Mezzo - Soprano  Frederica  von Stade

Two Conversations with Bruce Duffie

von stade

Described by the New York Times as “one of America’s finest artists and singers,” Frederica von Stade continues to be extolled as one of the music world’s most beloved figures. Known to family, friends, and fans by her nickname “Flicka,” the mezzo-soprano has enriched the world of classical music for four and a half decades.

von stade Though she retired from full-time performances in 2010, she continues to make special appearances in concert and opera. During the 2019-20 season, Ms. von Stade will perform a recital and give master class at the LIFE Festival for the Fundació Victoria de los Ángeles in Barcelona, Spain. She will also create the role of Iris in the world-premiere of Awakenings by Tobias Picker at the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis. Recent season performances have included the world premiere of Lembit Beecher’s Sky on Swings at Opera Philadelphia; a performance alongside Susan Graham for the Orchestra of St. Luke’s DiMenna Center Benefit in New York City; a return to the San Diego Opera where she portrayed Madeline in Jake Heggie’s Three Decembers, a role she created a decade ago, based on the play by Terrence McNally; opening the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s season with a tribute to Leonard Bernstein conducted by Andris Nelsons; singing with Tony award-winning Broadway star Liz Callaway, Daniel Rodriguez, and Matthew Lee Robinson in the New York premiere of the 45-minute cantata Street Requiem – composed in 2014 by Australian’s Kathleen McGuire, Andy Payne and Jonathon Welch – at Carnegie Hall; making her Arizona Opera debut by joining The 45th Anniversary Sapphire Celebration concert celebrating the company; performing on a gala benefit concert with Sarasota Ballet in Florida; and singing with Hawaii Opera Theater in Three Decembers. She also gave master classes at the Peabody Conservatory.

Ms. von Stade’s career has taken her to the stages of the world’s great opera houses and concert halls. She began at the top, when she received a contract from Sir Rudolf Bing during the Metropolitan Opera auditions, and since her debut in 1970 she has sung nearly all of her great roles with that company. In January 2000, the company celebrated the 30th anniversary of her debut with a new production of The Merry Widow specifically for her, and in 1995, as a celebration of her 25th anniversary, the Metropolitan Opera created for her a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande. In addition, Ms. von Stade has appeared with every leading American opera company, including San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Los Angeles Opera. Her career in Europe has been no less spectacular, with new productions mounted for her at Teatro alla Scala, Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera, and the Paris Opera. She is invited regularly by the finest conductors, among them Claudio Abbado, Charles Dutoit, James Levine, Kurt Masur, Riccardo Muti, Seiji Ozawa, André Previn, Leonard Slatkin, and Michael Tilson Thomas, to appear in concert with the world’s leading orchestras, including the Boston Symphony Orchestra, Chicago Symphony, Cleveland Orchestra, New York Philharmonic, Philadelphia Orchestra, San Francisco Symphony, London Symphony Orchestra, Washington’s National Symphony, and the Orchestra of La Scala.

With impressive versatility, Ms. von Stade has effortlessly traversed an ever-broadening spectrum of musical styles and dramatic characterizations. A noted bel canto specialist, she excelled as the heroines of Rossini’s La cenerentola and Il barbiere di Siviglia and Bellini’s La sonnambula. She is an unmatched stylist in the French repertoire: a delectable Mignon or Périchole, a regal Marguerite in Berlioz’ La damnation de Faust, and, in one critic’s words, “the Mélisande of one’s dreams.” Her elegant figure and keen imagination have made her the world’s favorite interpreter of the great trouser roles, from Strauss’ Octavian to Mozart’s Sesto, Idamante and – magically, indelibly – Cherubino. Ms. von Stade’s artistry has inspired the revival of neglected works such as Massenet’s Cherubin, Thomas’ Mignon, Rameau’s Dardanus, and Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria. Her ability as a singing actress has allowed her to portray wonderful works in operetta and musical theater including the title role in The Merry Widow and Desirée Armfeldt in A Little Night Music.

Ms. von Stade enjoys close collaborations with several contemporary composers, including Jake Heggie, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Dominick Argento, among others. She created the role of Tina in The Dallas Opera’s world premiere production of Argento’s The Aspern Papers (a work written for her), as well as the role of Madame de Merteuil in Conrad Susa’s Dangerous Liaisons, and Mrs. Patrick De Rocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, both for San Francisco Opera.  Ms. von Stade created the role of Myrtle Bledsoe in the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt at Houston Grand Opera [DVD shown farther down on this webpage], a role she later reprised at Opera Philadelphia, The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills, and with the Chicago Opera Theater. Ms. von Stade will also create the role of Mrs. Edward “Winnie” Flato in the world premiere of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Great Scott directed by Jack O’Brien, with performances at The Dallas Opera and San Diego Opera.

Ms. von Stade’s orchestral repertoire is equally broad, embracing works from the Baroque to those of today’s composers. She has garnered critical and popular acclaim in her vast French repertoire as one of the world’s finest interpreters of Ravel’s Shéhérazade, Berlioz’s Les nuits d’été, and Canteloube’s Les chants d’Auvergne, as well as the orchestrated songs of Debussy and Duparc. She is continually in demand for the symphonic works of the great Austrian and German composers including Mozart and Mahler, as well as the new works of American composers.

von stade It was the American composer Richard Danielpour who in 1998 helped Ms. von Stade to realize an artistic and personal dream when he wrote Elegies. The work, scored for orchestra, mezzo-soprano and baritone, is a tribute to Ms. von Stade’s father, Charles von Stade, who was killed in the final days of World War II, and is based on the text of letters he sent to his wife during the war. It is through these letters that Ms. von Stade came to know her father, who died two months before her birth. In January 1998 the Jacksonville Symphony, led by Roger Nierenberg, offered the world premiere of Elegies with performances in Florida and in New York’s Carnegie Hall. Elegies is available on SONY Classical [shown at right] and has been performed throughout North America and Europe.

Unparalleled in her artistry as a recitalist, Ms. von Stade combines her expressive vocalism and exceptional musicianship with a rare gift for communication, enriching audiences throughout the world. Here, too, her repertoire encompasses a rich variety, from the classical style of Mozart and Haydn to Broadway; from Italian “Arie antiche” to the songs of contemporary composers who compose especially for her.

She has made over seventy recordings with every major label, including complete operas, aria albums, symphonic works, solo recital programs, and popular crossover albums. Her recordings have garnered six Grammy nominations, two Grand Prix du Disc awards, the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis, Italy’s Premio della Critica Discografica, and “Best of the Year” citations by Stereo Review and Opera News. She has enjoyed the distinction of holding simultaneously the first and second places on national sales charts for Angel/EMI’s Show Boat and Telarc’s The Sound of Music.

Ms. von Stade appears regularly on television, through numerous PBS and other broadcasts. In 2002 she was seen on national television in a concert with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir as part of the opening ceremonies of the Salt Lake City Winter Olympic Games. In 2001 she participated in the opening of Philadelphia’s Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts performing in a concert together with Sir Elton John, Andre Watts, and the Philadelphia Orchestra. Other highlights of recent television appearances include a gala concert with the San Francisco Symphony to open the 1998-99 season at New York’s Carnegie Hall, and a “Live from Lincoln Center” television event opening the 1999 season of the Mostly Mozart Festival, both broadcast throughout North America. She can be seen in “Live from the Met” performances as Cherubino, Hansel, and Idamante, and through PBS broadcasts of her celebration of the art of American song with Thomas Hampson, Marilyn Horne, Dawn Upshaw and Jerry Hadley in a program at New York’s Town Hall titled “I Hear America Singing,” as well as a program with Tyne Daly which included arias, art songs and popular crossover material. Also seen on PBS were a holiday special, “Christmas with Flicka,” shot on location in Salzburg, “A Carnegie Hall Christmas” with Kathleen Battle, and an evening of operatic and musical theater selections with Samuel Ramey and Jerry Hadley titled “Flicka and Friends.” Her recent portrayals in Dangerous Liaisons and The Aspern Papers were broadcast throughout North America. She can also be seen in the Unitel film of the classic Jean-Pierre Ponnelle production of La cenerentola [shown at the bottom of this webpage.]

