturally to me. It takes a lot of brain power. Sometimes the hardest thing is getting the sound that I actually want. Especially that connected sound, one that flows from one note to the other. There are people who can do that very well and I am on the “not so much” side.

Tell us about someone who has been important in your journey.

There are two people definitely. When I was in high school I had a piano teacher, Marietjie Hesse. I was in an art school in a class with very talented people. People who are having successful solo careers now I was with in high school. It’s very challenging to say the least. You feel like you can’t do anything. It’s hard. Marietjie would tell me, “You CAN do this! You can absolutely do this. We will work it in.” She gave me faith in myself. Just because other people are fantastic doesn’t mean you can’t get there. Susan Dubois did the same thing for me when I came to UNT. I remember her asking me innocently “have you learned the Bartók?” and I was like “Omg no! You’ve got to be kidding, you think I can play the Bartók? Seriously? NO. ”  I was thinking to myself “I can’t play the Bartok …I’m not even close!” She told me I could. I thought of it the whole time as out of reach for me, but she made me feel like it was all in my grasp. It’s just how you focus yourself to get there.

Please share with us your favorite book!

My two new favorite books are also by a favorite author, Brené Brown“Daring Greatly”  and Rising Strong are two amazing books and I’m always very interested in the psychology behind things and how people think. Very well written and easy to read. It’s not a story book but a story about how you think and who you are.

Audition/ pit advice?

I feel like I did it by myself. Susan helped me with my concerto and she was fantastic, we got it done. I felt like I could present it in a way that felt authentic to me. Then I had to learn opera excerpts and because I’m Suzuki trained, I had to listen to them in the sea of opera stuff and pick out the viola part. I had to teach myself that I have to listen, that I know what I’m doing when I’m playing in the opera. It’s not like the symphony where you watch the conductor then that’s it. There are singers. If you’re not listening to the stage it causes a lot of problems and everyone will hate you. It’s a lot of listening to recordings and to this day I have to know where I fit in all the time. When a singer comes in you need to know where you are and what to do.

Did you ever play the opera at UNT?

Perhaps, long long ago…

Did you plan to play in the pit or did it fall into place?

I fell into it, but I’m not sorry about it because I really like it. I do play some symphonic literature when opera season is not on. I have to tell you, if I had to play symphony orchestra 365 days a year I would be bored and unhappy.

Do you have a favorite Opera conductor?

The previous director Graeme Jenkins was an exceptionally entertaining, very compelling person. As a conductor he had a great way to describe how things need to sound. “It needs to sound like she’s stabbing you” or “cut her head off”! You need to understand what’s happening in the music to understand the opera. He’s just returned to do Jules Massenet’s Manon with us this March, but it was great when he was here more. He brought the music to life in a way that other conductors struggle to do.

How are you connected to the UNT viola studio?

 I’m an alumna. You are the only student I know from the current group, but I’m very connected with Dr. Dubois still, and she will send students to me that she can’t take and she recommends me as a teacher. I am also on the viola faculty for the Summer String Institute. When I teach there and I watch the other teachers at it I get a refresher of what I learned long ago.


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