Interview: Frederica von Stade, A Fond Farewell

Mezzo-Soprano Frederica von Stade has been a star in the music scene since her met debut in 1970. Her roles have spanned across the world’s stage in both familiar productions, like Rossini’s Il barbiere di Siviglia (The Barber of Seville) to newer stage productions, such as Madeline in Jake Heggie’s chamber opera, Three Decembers, a work the composer wrote specifically for Frederica.

Frederica von Stade

The singer, known to her family and friends as “Flicka,” has six Grammy nominations to her name, over 70 recordings, and a number of awards. She has appeared on television through PBS broadcasts and “Live from the Met” performances, among others.

Following four decades of a stellar career, the opera star is completing her farewell tour this season. Her next performance is November 6 with the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra, an orchestra she has performed with on three occasions. The program features operatic works by Bizet and Dvořák; Broadway tunes from Rodgers, Bernstein and Sondheim; and the finale, “In Paradisum,” from Richard Danielpour’s Elegies, a piece commissioned as a tribute to her father, based on photos, family memories, and letters written by the father she never knew. American Lieutenant Charles von Stade was killed in Aachen, Germany on April 10, 1945 when his jeep ran over a land mine. Frederica was born six weeks later.

Elegies, spearheaded by JSO’s then conductor, Roger Nierenberg, with the help of Danielpour and Poet Kim Vaeth, premiered in January 1998 at Jacoby Symphony Hall. Nierenberg led the orchestra, Frederica and Baritone Thomas Hampson in a concert that has since been performed at Carnegie Hall and throughout North America and Europe.

Fans of the personable mezzo-soprano will be pleased to know that she still has more concerts and an opera on the schedule into 2011. And if she’s asked to perform in the future, she cheerfully expressed that she would love the opportunity as long as circumstances allow. A “big chunk” of her proceeds is routed to Saint Martin de Porres Catholic School in West Oakland, Calif., and other projects and organizations she loves.

The famed opera icon spoke with me earlier this week via phone from her boat, Wings, and kindly shared her views on music education, and what her career has meant to her. The extensive interview is below, followed by the upcoming concert schedule.

JML – What are some of the benefits of opera, and classical music in general, in our culture?
FvS – Let me start by telling you about a wonderful man who taught violin in Alameda [California], which is where I have lived for twenty years. This gentleman’s son is a dear friend and great cellist with the San Francisco Opera, and he often told me about his father. Mr. Miland always said that the world without music is chaos. If you look at the news in almost any American city, there is a consistent element of desperation and chaos, the chaos of people in desperate situations without hope and beauty in their lives. Music and culture have an incredible effect. They bring not only satisfaction and self expression, but a deep sense of order.

For the last several years I have been volunteering at a parochial school in West Oakland called St. Martin de Porres. I met Sister Barbara Dawson at a fund-raiser and we joined forces to begin a music program at her school, a K-8 in West Oakland. We have had a choir for four years (and even sang for Senator Kennedy before he passed away) and now have a Gospel choir, piano lessons, wonderful drum classes taught by Mr. Ali, and this year, a violin program in the Kindergarten. This week the kids will be visited by the Bishop of Oakland, his Excellency, Bishop Cordeleone. I have been able to see what music does for these kids. It brings order to them but also beauty and a deep sense of self. They can watch themselves improve and their talents are celebrated by the reaction of the audience. Even their parents are sometimes astonished. Watching these little people hold the violin for the first time and treating it with great care and respect is a great gift. Then when they draw the bow across a string for the first time, the sound goes right into their souls. And mine!

JML – It’s no secret since we’re living in difficult economic times the schools are hit heavily. One of the popular items that receives a budget cut is the arts. When music is removed from the curriculum, how does this affect our youth?
FvSMichael Morgan, the Principal Conductor of the Oakland East Bay Symphony and a musical as well as spiritual hero in our community, once said that the birth of rap [music] came from the fact that because of budget cuts, our kids no longer had access to music and instruments so they created their own, not just songs, but sounds as well. He had devoted his life to bringing music to everyone, but principally the students of Oakland, and he has said often that if you are carrying a violin case, it is unlikely that you will ever carry a gun. Rap was born because kids had to express themselves—that indomitable human spirit will get out however it can.