Ms. von Stade is the holder of honorary doctorates from Yale University, Boston University, the San Francisco Conservatory of Music (which holds a Frederica von Stade Distinguished Chair in Voice), the Georgetown University School of Medicine, and her alma mater, the Mannes School of Music. In 1998 Ms. von Stade was awarded France’s highest honor in the arts when she was appointed as an officer of L’Ordre des Arts et des Lettres, and in 1983 she was honored with an award given at The White House by President Reagan in recognition of her significant contribution to the arts

==  Biography is from the IMG Artists website.  Photos are from another source.  
==  Names which are links in this box and below refer to my interviews elsewhere on my website.  BD  

Over the years, it has been my pleasure to have interviewed many artists in the classical music field.  Usually, the meeting was a singular occasion, but several times I was able to chat with a guest more than once.  That said, I had the good fortune to speak with Frederica von Stade twice, at an interval of exactly seven years.  Portions of each were aired on WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago, and now I am pleased to present both conversations on this webpage.

In November of 1987, the mezzo was making her first appearance as Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro with Lyric Opera of Chicago.  The distinguished cast included Felicity Lott, Samuel Ramey, Maria Ewing, Ruggero Raimondi, Artur Korn, Patricia Kern, Ugo Benelli, and Donald Adams.  Sir Andrew Davis conducted, and the direction was by Sir Peter Hall.

We arranged to meet at her hotel before the second performance.

As we were setting up to record our conversation, she was finishing a phone call from one of her daughters . . . . .

Bruce Duffie:   Tell me the joys and sorrows of being both a mother and a singer at the same time!

Frederica von Stade:   The sorrows are just having to be away from home.

BD:   Aside from having to be away from the family, do you like being a wandering minstrel?
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von Stade:   I don’t mind it as much as protest.  It gets lonely, but I make projects for myself now.  I study a number of hours a day, and make myself do things just to pass the days when I really have to be on my own all day.  Also, it allows one to store up for the extension of energy when I am home.  I get all my learning done so that I don’t have to one minute away from the girls when I am home.  So it has its purposes.  It’s a rest period, because it is hard to be at home and running the house, and learning an opera at the same time.  Then it gets very tiring.

BD:   Are you luckier than housewives who are home all the time, and never get a chance to be away?

von Stade:   It depends.  You know, the grass is always greener...  I’ve stayed at home and haven’t traveled for periods of time, and I don’t feel an urge to go.  I’ve never felt that need to be away, but that’s because I have had the other to do.  It’s really very spoiling the way it is, and it’s not ideal for me in that I don’t like being away from the girls as much, even though they do extremely well.  I love being part of their lives.  I love knowing what happened at Girls Scouts, and not hearing about it on the phone but actually being there.  I enjoy it.  I really find them fascinating creatures, and I like to be with them.

BD:   Is this going to help make them more self-sufficient, knowing that Mommy isn’t always going to be there?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, von Stade also sang with the Chicago Symphony at the Ravinia Festival, and at Carnegie Hall, New York.]

von Stade:   Yes, it may.  I was just astounded this summer, when our eldest daughter, at her own request, wanted to go to camp.  It wasn’t illogical.  I thought she was a year too young, but her best friend’s family run the Camp, so it made it a little bit more possible.  She just did things that I know she wouldn’t have done if I’d been there.  She had to jump in a lake where there were snapping turtles!  It was not cruel, but these were things that all the kids had to do, and she loved it!  I went up to see her one day, and she said she was miserable.  But then the next day she made the decision that she wanted to stay, and that’s astoundingly mature for a nine-year-old.  It’s not that I don
t want her to have maturity, but I want her to have her childhood as long as is possible.  It’s almost like an instinct that children know how to take care of themselves.  In a way, they follow what they know about themselves.  When it was time for me to leave, she said she just wanted to say good-bye to me.  She’s very astute in knowing that, and there’s no more to the message than that.  It’s her decision.  I would have taken her home if she’d wanted to go, but I would have probably encouraged her to stay, because I think it would have been better for her.  Of course, I can offer them things that maybe other mothers can’t.  They get to travel, and the people in theaters are wonderful.  All my colleagues also have children themselves, and they love children, and children are very, very welcome.  It’s just incredible.  We’ve been lucky enough to have the company of Maria Ewing’s daughter and Sir Peter’s daughter at all rehearsals.  She’s five years old, and she sits there all day, and amuses herself and amuses us.  She’s been like a wonderful little ray of sunshine.  In this particular era of singers, she’s one of seven or eight children that are out here now with their parents.  [She mentions singers in other productions at Lyric during this period]  Alan Titus has children, Kiri Te Kanawa has children, Catherine Malfitano has her little girl here.  There was an awful lot of sympathy for me when I went home for Hallowe’en weekend in the middle of rehearsals.  So it’s wonderful!  We’re also very lucky because there are built-in playmates, too.

BD:   What are you telling your children about the theater?  Are you encouraging them at all?  Are you saying that this is a wonderful art-form, or that this is actually fun?

von Stade:   I’m just being there, being myself in it, and they get what they get.  They don’t hate the theater because it takes me away.  They get bored by it.  There were stages that they were in when they loved coming along and seeing all the things, and the people, but now they’d rather be home and playing with their Barbie dolls, or ice-skating, or doing what they’re normally doing.  Three or four days is just about enough for them.  There are not many operas they love sitting through, but another stage may be just around the corner.  Our eldest, Jenny, is about to be in the play I Remember Mama, and she loves going to rehearsals.  She loves doing it.

BD:   Does she co-ordinate that with what she’s seen her own Mama doing on the stage?

von Stade:   Not necessarily.  I think she knows that the dressing rooms are all alike.  She’s spent a lot of time in them, so it’s maybe a little more familiar to her than it is with other children.  One time she asked,
How famous are you, Mommy?  I said, I’m not really very famous, but she said, “You’re famous because Susan Lucci is on one of the soaps, and her children go to our school!  [Both laugh]  I didn’t really encourage that idea terribly much, but all of my colleagues are very nice to them, so most of their experiences in the theater have been nice ones.

BD:   Since she’s on stage in a straight play, is she wondering where’s the guy waving the stick?

von Stade:   No, there’s music in it as well.  She also plays the violin, so she has some experience of music.  The little one seems to be more dance-orientated at the moment, and I’m not pushing them to instruments.  Jenny wanted to give up the violin, then all of a sudden towards the end of the year, she started making this pretty sound on the violin, and she loved it.  She loved this connection between what she was doing and what she was hearing.  I don’t know how long she’ll stay with it, but anything she decides is fine.  If she went into the business, I’d be delighted because I’ve had a wonderful time, and if she doesn’t, I’ll be delighted.  They can be whatever they choose.

BD:   Just so long as they are happy?

von Stade:   Yes, exactly, exactly!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Tell me the secret of singing Mozart.

von Stade:   [Thinks a moment]  If I had a secret, I’d probably have it bottled and sold!  There isn’t one, other than being as respectful as is humanly possible of his wishes, and loving it.  If you really love it, you’ll enjoy singing it.

BD:   How are his wishes different from the wishes of later masters, or lesser lights?

von Stade:   I’m not really enough of a musicologist to know.  I think of Mozart with the pure line and transparent orchestration.  For me, the genius of Mozart, apart from all of the other aspects of his genius, is his capture, or definition, of character through music.  The people of The Marriage of Figaro, which is the one I’m the most familiar with, are almost visual to the music.  It
s not only what they say, and at what time in the opera, it’s how they say it.  It’s in total character with the part they’re playing, and it’s also very current.  There’s nothing archaic or dated about it.  This is how people were.

von stade

See my interviews with Thomas Allen, Kurt Moll, Jeffrey Tate, Sir Georg Solti, Tom Krause, Anna Tomowa-Sintow, Ileana Cotrubas, and José van Dam

BD:   And still are?

von Stade:   Yes.  They have different clothes on, but passion is this way, disappointment is that way, anger is another way, and teasing is yet one more way.  It’s very tangible to us today, and maybe that’s part of the secret.  It’s not easy, in spite of my doing a part like Cherubino, which I’ve done for twenty years.  I don’t toss it off.  I don’t think I can fly in two hours before and just do it.  It’s hard to sing Mozart.  It’s hard to tune it.  A lot of it is much more difficult than the arias.  It’s a pure line, and it’s very exposed.  Faults that you may have in other places which aren’t so visual or exposed, are just totally exposed in Mozart.  It’s a form of bel canto.  What’s going on is your line above the orchestra.  

