creative chit-chat

Elise Caluwaerts


If you open your window, you might hear her sing. Soprano Elise Caluwaerts loves to sing with the windows open. "The landlords love opera and they find it great to hear me practice for a couple of hours. Thank God they are music lovers, otherwise I would have a serious problem.” Thank God for us too, because we have the opportunity to sit with Elise for a cup of coffee and lemon cake in her apartment in Antwerp. Elise’s constantly on the move. "This is nothing compared to the nomadic life I used to live before," she replies.


You've traveled around the world and now you're ready to settle down in Belgium.

I've been away from home for quite a long time, 10 years to be exact and that is enough. I toured around the world with the Collegium Vocale of conductor Philippe Herreweghe and Muziek Transparant. Every two days I was in another city, in another country. At one point I lived out of two suitcases. I left one suitcase at my sister’s and the other contained all I needed whilst traveling. It was all very charming and exciting, but eventually it becomes a routine. I lived in the Netherlands for six years. Paris and Brussels for one year, and between short breaks I kept on touring at a very fast pace. Now I consciously choose to take a break in Antwerp. The city is central and my sisters live here. I missed them so much!


Now you share an apartment with your younger sister in Antwerp-North. Why did you choose this particular neighbourhood? 

In Antwerp-North, you experience the same vibe as in every big city. It’s an international neighborhood with many ethnicities. There’s an interesting mix of people that appeals to me. Furthermore, all the young hipsters move down here. You have the proximity of the park and new cafes and coffee bars. It’s an emerging area and it seems like everyone is coming this way.


And your apartment is located in an old post office?

Yes, the old building is completely renovated. It's quiet here now, but make no mistake. Every weekend there’s a bar fight or a music event taking place. The triple glazing is really not a luxury. But this is my home, I like to live here, there's plenty of daylight and I come here to relax. This is exactly what I was looking for.


Did you need some peace and quiet to become a better singer?

I think so. Finally I have more time to focus. Last year I took some courses and now I feel I’m more in control and I have more precision. And in classical music everything must be perfect, no fuck-ups allowed! There’s always this pressure to perform and you’re not supposed to lose your concentration, not even for a second. You can compare it with classical ballet in which you must calculate your jumps. You have to trust your body and be in shape. Otherwise you won’t succeed.


The pressure seems enormous. Are you hard on yourself?

I am a perfectionist. Everything must be right. I aim for perfection and nothing less. I'm not a control freak, but when I'm working on something, I don’t let go and I like polishing it, and that can take forever. Currently, I’m experimenting with singing & songwriting, along with Tino Biddeloo of Silver Junkie. Songwriting is new and exciting, as I’m able to create something myself. I can think of the craziest things and try them out. Very different from doing opera where you bring your own vision to an existing story.


So you love the variety of different worlds?

I often work with the artist Hans Op De Beeck. In his films I play a character and do the voice on his soundtracks. I just love the end result. Every collaboration comes with new encounters and new discoveries.
Furthermore I do concerts, recitals with piano and I sing with a large orchestra. But each time is different and every time you’re starting from scratch. When your life is not going well, it’s difficult to be in the spotlights. I've had my moments that singing didn’t make me happy anymore, but that feeling faded away. From the moment you feel that your environment is supporting you and when you’ve had enough rest, you can perform again.


The path you follow as soprano isn’t that mainstream.

I always follow my own way. If I really like something, I sing it and if there’s no audience, so be it. Recently I met a programmer in Berlin, who talked to me about authenticity. "Whatever you do, I will program you," he said. It was very nice for me to hear that there are like-minded people around who appreciate my work.


Your fascination for classical music, is it something you inherited from your parents?

I have four sisters and one brother and we all had to play the piano, which was part of our classical education. Same counts for tennis and ballet lessons. When I started singing, my parents weren’t so happy about it. They would have preferred to see me following a more academic career.


But they support you now I suppose. Do they come to watch you perform?

Now that I often sing in Belgium and the Netherlands, my sisters come to watch me regularly. And when their beloved ones accompany them, there’s a really nice big crowd around. Familiar faces make me very happy, because I tend to sing for them. I'm also very curious to know what they think of my performance. It’s really a prejudice to think of classical music as something elitist. Music is an emotion, a sense of universality in which you recognize yourself. Some people can have an affinity to music, without having a musical background. And although they do not master the jargon, they say what they like and why they like it. They just feel the music and to me that's worth a lot. The last twelve years I sung John and Matthew’s Passions at Easter in the Netherlands, a big deal there, because the whole town came to hear it. In some cases classical music can appeal to a wide audience.


Is the reaction of the audience culture-bound?

Tokyo is perhaps the most surprising city I've ever been to and their concept of being a fan is close to full idolatry. Once a Japanese woman stepped into the elevator and she recognized Philippe Herreweghe. She almost fainted. “Oh my God! I’m standing here with God in the elevator.” Very bizarre! They’re so humble and full of admiration. Very different from Belgians! In Belgium you are dealing with a very critical audience. Belgians are used to quality, they are very critical. Did you know that Belgium has the highest number of culture houses per square kilometer in the world! So if a Belgian appreciates you, it feels very real. In the Netherlands you get a standing ovation after each performance. I always think they do that because they quickly want to grab their coats. (laughs)

I am very grateful for what I do and the people I've met so far. But I'm really glad that I'm in my homeland now. You know what I really found most annoying of all that travelling around? Waking up in a hotel room in the morning, nervously searching for that first cup of coffee. Sometimes I had to walk five blocks in the rain. But now I know where I have to go for that perfect first sip and I feel really blessed. It feels like coming home.

Elise Caluwaerts

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