Singing is as universal as baseball. It’s something that 80 percent of kids can do if they are taught. And there are now great training programs for teachers. I’ve heard of a program in Florida where choir has the same importance to kids as Little League.

If you get kids interested in something, they don’t get into gangs. They don’t go wrong. You hear of ones living in “the bad part of town.” They don’t have a clear vision of their future. They don’t expect to live past their 20s.

I would take the eighth grade to opera rehearsals and anything musical around San Francisco. The response is they love it. Spending five or six hours with them, you appreciate they are like sponges. They want life to work out for them. We can still influence them. For some, [the singing] is the prettiest thing they’ve heard.

Standing ovations for the premiere of "Elegies" in Jacoby Symphony Hall, January 1998. From left: Composer Richard Danielpour, Conductor Roger Nierenberg, Poet/Librettist Kim Vaeth, Mezzo-Soprano Frederica von Stade and Baritone Thomas Hampson.

JML – Talk to me about your decision to premiere Elegies with the JSO in 1998. What were some of the determining factors in choosing that particular orchestra?
FvS – The entire engine was driven so generously and beautifully by Roger Nierenberg (former JSO conductor). We were doing a concert in Santa Barbara, and got together with someone that had known my father. I told [Nierenberg] about my letters. He put together the whole project. He got the money, he pitched someone to do the commission—the composer and poetess.

JML – When you first saw the piece, Elegies, what was your initial reaction?

Photos, letters and memories are the inspiration for "Elegies." Charles and Sara von Stade, Frederica's parents, in Aiken, S.C. (1938) and a letter from Charles.

FvS – Amazing. About the time I was doing it, I received a letter from a man that was on the boat overseas with my father. He was a Private, my father was First Lieutenant. I got to know [the man]. I got to really kind of see the world through his eyes through this piece, and realize what it must have been like to be a young man in the war with bullets flying and thinking you’ll never see your family again. It opened a page for me with him. My whole understanding [of my father] had been of lack. My mother’s sadness from his death and not having a father. When it went into a realism of his life, it became a different thing.

JML – When you look back on your career, what are some of your fond memories?
FvS – Practically all fond memories. Singing the part of Cherubino in (Mozart’s) Marriage of Figaro, working with Leonard Bernstein, Jimmy Levine, and all the great artists. All of it is fond. I can’t believe it happened and I was lucky enough to have it. Plus the main thing is my family. My kids are the love of my life.

JML – Do you have any regrets?
FvS – I don’t really think so. I wish I worked harder. I wish I had longer to get my vocal training in shape. I wish I had had a more solid musical training as a child. There’s something about learning when you’re six years old. The innocence of learning. It takes time to learn—two or three years. I wish that I’d had that. It’s a big lack in my career.

JML – What has this farewell tour meant to you?
FvS – This tour, which is spreading out more and more, is just a lovely way to say good-bye to a life that has given me so much in experience and joy. I feel very blessed and fortunate and have tried to incorporate this into the material that I sing now.

Frederica’s Farewell Tour
November 6, 2010

8:00 p.m.
Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra

January 22 – February 6, 2011
Dead Man Walking

Houston Grand Opera

March 4 – 9, 2011
Rebel: Les Caractères de la danse
Gluck: Selections from Orfeo ed Euridice
Stookey: Into the Bright Lights (U.S. Premiere)
Rameau: Les Indes galante, suite d’orchestre
Philharmonia Baroque Orchestra

March 29, 2011
with Dame Kiri te Kanawa
Tulsa Performing Arts Center

June 2 – 4, 2011
Mahler: Symphony no. 2 “Resurrection”
Nashville Symphony Orchestra

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6 Responses to Interview: Frederica von Stade, A Fond Farewell

  1. One of my great opera highlights was seeing Frederica von Stade in Der Rosenkavalier at Los Angeles Opera directed by Trevor Nunn. Gorgeous, brilliantly sung and acted, and great, witty fun. I even wrote a poem about the opera that appears in my book, United Artists, and is dedicated to the late James Merrill. What a splendid site you have, J.M.! Great interview.

  2. I love reading your site for the reason that you can always get us new and cool stuff, I feel that I ought to at least say a thank you for your hard work.

    – Rob

  3. LaSharron says:

    Cool! I know you are SO upset to miss her concert!

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