BD:   But is it a different bel canto than Bellini?

von Stade:   Oh, yes.  It’s a much more interesting orchestration.  I adore Bellini, and for me he was just the perfect union.  I love Bellini more than all the others of that period.
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BD:   Let’s stay with Mozart for a moment.  I often ask what happens to the characters after the opera, in the
fifth act’, but in Figaro we actually know what happens because there’s another Beaumarchais drama which follows.  Should you bring any interplay between you and the Countess into the Mozart opera?

von Stade:   Your question will be answered in this production!  That’s the whole point.  It’s the Countess’s great disappointment with her own love that is a broken love.  Her arias, ‘Porgi Amor’ and ‘Dove Sono’ are about that fact, that it’s gone, it’s over and yet...

BD:   Will it come back?

von Stade:   With them, probably.

BD:   Mozart gets them back together again at the end...

von Stade:   ...sort of.  [Both laugh]

BD:   It’s a façade?

von Stade:   No, I don’t think it’s a façade.  I think it’s real.  The Count’s nature is that he’s going to pursue Susanna continually.  It’s going to be a problem, and the only real thing that’s left is Figaro and Marcellina discovering that the woman who really wanted to marry him is actually his mother!  Probably that’s tucked away, and it’s very much played out by Cherubino and the Countess.  There’s a very interesting article that was written in Paris about the time I was doing this role in a big new production almost twenty years ago.  It was called ‘Chérubin a vingt-et-un ans’ [Cherubino at twenty-one years old].  The author put forward that he was sort of tired, and worn out, and jaded.

BD:   A classic case of burn-out?

von Stade:   Absolutely burn-out.  But that was probably not untypical of Mozart’s time.  There were marriages of unions of familial, financial, or fiscal reasons.  The form of the marriage was respected, but the content was not, and that’s case for the Countess, because she probably would be married to the Count the rest of her days.  There wasn’t divorce or separation.  Her next course is to take a lover.

BD:   In The Barber of Seville, the Count actually pursues Rosina, and he’s really infatuated with her.  It’s not a marriage of convenience arranged by someone else.

von Stade:   No, but I’m not sure that one really follows the other.  It’s the same cast of characters, but Mozart and Rossini are generations apart in a way.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But they’re both from the mind of Beaumarchais.

von Stade:   Yes, but I don’t know that it’s the same thing.  Even if it is or isn’t, it’s just what many people did in that time.  The Count had an insatiable ego, and Rosina was just another feather in his cap.

BD:   Is he a failed Don Giovanni?

von Stade:   Yes, maybe he
s a bit of a Don Giovanni, or maybe just a particular man, and maybe it’s the acceptance of that which makes the form work.  It’s not unheard of that men had mistresses.  Some men still do have mistresses.  It wouldn’t be my idea.  I haven’t experienced it, but it isn’t outside the possibility of something working.  Once it was all accepted, and maybe it is all happily ever after, and she decides to have one or two flings here and there.  That’s all right, and they die having been devoted to each other.  That’s also a possibility.

BD:   Yet she doesn’t become pregnant from the Count.  She becomes pregnant from Cherubino.

von Stade:   Apparently that happened a lot, too.  These ladies had babies all the time just because there was nothing to do about it.

BD:   Is it possible that we can over-analyze all of these characters, and lose the flavor of Mozart in all of this?

von Stade:   We can, but once you’re sitting and listening to it, no.  It all comes into the context of
who gives a darn about Freud, really?  It comes back to what it is, which is essentially a musical experience.

BD:   Where is the balance between the musical experience and the dramatic experience?

von Stade:   [Thinks a moment]  I don’t know where the balance is.  It’s probably in and out of balance.  I think that the musical is an explanation of the dramatic, and the dramatic is a reinforcement.  They actually reinforce each other, but they don’t always double each other, so that it doesn’t become boring.

BD:   Does one over-shadow the other?

von Stade:   No, I don’t think so, especially in The Marriage of Figaro.  In other Mozart operas, the characters are less clearly defined, and they are more part of a musical form than a dramatic form.  Figaro is just so perfectly constructed.  The whole opera takes place in a day!  It’s one day, and you feel the heat of morning in the first act, and late morning in the second act, and hot afternoon in the third act, and nighttime relief in the fourth act.

BD:   It
s almost real time?

von Stade:   Oh yes, absolutely.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   You’ve sung Cherubino quite often.  Have you ever sung the Countess?

von Stade:   No, I’ve never sung the Countess, but I’ve been asked to sing Susanna hundreds of times, and I don’t have any plans to do it.  The ones who have done it, like Maria, have a voice which is just sitting up there.  That’s the way it’s going, and she’d be a fool not to respect that.  There’s an upper extension and a really exciting quality in her voice.  I didn’t know her voice well, and this is really the first time I’ve ever worked with her and heard her live.  I’ve heard her on recordings...
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BD:   Both being mezzos, you mostly sing the same roles?

von Stade:   Yes, we were always doing the same roles, so we were never together.  That’s just where her voice is going.  What’s hard is when some other people have gone from Carmen to Norma, such as Shirley Verrett and Grace Bumbry.  Shirley certainly had that gorgeous extension, and how lucky we are to be able to hear her use it.  Hers is one of the most beautiful voices around.
BD:   How do you decide which roles you will accept and which roles you will decline?

von Stade:   I sing a lot of soprano roles.  Rosina is obviously a mezzo, but I sang Cendrillon [Cinderella] of Massenet, which is a soprano role, and Octavian is written as a soprano role.  Cherubino is also written as a soprano.  I
m doing Chérubin of Massenet, and that’s written for a soprano, but it’s a type of soprano.  It’s not a Mimì, but a lyric in weight.  I select parts by the role rather than by the category.  Very few voices fit absolutely in any one category.  They all have their own character.  I’ve never had any trouble with high notes, but I’m sure I’d have a lot of trouble with high notes if I exploited them.  I don’t sit up on the top of my voice.

BD:   So, it has to do with tessitura?  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Evelyn Lear, and Ruth Welting.]

von Stade:   Yes, but I’ve sung Amina in a special version of La Sonnambula.  I did all of it in the right keys except the arias.  [We come back to Bellini later, but at this point the phone rings, and she had another discussion with her offspring.]  This is just persistence.  [Imitating her child] 
I won’t do my homework, and I won’t watch television, and I won’t do anything unless...

BD:   Is she having a problem?

von Stade:   She’s not having a problem with anything.  It’s just she is going through the process of making everything a problem, and that’s cool!  That’s not bad, you know!

BD:   Do you ever wish you could just take the top off her head and pour in all your knowledge?

von Stade:   No, because it’s process, and the information is almost secondary to the process.  I was so pleased when I was home last week.  I went to see my other daughter’s teacher who said she’s just a remarkable student.  That’s something I knew my elder one was, but I didn’t know that about the little one.  Kids basically don’t always show off in school the way they show off at home, and that’s good, because at home they should be able to be any way they want to be.  They should feel free to be as awful as they want, because there’s got to be some place in the world where you can be without any veneer.  When you’re in a social situation, like school, you have to conform, and you’ve got to meet the rules.

BD:   Do you find that you can get rid of your own veneer by putting on someone else’s veneer for the stage?

von Stade:   I think so, to a certain extent.  The hardest thing to do is play myself.  I did a Christmas film on Austrian television, and by the fifth day I was used to the camera being there but, in the beginning, it was very difficult.  The director would say,
Flicka, I want you to sit forward, pick up the book, open the page, read it, and put it down again.  You feel there’s a camera there, and all of a sudden there’s a self-consciousness that comes.  You do your damnedest to get rid of it when you’re performing, because it impedes you from telling a story.  You may be allied to yourself, but you’re not playing yourself.  It’s hard to bury it in gesture.  The intention has to be more subtle on the stage.  I’m not a boy, and I don’t know what he feels like to be fourteen, but I feel I am fourteen when I’m doing it.  I use my imagination.  Everything in my energy is used to convey it, and the only way I can really do that is to organize a state of mind where I believe I am.

BD:   Even though Jenny is not a boy, when she gets to be fourteen will you have more observations because you’ve played the fourteen-year-old boy so much?

von Stade:   No way!  [Laughs]  Boys are much easier than girls as teenagers.  Girls are very complicated teenagers.  From what all my friends have told me, I suspect they’re not easy to deal with.  But I’m not dreading it, because everyone has said that on every stage of children’s development.  
Wait until you get to the Terrible Twos!  Then, Oh, my Gosh, wait until she gets to eleven years old!  Nothing suits them...  I have found every single stage to be absolutely marvelous, so that I’m just sure that fourteen is just going to be another thing.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I knew you had sung both Cenerentola and Cendrillon, but I didn’t realize that you had also done Cherubino and Chérubin.  Tell me about the connections.

von Stade:   The Chérubin of Massenet is more French than Italian.  He’s a little bit older, but has that same sort of torture.  It’s a different story.  Chérubin is in love with everybody, and everybody’s in love with him.  He has all these countesses dropping handkerchiefs all the time, but he falls in love with an actress called L
Ensoleillad, who is the soprano.  But she just absolutely tosses him over.  Then there are two other characters.  There’s Nina, who is like a Susanna character, and really devoted and dear to him.  You really feel the intention is that they will be a team by the end.  Then there’s Le Philosophe, and when I did it he was played by Samuel Ramey.  He’s sort of like Chérubin’s mentor, and just keeps him on the straight and narrow.

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BD:   How old is Chérubin?

von Stade:   He’s older than fourteen in this.  He’s about eighteen, and a little bit more like Octavian.

BD:   Is it the same guy as in the Mozart?

von Stade:   Yes, he
s the same guy, except there’s no Count and Countess.  He’s just a young page.  It’s the same character in another set of circumstances.
von stade
BD:   Tell me the difference between singing the Massenet style and the Mozart style.
von Stade:   [Thinks a moment]  Massenet is closer in style to Puccini and to verismo.  There’s less of the form of the aria.  There may be a simple melody with diversions, but not variations.  Massenet, like Puccini, was absolutely adamant with his directions, like putting together a child’s wagon at Christmas.  You have to do the right steps, and you really have to do it exactly as he specifies.  Massenet works best if you respect all that.  When he doesn
t want you to slow down, he doesn’t just say not to slow down!  He insists upon not slowing down.  Otherwise you can wallow in Massenet, because its that beautiful, beautiful melody, and long arching phrases.  But if you actually respect his directions, it propels the drama.  As with Madam Butterfly, you do want to applaud at the end of certain arias, but you almost don’t.  You want it to go on.  It’s part of the whole, and Massenet is the same.
BD:   Now you’ve sung several Massenet operas...

von Stade:   Only three.  Werther, Chérubin, and Cendrillon.

BD:   Another comparison would be Cendrillon beside Cenerentola.  [Note that von Stade goes back and forth between the two operas in the following answers.]

von Stade:   Cendrillon is much more the fairy-tale as we know it.  It’s more closely allied to the Charles Perrault version.  One interesting detail is the glass slipper.  In French, there are two words with the same pronunciation.  Verre, which means glass, and vaire, which means fur.  So, most probably the original Perrault was a little fur slipper.  Then it got translated into being the glass slipper, and became very much about its magic.  The Cinderella I grew up with, which is the Walt Disney version, is much closer to the Massenet than the Rossini.  The Massenet is really one of the most beautifully-constructed operas, not only musically but textually.  There’s terrifically beautiful symbolism.  It’s not only a little fairy tale.  She has a bracelet, and the bracelet represents a ring.  If you see me as I really am, and you want me, then I pledge my life to you, and it is symbolized by the ring of marriage, and the symbolism the hearth.  It’s a woman’s warmth, the warmth of true womanhood.  There are all these wonderful allusions to it, so in a way it’s very spiritual.  The words can be taken very spiritually.  The first little thing that she sings, her once-upon-a-time idea, is her real story.  She was nobly born, and it was all taken away from her through death and transference of funds.  She doesn’t just hope that her nobility will be recognized.  It’s not a nobility of possessions, but a nobility of spirit.  She recognizes the purity of the prince.  She falls in love with him in his disguise, and without being heavy about it, there is that wonderful Italian leading to something that’s almost a little religious.  Alidoro, the philosopher, the Magic Man who’s like the Holy Spirit, directs it and makes it happen.

BD:   Does all the coloratura in the Rossini add to the tension of the drama?

von Stade:   Oh, yes, and like all coloratura, it has a reason.  The biggest illustration is in the last aria with the big recitative before it.  There’s part of it that’s joyful, there’s part of it that’s surprise, there’s part of it that’s sorrowful, there
s part that’s forgiving, and all of it is beautifully done.  It’s interesting that most of the recitatives of Cenerentola, excluding the one preceding the final aria, were not written by Rossini, so they’re not especially beautiful.

BD:   Since they weren’t real Rossini, should someone re-write them more in his style?

von Stade:   I don’t know.  It would be a possibility, but it’s only an idea that they don’t need to be so incredibly respected.  They can be cut and reorganized a little bit, and it’s not great sacrilege.

BD:   Let’s talk about the other Massenet opera, Werther.  Tell me about Charlotte.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at left, see my interviews with Isobel Buchanan, Robert Lloyd, and Janine Reiss.]

von Stade:   I did it years ago, and I’ve just done it again.  Charlotte is not all that close to the character of Goethe.  Werther is about Werther.  It’s not about Werther and Charlotte.  It’s mostly about a man’s love from his point of view.  You do see her point of view, but not until the last minute.

BD:   It
truly is The Sorrows of Young Werther [the title of the Goethe novel].

von Stade:   Yes.  Charlotte is certainly not in the category of a prop for Werther, but rather than being firmly a character on her own, she is more of an extension of his love object, and the role is not as clearly defined by Massenet.  You hardly see her at all.  You see her as this person who is in love within the first act, and in the second act you see her as married to somebody else, and being quite curt and determined to respect her own marriage.  It isn’t really until the third act that she comes alive at all, and says that she wanted to tell Werther,
From the first day I met you, I adored you.  I don’t mean to diminish it, and I love doing it, but I think the opera is about Werther and his magnificent tenor voice.  [Laughs]  I was telling this to a friend, and they said, One of the curses of the Middle Ages was they gave us this incredibly potent idea of romantic love.  Not to be an old sour-puss about romantic love, but it’s so idealized in our country.  Its on television and film, and every cover of Cosmopolitan magazine on every news stand.  It can overshadow the wonder of real love that is a part of romantic love.  Its that the ideal situation of running down platforms in smoky railway stations.  The magic of our own humanity is way beyond that, but Werther is the absolute pinnacle it.  It is as if you rolled it all up into one.  It’s being in love with words, and ideas, and images.  It’s narcissistic in a way, and if you really squash it, it’s much nicer than simply being narcissistic.  It’s the epitome of romantic love.

BD:   Is it a grateful role to sing?

von Stade:   I love singing it, but I just love the tenor arias.  I could hear them all night and never get sick of them.  I love all that drama.  I love a good romance, and it’s fun to be a girl!  I do so many boys that I’m really thrilled to get to play a girl!

BD:   Did Massenet write well for the human voice, especially the female voice?

von Stade:   He wrote beautifully, with wonderful sweeping phrases, rest periods, and simple little songs.  But Massenet can grate on you in an awful way if it’s not respected.  If it’s too slow or too indulged, one can feel that here is the most magnificent phrase, so I’ll milk it for all it’s worth.  He had an idea of how he wanted it, and his idea of how he wanted it is the right one.  But it’s very easy to abuse.  That’s like Puccini.  [She sings indulgently the beginning of Mi chiamano, Mimì]  It’s a beautiful phrase, but what are you saying?  It’s simply
“My name is Mimì, so don’t indulge too much.  It’s like being tickled to death.  [Both laugh]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Do you sing differently in front of a microphone than you do in performance?

von Stade:   No, not opera mics.  I just made a pop record, and you really sing differently for that kind of record!  [Laughter, and then she sings ‘My heart belongs to Broadway’]  I have always loved that music.  I love Barbra Streisand as much as Maria Callas, and Peggy Lee and Eartha Kitt and Whitney Houston!
von stade
BD:   Should we try to get the Broadway audience to come to the opera, and should we try to get the opera audience to go to Broadway?

von Stade:   There was just this big article in The New York Times about that, about crossovers, but I don’t think you can.  It’s like the New York City Opera public and the Met public.  They’re two different publics, and if one is on strike, people don’t all go to the other one.  That’s just what New York is.  It’s just a huge combination of people.  I love Broadway.  I love the size of the theaters, and I feel it’s part of being an American.  I’m proud of Jerome Kern, and Gershwin, and Rodgers and Hart, and Rodgers and Hammerstein.  It’s part of my heritage.

BD:   And are you also proud of Thomas Pasatieri, Dominick Argento, and Gian Carlo Menotti?
von Stade:   Definitely, and I think it’s thrilling!  All of us in the business have to take our hats off to Kiri Te Kanawa who really started this as crossover stuff.  She opened up the possibilities for us as additional work that we would enjoy.  A lot of the voices of that time, such as Jerome Kern, were a lot closer to opera than to Broadway sounds.  Some of it is probably the recording equipment of those days, but if you hear the original Showboat with Irene Dunne, it’s not an unoperatic sound.  It is the same type of vocal production that we have, with slight moderation in that we may obscure words in our opera-ness.  Jerome Kern apparently adored words as much as melodies.  He insisted upon understanding the words, and that might take a slightly different emphasis than we would be initially comfortable doing, or be knowledgeable enough to do.  But other than that, especially since you are not having the Ethel Merman-types pop onto the scene in Broadway with the great voices, you’re having more actors who sing, and becoming singing-actors.  The real culprit is the microphone on stage, because our ears don’t listen the same way.

BD:   Helen Traubel would sing at the Met, and then sing in night clubs... or is that a different thing?

von Stade:   I don’t know.  I haven’t done it for twenty-odd years.  I did do a little bit of it, but if it worked for her, it’s great.  I don’t think you can make a rule about it.  It’s hard to make the switch over.

BD:   If you can’t make a rule, then you don’t want to put a limitation on it?

von Stade:   That’s what I mean.  If people can do it, fantastic, and if it works, great!  If it doesn’t work, and it’s clear that it doesn’t work for that particular voice, okay, nice try.

BD:   Let me ask a big balance question.  In opera, where’s the balance between the artistic achievement and the entertainment value?

von Stade:   Opera is incredibly entertaining because it’s a spectacle.  You get as much spectacle in any opera as you do in a Broadway show.  It may not be as commercial as we’re accustomed to.  It doesn’t have the glitz and the big band, but it is as spectacular as anything one can see.  There is a spectacular-ness of the human voice in the fact that it is used without amplification or artificial interference.  The sound is going from vocal cord to ear, and we don’t have much of that in the world anymore.  It’s Walkmans, and CDs, and stereos, and TVs.  Everything is transmitted via something else. That’s our generation.  I
t’s nothing to hate, but there are few situations left where it’s a real human exchange.  It is coming out of my throat into your years, and that’s wonderful.  That doesn’t change in opera.  That’s the essence of opera.

BD:   Are you conscious of the audience when you’re singing on the stage?

von Stade:   Oh, sure.  You can feel the public right away, and you know if they’re not in the mood because opera takes a certain amount of participation from the public.  They have to be willing to sit there and concentrate.  It’s not as much fun without them.

BD:   Is that one of the drawbacks of making a recording, because there’s no public in the studio?

von Stade:   Yes.  I don’t like recording.  I don’t like listening to my own voice.
von stade
BD:   Do you like listening to other’s voices?

von Stade:   Yes, but when I’m on my own, I listen to pop music more than opera.

BD:   Sure, but when you’re performing opera all the time, you get your fill of that material.

von Stade:   Yes, exactly.
*     *     *     *     *
BD:   Tell me about singing early opera, such as Monteverdi.

von Stade:   I loved singing Monteverdi, especially in the versions of Raymond Leppard.  [Both musicians are shown on the LP cover at left.]  They’re just wonderful.  Talk about how the phrases were absolutely built around the words!  It’s just marvelous.  That’s my only experience with it, doing some Cavalli and Monteverdi, but what I did of it, I adored.

BD:   Do you sing much contemporary music anymore?

von Stade:   No, I don’t.  I’m doing a new Dominick Argento piece, The Aspern Papers.  I love his work.

BD:   Is it a song-cycle or an opera?

von Stade:   It
s an opera, and I’m going to record a song-cycle of his next year.  I’m very pleased about that.

BD:   Does he know how to write well for the voice?

von Stade:   Oh, fantastically.  We’re in a very exciting time for vocalism.  William Schuman is not a young man, but he wrote The Mighty CaseyLee Hoiby is also a wonderful composer.

BD:   [Gently protesting]  But these are all lyrical writers, rather than hard complex writers.

von Stade:   The hard complex writers I don’t know, but there are certain limits to the voice.  I did a modern piece with Gerard Schwarz once [when he was still playing trumpet, before his conducting career] and I asked him how to practice this stuff because I was going hoarse!  He said he didn’t practice modern stuff because it would ruin his lip!  So if it’s that category, I don’t want to ruin my voice on it.  I’m not gifted enough to know how to use my voice and not hurt it.  There are certain things for the voice that aren’t good, such as intervals jumping around, and difficult words on high notes.  It’s not the nature of the human voice to be able to negotiate those things comfortably.  There are certain things that show the voice off, and it’s not switching registers!  Unless you are a real smart cookie and figure it out, you can get hurt.  Not every composer writes that way, but if that’s what you mean by
modern music, that’s not for me.

BD:   You’ve picked the ones who write wonderfully for the voice, and this is great!  I’m so glad we’re getting back to music that can be easily listened to.

von Stade:   Argento did Casanova., and it
’s just a scream!  It’s as good as any Broadway show I’ve ever seen, and that scene in the Grand Canal in Venice is marvelous!  He’s a wonderful librettist as well, and he does his own librettos.

BD:   Is singing fun?

von Stade:   Yes!  Singing is very athletic, and when it’s right it’s like hitting the ball in the middle of the racket.  It kind of goes clunk, and it feels right.  It’s very physical, and it’s very concentrated without being tight.  Singing is removing tension, and letting everything be a conduit to the voice.  It’s a real high when it’s good, and when it’s bad, it takes a lesson or two to get it right.  I just adore it!  I hate it sometimes when I have a lot of work and I’m tired, but I just cannot believe my good fortune to be paid to do what I love doing.  It is worth sitting by myself here in Chicago to wait for performances.  It
s not to neglect my personal life, but it’s a small sacrifice for a really terrific reward.

BD:   How is the public different from Europe to America, or from city to city?

von Stade:   In Europe, everybody goes to the opera once a week.  It’s just part of their life.  It’s right there.  A lot of activity is geared around the opera.  They’re usually smaller cities and smaller houses, so they’re maybe a bit more spoiled in that it’s more available to them.  They generally don’t have the big city pressures that we all have in America in the big houses, such as the Met, and San Francisco, and Chicago.  The Europeans wait to the last curtain to leave and get a cab to go home, or take the subway or a tram.  It is not a major thing, and that’s how they do it. 
So there’s less pressure on them, and they can somehow sit back and enjoy it more.  It’s been part of their culture for hundreds of years, and it’s much more state supported.  So while tickets are unbelievably expensive, there is subsidy, and it’s not as much of an investment as it is in this country.  Also, the big houses take away a little bit of that intimacy of opera, which I regret.  I have loved so much singing a lot in Europe in the last couple of years.  There I can see the first three rows, but here in Chicago I just barely see shadows because its a big house.  I’ll put in a plug for the marvelous theater, Glimmerglass.  They got the money together and built this wonderful theater, and it is a dream.

BD:   Where is this?

von Stade:   This is in Cooperstown, New York, near Saratoga, and with the ingenuity and hard work of a few individuals, they got the funding.  It looks very much like a barn and overlooks the lake, which is just beautiful.  It’s about the size of Glyndebourne with wonderfully little chandeliers.  So it’s very pretty, and in the intermission, the walls withdraw.  It’s just so attractively done.

*     *     *     *     *
von stade
BD:   Before we finish up, let’s go back to Bellini for a moment.

von Stade:   I don’t know much about Bellini, just my experience of La Sonnambula.  But I think Ah! non credea mirarti is the greatest aria ever written for the voice, for the spirit, for the words, for the melody.  He is a melody man.
BD:   Have you sung Adalgisa [Norma]?

von Stade:   Yes, I did actually, but it was so many years ago that I don’t remember too much.  It’s just so pure, so loving of womanhood.  It’s marvelous.  I know it’s not interesting to play... it’s oom-pah-pah, oom-pah-pah, and the orchestras don’t like it.  There are very few conductors around who really understand it and know wherein lies its greatness.  It’s the most demanding of the voice because it’s rubato, it’s line, it’s trills, it’s coloratura.  It’s every vocal technique within the human range, and it
s the most refined.

BD:   But it demands the right things of the voice?  [Vis-à-vis the Mahler recording shown at left see my interview with Yoel Levi.]

von Stade:   Oh yes, absolutely.  That generation had control, and they didn’t go on stage unless they had it.  It kept the voice very pure, and very light, and very fragile.  Because of the size of our houses over here, we’re a little gung-ho on ‘the big voice’.  Big voices are marvelous, but there’s a whole other palette, too.  In the last twenty-five years, you have Birgit Nilsson, and Maria Callas, but there was also Teresa Berganza, and Victoria de los Ángeles, as well as people who did not have big voices, like Lily Pons.  There’s quality of voice, and sometimes when the theaters get too big and the orchestras play too loud, those voices go a little unnoticed.

BD:   I’m glad we have continued to notice your voice!

von Stade:   Oh, thank you, thank you!

BD:   Thank you for finally coming to Chicago!

von Stade:   Thank you very much for having me.

BD:   Will you come back?

von Stade:   Yes, I’m planning to come back...  [She would return two years later for Barber of Seville with Thomas Allen, Frank Lopardo, Claudio Desderi, Nicola Ghiuselev, and Cynthia Lawrence, conducted by Alessandro Pinzauti, directed by John Copley, and designed by John Conklin, with wigs and makeup by Stan Dufford.  After a return engagement in 1991 for Figaro, with Ramey, Marie McLaughlin, Lott, William Shimell, François Loup, Benelli, and Philip Kraus, again with Davis conducting and Hall directing, von Stade made one more appearance again in Barber with Allen, Rockwell Blake, Desderi, and Nicolai Ghiaurov, conducted by Carlo Rizzi.]

In November of 1994, exactly seven years after our first meeting, we got together again and continued our discussion.
This time while setting up, she was speaking about learning music on her plane trips . . . . .

BD:   Is that where you learn all the music
on the plane?

von Stade:   A lot of it, yes.  It’s amazing, just the repetition.  Most singers today would live with tape recorders, just to get the bare structure of everything.

BD:   How much are you’re learning from that, and how much are you learning from inside?  How much are you putting into music?

von Stade:   It’s a combination.  You’ve got to get the mechanics of it all straightened out first, and get the words translated and the rhythms right.  Then comes the memorization.  Once that’s all tucked away is when you’re free enough to start really liking it!  That
s when all the additions come, and all the ideas, and the reorganization.
von stade
BD:   So, once you’ve got it all learned, then it’s starts?

von Stade:   Yes, then it starts, and you get some ideas.  But when it’s still an enemy on the page, it takes a little more patience.  [Laughs]

BD:   There really is an adversarial element???

von Stade:   Oh, yes there is, depending on how difficult the piece is.

BD:   You’ve just gotten through with The Dangerous Liaisons by Conrad Susa on the west coast.  Was that particularly difficult?

von Stade:   No, but it was difficult in some ways.  He is not rhythmically difficult, but melodically it’s very complicated.  It just takes getting it in your ear, and getting used to it.  It does not fall into your ear the way some things do.

BD:   Does it fall into the voice?

von Stade:   Yes, very well, and it was nicely distributed from the point of view of words.  A big problem with some of the new operas is how easy a job they make it for us to deliver a clear sentence.  If there are too many words, or if there are too many notes, or if they’re too high, there are lots of complications that you’ve got to have to be careful of.  In that regard, it was very, very comfortable and very thoughtful.

BD:   Is that something you look for when you’re deciding if you’re going to accept a new role?

von Stade:   In this situation, where it’s being written, Conrad was amazingly tuned in to what everybody could and couldn’t do, and where the range was.  He asked us as well, but he also came to a number of performances, and was familiar with all the people he was writing for.

BD:   He came to performances of other works to watch you?

von Stade:   Yes, to see what was the comfortable register, where you could do specific things, what was the most dramatic, etc.  I was able to work with him and actually make a few adjustments.  These adjustments were words, not notes.

BD:   Some ways to project the text?

von Stade:   Yes, not to try and project an important passage way high.

BD:   At the moment you’re singing Rossini, and he has lots of words.  I assume they’re fairly comfortable for you to deliver?

von Stade:   That’s patter, which is a different thing.  It’s a much lighter way of singing.  It isn’t like you take the voice back, but that’s part of the skill of it.  For example, in Gilbert & Sullivan you can’t dig into the words with the same type of delivery that you can in other things.  That’s part of the challenge.

BD:   Have we lost that today, the idea of dealing with words and music together the way the old Italians did?

von Stade:   I don’t think so.  There are some very exciting composers around right now in this generation.  There’s William Bolcom, who just writes wonderful words, wonderful poems, wonderful stories with great use of the American idiom of songs that I’m familiar with.  He has a great interest knowledge of the voice.  Interestingly enough, he and Dominick Argento are both married to singers.  So, if there’s any doubt, there’s a singer there to ask.  There’s also Lee Hoiby.  There are some wonderful composers who really love the voice, and who understand it and know how to write for it.  They write lyrically, doing passages that show off the voice rather than treating it in an instrumental way that doesn’t show what a voice is good at.

BD:   [With a gentle nudge]  You mean, you don’t want to be treated like a clarinet???

von Stade:   [Laughs]  Nope!  Maybe a clarinet, but not a high oboe or trumpet!  [Both laugh]

BD:   What advice do you have for composers who want to write songs or operas these days... beyond marrying a singer?

von Stade:   Show it to singers who know, because it’s the delivery that is all-important, and it’s a singer who can make that possible or not.  Also, there’s great value in simplicity.  In my experience of almost every type of music, the clearer the manner in which the thought is expressed, the clearer it fits.   When it gets very convoluted and obtuse, or if there are too many words that don’t carry a thought or a story forward, then it’s hard.  Deeply psychological things are hard to make clear.

BD:   How so?

von Stade:   There was a song-cycle to be commissioned in Minneapolis.  Dominick Argento was writing it, and he asked me what texts I was interested in.  At the time I was reading a lot of Sylvia Plath, and I sent him some of her poems.  They’re very complex.  You’re not quite sure what the thought is, so it would have added a little bit of confusion to a song.  But he said,
The bottom line is that I don’t think this is you!  So, it ended up being a cycle of songs based on wonderful letters from Elizabeth Barrett Browning to her father and to her sister describing her life in Florence.  They’re marvelous songs, and they’ve been done very successfully by numbers of people in different places.  [CD of this work is shown below.]

von stade

BD:   You and Marilyn Horne have gotten together and are trying to re-emphasize the American song literature.

von Stade:   I can’t take any credit for it.  This foundation that she started is really Marilyn’s idea.  I’ve sung for her on several occasions to benefit it, but she really has an understanding of it.  Recitals do seem to be falling off in this country, and people are not as in love with the idea as they were, say, ten or fifteen years ago.
von stade
BD:   Why is that?

von Stade:   I don’t know.  Sometimes the halls have gotten too big.  Part of the delivery, charm and joy of a Lieder recital is a certain intimacy that’s not the same experience as an opera house, and for that you just can’t have as big a hall.  Yet for economic reasons now, a lot of them are being done in opera houses, or in huge theaters.  We’ve been enormously lucky in our business.  You can’t count Lyric Opera of Chicago because that is the brilliant exception in the world of opera, but everywhere else there are companies going under.

BD:   Is there any way to get either the Rock audience, or the baseball audience, since there’s no baseball in the late fall, to come to these performances?

von Stade:   People like Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo are attempting to draw them in through those gala extravaganzas, and I’m all for it.  I think it’s great.  There aren’t many singers who have that kind of a draw, but I find it terribly exciting to be part of this profession in a time when everything is produced within an inch of its life.  We have every kind of entertainment, thousands of channels on the television, and still the human voice, albeit three of the great human voices of all time, can draw a standing room only crowd at Dodger Stadium.  It’s pretty thrilling!

BD:   Is the crowd coming for the artistry, or they are coming just for the event?

von Stade:   Who cares?  They’re coming, and they’re paying their bucks, and it’s getting on television, and it makes it accessible.  Beverly Sills did an enormous amount for that, making it not a
sport of kings’, but having it be accessible to everyone.

BD:   Is this translating into people coming to subscription concerts and general opera performances?

von Stade:   I can’t tell you.  One thing that has improved attendance enormously is subtitles, and I wish they’d get in all the symphony halls as well.  That’s the next step.  It would be fantastic if there were some firm or company or organization that did translations, and was willing to do surtitles for recitals.  People enjoy everything when they know what’s being said.  I’ve sat at many recitals and not understood everything that was going on.

BD:   But at a Lieder recital, theoretically you have the text in front of you in the program.

von Stade:   You do, but then it’s hard to see if the light isn’t quite right.  If you’re good and studious, and read it during the intermission, you can’t really remember what’s there.  If it’s right above you, or right at the singer’s feet, there it is.  It’s going to be expensive, and it’s going to be an undertaking, but I think it would be terrific.  In the day of computer, once someone has the skill and understands music, it would be a great art to do it.

BD:   Is the use of the subtitles going to mean the death of opera in English?

von Stade:   Not necessarily.  Some operas just sound horrible in English, but most of the operas that are being composed in the United States are in English.  It’s a really good question.

BD:   I like to have both in the season, but I’m greedy!  [Both laugh]  We have a second company, the Chicago Opera Theater that does everything in English.  They always do a modern opera, or a recent piece, and/or a novelty, rather than Aïda, La Bohème, and Carmen.

von Stade:   Yes.  [The Chicago Opera Theater would present An Evening with Frederica von Stade and Jake Heggie in 2010, and she would return in 2015 for A Coffin in Egypt, which was written for her by Ricky Ian Gordon.  CD of the premiere is shown above-left.]

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   I’m sure you’re asked for more than you could possibly do in six lifetimes.  How do you decide what you will sing and what you won’t sing?
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von Stade:   What I’ve chosen to do or not do has been dictated by my voice, and I’ve been very careful not to sing outside its parameters.  I have a lyric voice, and that’s it.  That’s the bottom line.  It’s ridiculous to think of me doing Verdi, and I never will.  Some of the outside limits are Der Rosenkavalier or Werther.  Now I can slightly chug into some of the more dramatic things, but just!  They have to be borderline, and I have to have a sympathetic conductor because I don’t have a big voice.
BD:   A lot of people will think that it’s strange to say you don’t have a big voice, because you fill this house very well in the repertoire you sing.

von Stade:   Yes, but if I were to take on something that was outside of the confines, I would sound like Minnie Mouse!  [Both laugh]

BD:   We are glad that you’ve managed to find roles from Monteverdi through yesterday’s opera, through the whole spectrum.  You are one of the very few singers who has gone from the very beginnings of opera to the current works.

von Stade:   Yes, I’ve had wonderful advice and wonderful ideas handed to me by both the pianist I worked with, Martin Katz, and my first manager, Matthew Epstein, who is on the Chicago Lyric staff
.  He has a great knowledge of the repertoire and of singing, and understands what the voice should do at what stage.  It was his idea for me to do Mélisande, and I’ve had a wonderful experience singing her all over the place.  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Richard Stilwell, and Nadine Denize.]  It was his idea to resurrect Cendrillon, and Chérubin which is absolutely out of this world.  They are two of the prettiest, loveliest, most delicious operas.  So I’m very grateful.

BD:   Do you get a special joy out of singing French?

von Stade:   Yes.  I lived in France after high school, and again in the 1970s.  My girls were born there, and I love France and everything about the French.  I love the colors and the way things are put out in shops.  I am a great Francophile.

BD:   Are the French audiences different from the Italian audiences and the American audiences, and the English audiences?

von Stade:   Slightly.  Opera is not really part of their world.  The Paris Opera, for example, had this God-awful reputation for years.  It was just a joke.  In the years I was there, Rolf Liebermann took it over, and it was centered on the map.  It was terribly exciting and terrific.  Now it seems to be in a great metamorphosis again.  It’s had the fight of the Bastille.  The French have had a difficult path in opera, and it is a very different public.  The French love to talk about things, but they’re not quite as extrovert in either their approval or disapproval.  The Italians, in my experience, are different, and I’ve been very lucky.  They
are much more extrovert, but somewhat terrifying in the bel canto repertoire.  I’ve done very safe operas in Italy, being terrified of having vegetables flying at my feet.

BD:   Do you have to stand up against the shades of everyone back through Garcia and Malibran?

von Stade:   Exactly.

BD:   Is there a competition amongst the current crop, and the current recordings, as well as the old recordings, and the old memories?

von Stade:   Oh, there is an innate competition.  I’ve never been terribly preoccupied with it because I’ve been so pleased to be part of it in whatever measure.  In some regards, I haven’t even considered myself available for competition, though there is a certain sense of it.  I’ve never listened to hundreds of recordings to learn works, because I feel that each voice is so personal.  I listen to recordings for my pleasure, and you can get sidetracked by trying to do something that’s natural to somebody’s voice, and maybe not natural to your own.  I’ve had great delight in listening to lots of young singers coming along.  It’s a wonderful, thrilling crop, as you say.  There are some fantastic baritones, and wonderful mezzo sopranos.  The other night I heard Cecilia Bartoli on the television.  I’d met her a couple of times, but I’ve never heard her live.  I thought she was marvelous, adorable, charming, such a musician, sort of like Teresa Berganza.  I’m a great fan of Susanne Mentzer, and Susan Graham.  There are some absolutely thrilling voices now coming along.  I’ve also heard one or two tenors...

BD:   Without mentioning names, are the voices that are coming along today ready to eventually stand alongside the greats of today, and yesterday?

von Stade:   Every voice of yesterday takes on a certain heroism and perfection that probably wasn’t really present in the time of the singer.  That’s natural, human nature.

BD:   We embellish our memories?

von Stade:   Yes.  You can’t go a whole lot better than Luciano Pavarotti and Plácido Domingo in that regard.  However, there are a number of things which work against great voices.
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BD:   Such as?

von Stade:   Such as these giant halls, and these way-too-loud orchestras.  There’s become a tradition, or habit, of playing at the maximum loudness of decibels, and that can be very harmful, especially to the voices that are going into the more spinto repertoire.  Unless they are as secure as Lyric Opera’s position in this city and the world of opera, lots of luck.  It’s terribly dangerous, and it’s why I’m thrilled when a young voice like Cecilia Bartoli comes along, who really knows what she’s doing.  The orchestra has got to bring it down to meet the singer, and every time anyone’s done that, it’s been successful.  It works!  It’s not the quantity of voice, it’s the quality of voice.  There are great voices around, but it always makes me nervous when there are the demands on the bigger voices.  They need the time and careful development.  I don’t see as many careful loving guardian angels as I had.

BD:   Those would be the managers and advisers?

von Stade:   Managers and advisers.  I don’t know that there’s the same kind of wealth of knowledge that was around when I was in my 20s.  I was at the Met, and was working every day with the marvelous Jan Behr, and all sorts of marvelous men who had been in the business for forty-five years on several continents... Roberto Benaglio was in Dallas, and Ubaldi Gardini in London.  All these extraordinary coaches would say,
If you sing that, you are such a fool, and you may leave my studio.  [Both laugh]  They might put it in kinder terms, but they had that wealth of knowledge and experience to be able to protect the young voice.  It’s not that voices are not ready to mature.  It’s just that your whole experience isn’t ready to deal with the orchestra, and all the things that happen.

BD:   Is this the advice you have for young singers, to seek out a knowledgeable mentor?

von Stade:   A knowledgeable mentor, yes.  You cannot go wrong with someone who is deeply schooled in bel canto.  I mean, a real pro.

BD:   Are we getting these teachers and coaches coming along?

von Stade:   There are one or two of them around.  There’s Bruno Bartoletti, and this wonderful guy we’re working with now, Carlo Rizzi.  He knows his stuff.  They are around, but a lot of them are the older guys, like Giuseppe Patanè.  One of the greatest people I ever learned from was Nicola Rescigno.  It really is very hard to sing proper bel canto.  I had the best times working with Marilyn Horne on certain things.  It does not come without an extraordinary amount of effort and time.

BD:   Are there students these days who are willing to put in that effort?

von Stade:   Oh, yes!  An American student very specifically will do anything, and they’re very good at it.

BD:   Is that a problem, that they’ll do anything?

von Stade:   No.  They’ll hang by their toes and try and sing a high C.  [Both laugh]  There are marvelous programs.  The Adler Program, and the Merola Program in San Francisco are brilliant, and I find those kids are nurtured and very well-prepared.  I’ve worked a lot with them over the last five years in different productions, and they’re sensational.  There is a wonderful staff there, and the staff here is fantastic.  Ardis Krainik [General Director of Lyric Opera] really builds young singers.

BD:   But, of course, she comes from the singing background.

von Stade:   Oh yes, and she knows!

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   Let me broach a dangerous topic.  We’re talking about the large orchestra, and we’re in the age of electronics.  Could we perhaps have any kind of discreet amplification for the singers?

von Stade:   I don’t think so.  I think you’d kill it.  I’m against it all together, because I’ve seen what it’s done to Broadway.  Opera is the last bastion where you hear throat-to-ear with nothing in between, and if you take that away, it’ll confuse the production of the sound.

BD:   Many years ago, Boris Goldovsky was trying to explore this.  He even was a proponent of trying to get the engineers to really work on electronics so it would be very discreet, so you wouldn’t really know it was being used, and yet the voice then would carry a little better.

von Stade:   No, I think you take away the obligation of the public to listen.  The worst thing about it is that you see someone singing from stage left, and you hear them somewhere else, wherever the speakers are.  I’ve seen it where it’s controlled.  I went to a play here in Chicago, The Sisters Rossensweig, and I couldn’t believe that it was amplified.  It was a small theater, and all these actors and actresses have wonderful voices.  It makes for laziness on the part of the public, and you hear things differently.  The thrill of the human voice is that it is not amplified.  Everything else is amplified, and we have enough of that.

BD:   Is the public not used to hearing amplified voices on television and on the stereo?

von Stade:   Yes, they certainly are!  But the real public doesn’t go as wild in their living room as they do in the opera house.

BD:   Should they?

von Stade:   In their living room?  No, they should be there in the opera house.

BD:   But if you’re listening at home, should you applaud?

von Stade:   [Laughs]  No, I don’t think so.

BD:   Why not?  I do sometimes.

von Stade:   I get terribly excited at times listening to something, and want to applaud.  There’s a little bit of the experience of being in an opera house that’s not dissimilar to a sporting event, in that it absorbs the total concentration of a public.  It takes them completely away from whatever their world happens to be.  I go to basketball games a lot.  I love basketball, and the excitement of being in that space with all these people who are focused on one thing is really a marvelous experience.
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BD:   [With  mock horror]  I hope you don’t scream with them!

von Stade:   [Laughs]  No, I don’t scream!  But I must say every time I’ve sung ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ at one of their games, they lost, so I’m getting discouraged by that!  [Both laugh]  But part of the experience is being in this place together with human beings, not with electronic beings.

BD:   Is there any way of getting the fans of Michael Jordan going up for a basket to come into the opera house the next night to hear you going up for a beautiful high note?

von Stade:   I think there is!  That’s a little bit of the appeal of something like The Three Tenors concerts.  The hard part is getting in them to purchase an expensive ticket.

BD:   Where is opera going these days?

von Stade:   I don’t know where opera is going.  Obviously it does have to accommodate what’s happening in the world, but I don’t know what it is.

BD:   Opera has wound up on records and on television.  Do you think it belongs on the small screen?

von Stade:   I think it does.  It’s fascinating.  There again, it gives an opportunity to make it available to many hundreds of people who wouldn’t see it otherwise.  The expectations have to change.  Opera singers in general are playing people who are not themselves.  They’re playing younger people.  They’re not typecast because of their age or personality.  They’re typecast because of their voices, and sometimes television can be a little unforgiving in that.  But it’s good that it gets into that medium.

BD:   I have a theory that it was the use of subtitles on the television that allowed acceptance of the supertitles in the theater.  Do you think there’s any credence to that?

von Stade:   It’s possibly true, yes.  I don’t know why the theaters were against it.  The Met is still against it.  [Remember, this conversation took place in 1994!  Beginning the following year, they started using MetTitles in the seatbacks.]  They’re going to do something, but I guess it was thought of as a distraction at times.  Before television, there was not the possibility to stay home and do anything except listen to the radio.  Television has changed all our lives in that regard.  Why go out when you can watch it on TV?  Certain coverages can be more interesting at home, such as sporting events.  You don’t have to get in your car and go out.  So, in that regard, to include opera in the general world of entertainment is important.  I have a friend whose young son is nine, and every Christmas he gets a tape of an opera, and she called me in desperation.  He was going to see a Wagner opera at the Met.  It was his big treat.  We live in California, and because of jet lag he fell asleep during part of the opera.  When he realized he had slept through part of it, he was inconsolable.  So she called me to try and get other tickets, and so I was able to get him in.  He Is gah-gah over watching opera, and how would that have happened if it hadn’t been on the television?  It isn’t the singers necessarily, it’s the whole thing!  It’s not the music, it’s not the conductor, it’s not like he wants to be any those characters.  He just loves it!

BD:   This is what we need, more opera consumers.

von Stade:   Yes.

BD:   You bring up the word ‘entertainment’.  How much in opera is art, and how much is entertainment, and where’s the balance?

von Stade:   If you tell people it’s art, they kind of get into a panic, and automatically think they’re going to hate it.  I think it should all be entertainment, I really do.

BD:   Even Wagner?

von Stade:   Yes!  Those who love Wagner are just berserk for it.  You have to realize that there are different tastes, and it’s all right for people not to like something.  That’s where the American public is very self-conscious.  If they don’t like it, why should they go and sit through it?  They might love The Magic Flute and hate Die Walküre, and that’s fair enough.  I don’t know any Wagner operas, so I’m not thrilled at going to them.  They don’t mean anything to me.  It is a lack of education which generally decides it.

BD:   Give them a chance!

von Stade:   Yes, exactly.

*     *     *     *     *

BD:   When you walk out on the stage, are you portraying a character or do you really become that character?

von Stade:   It’s a combination.  At times you become that person, and at times you portray it.  I’ve had to be boys most of my life, and I don’t know exactly what it feels like to be a boy.  But there are certainly moments when I feel whatever the emotion is of the moment.  Theater is fraud.  It’s pretending.  It’s based on reality, on real emotions and real things, but you can’t go through it at the time or you will not have the control of what you’re doing to portray it.  So it’s a combination.  It’s based on reality but it’s portrayal.
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BD:   It
s a fraud???

von Stade:   It sounds like you’re being duped, but it isn’t.  It’s all real.  It’s human emotions, but you aren’t that person.  I can’t think of a movie character who really is the person they’re portraying.  There may be great elements of them in those combinations of characters, but they really aren’t those people.

BD:   One last question.  Is singing fun?

von Stade:   Great fun!  Opera singers are a riot.  I just wish someone could have the experience of spending a day rehearsing with us, especially when it
s a happy cast, and for most of my career I’ve had happy casts.  I’ve been in The Marriage of Figaro forever and a day, and there is no nicer world than that particular arena of Mr. Da Ponte and Mr. Mozart.  Opera singers are very funny people.  There are a few difficult characters, but basically there’s great humor and a great sense of fun.  Singing is fun.  It usually feels good.  It doesn’t always feel good, but when you’re in good form, and rested, and singing the right role, it just is wonderful.  I watched some ice-skating last night, and I thought it looks like fun because it doesn’t look hard at all.  They make it look easy.

BD:   You make it look easy!  [Vis-à-vis the recording shown at right, see my interviews with Siegmund Nimsgern, and Elisabeth Söderström.  Notice that there is a video of a Metropolitan Opera production of this same opera shown below! ]

von Stade:  Thank you.

BD:   Since you’ve sung so many boys, does that make you be even more feminine when you are a girl on stage?

von Stade:   Yes.  It’s such a thrill for me to be dressed up in pretty party dresses that I just feel like I’m eight years old and going to a party!  [Both laugh]

BD:   Should Cherubino know that he’s going to wind up with the Countess in the next opera?

von Stade:   Oh, I don’t think so.  At that age he’d be terrified if he knew he was going to end up with her.  He
d be delightfully terrified.

BD:   Thank you for being a singer, and for coming back to Chicago.

von Stade:   It’s always a great joy to be here.  Thank you.

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See my interviews with Judith Blegen, Jean Kraft, and Nathaniel Merrill

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See my interviews with Francisco Araiza, Paolo Montarsolo, and Paul Plishka

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© 1987 & 1994 Bruce Duffie

These conversations were recorded in Chicago on November 19, 1987, and November 10, 1994.  Portions were broadcast on WNIB 1992, 1995, and 2000.  This transcription was made in 2024, and posted on this website at that time.  My thanks to British soprano Una Barry for her help in preparing this website presentation.

To see a full list (with links) of interviews which have been transcribed and posted on this website, click here.  To read my thoughts on editing these interviews for print, as well as a few other interesting observations, click here.

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Award - winning broadcaster Bruce Duffie was with WNIB, Classical 97 in Chicago from 1975 until its final moment as a classical station in February of 2001.  His interviews have also appeared in various magazines and journals since 1980, and he now continues his broadcast series on WNUR-FM, as well as on Contemporary Classical Internet Radio.

You are invited to visit his website for more information about his work, including selected transcripts of other interviews, plus a full list of his guests.  He would also like to call your attention to the photos and information about his grandfather, who was a pioneer in the automotive field more than a century ago.  You may also send him E-Mail with comments, questions and suggestions.