“I didn’t think that many people would come, if you want to know the truth,” laughs Frederica von Stade as she recounts her final New York concert, given at Carnegie Hall last spring (which included a tri-generation encore with von Stade and her then-pregnant daughter Jenny Rebecca Elkus).
At 66, the legendary mezzo-soprano has been making the rounds with a list of lasts—in addition to her farewell to New York, she gave her last operatic performance at Houston Grand Opera as Mrs. DeRocher in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, a role she originated in 2000.
It’s a funny thing, the singer’s farewell. Some spend more time giving farewell tours than not, others make a quick, Garbo-like exit disappearing into the civilian world. Von Stade is unapologetically in the middle: She still sings in a steady stream of recitals in Carmel, CA and Concord, NH. She returns to her home state of New Jersey on Friday to sing selections from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne and tunes by Richard Rodgers and Stephen Sondheim as part the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra’s opening night festivities. On the other hand, von Stade is now a proud grandmother and donates many of her concert fees to the St. Mertin de Porres School in West Oakland and UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program.
A warm presence onstage and on the phone, we caught up with Flicka earlier last week from her Bay Area home to talk about Friday’s concert, her career fostering young musicians and life in semi-retirement. Read on for more.
You’re returning to your home state of New Jersey to sing some numbers from the American songbook and French art song. How did this program come together for you?
I think that almost every piece of music becomes like an old friend. Believe it or not, even after hundreds and thousands of times, you just never get tired of it, especially the Auvergne songs. I fell in love with them through recordings of De Los Angeles and during my career I was lucky enough at one point to make a little film in the Auvergne… And we went to the Auvergne. Oh, it was just absolutely beautiful, so I kind of have a nether vision of it. I have it very much in my mind. It’s not like any other part of France. In fact, it almost looks like Ireland with wonderful 14th-century chateaus. So that added another dimension to it. [Canteloube] was not a very well-known composer. He’s also written a wonderful collection of songs called Triptyques, which I recorded years ago, that’s very unusual; much more serious and very beautiful. He was a real master of orchestration.
Songs of the Auvergne is a work with which you’ve become long associated. What did going to the actual location add to your interpretation?
I actually met someone who spoke the language of these songs, which is langue d’oc, and it’s a very interesting dialect that went away somewhere in the time of Napoleon because he insisted on pure French. It’s a wonderful, very singsong, and slightly sounds like a combination between Italian, Portuguese, Spanish and French.
And from that you go to your mother tongue to sing some Broadway standards. Which came first for you: Classical or showtunes?
We’re lucky enough to have some of the greatest composers in the world in the songbook. They’re composers that have no less regard for lyrics than a Schubert or a Schumann, and they’re just absolutely marvelous. That was my dream when I started singing, was really to do Broadway. And so it’s coming home a little bit for me—I know every Jerome Kern song ever written.
The reason I put Sondheim in this, I was lucky enough to do a production of A Little Night Music and I just loved it. I think it’s one of the greatest songs ever written because of its simplicity and its message. Having done the role, it means an awful lot more. And I’m kind of at that time in my life of saying goodbye, so it’s a perfect song for me!
I'm glad you brought up saying goodbyes: You gave your farewell to New York concert at Carnegie Hall last year and made your last operatic appearance with Houston Grand Opera in Dead Man Walking. What comes after the farewell concerts?
I still have quite a few [recitals] left. Recently I’ve been asked to sing with a few youth orchestras and I love that, there’s a thrill of walking onstage and passing some 14-year-old violin player. It gives me hope in the future of music. There’s a great gift given to them by the conductors who work with them and the organizations that guarantee they’re able to perform in an orchestra.
For audiences, there’s a palpable feeling when you go to the opera house or concert hall knowing it’s a “last time.” Is there a different feeling for you as a singer?
The minute you get out there, it feels the same as it always has because that’s our job no matter how old we are. Making music—being able to sing with an orchestra, being able to sing with anybody—is always a privilege, so there’s that same innate joy. I’m able to streamline material that’s suitable; I’m not attempting to sing what I sang when I was 25. But there’s a funny aspect: It’s not sad. At least, it’s not sad for me. Because I feel that I’ve had in some regards more than I ever deserved, and felt this whole onus. And now the feeling is much closer to: “Did I ever do this?” [Laughs]
We took 25 kids to see the marvelous dress rehearsal of Lucrezia Borgia the other day with Renée Fleming, and I was at the opera house, listening to music, you know, I knew a lot of people there and we took the kids backstage to meet Renée and I felt more like a teacher coming in here than an opera singer who used to sing here. The career part of it is what feels different—and I think that’s sort of fun. It’s not sad, and especially having a glorious little 16-month-old granddaughter, it’s not sad at all. I would gladly go into being absolute full time Nana at this point.
It seems like you’ve found a second career in teaching music to children, whether it’s making them performers or listeners.
I just love it, and these are kids when you say “opera” to them they think Phantom of the Opera is as close as they come—if that. The other day we started a violin program at our little school in Oakland and I decided that the kids need to hear the music all the time. You have to understand, they’re kindergarteners, so they’re pretty wiggly. And I was playing the overture to The Marriage of Figaro, it’s quite an upbeat, fast tempo, and they all were just wiggling down the hall. It was worth the price of admission; it was fantastic.
Speaking of new crops, you’ve done a huge amount of new works—many, also, by American composers. What drew you to being in operas like Dangeous Liaisons and Dead Man Walking?
At the very beginning of my career I was asked to do a new opera based on a Garcia Lorca play called Yerma in Santa Fe, and I just loved the experience so much. And I did The Seagull with Thomas Pasatieri, and I did a work by Dominick Argento. It’s a real privilege to sit there and sing in front of the man who wrote it and sing their music and be able to say “Is that okay?” or “Maybe that vowel isn’t clear on that high note, could we change it or approach it a different way?” It’s a real creation, and I think because of the courage of many great impresarios, general managers like David Gockley, that they’ve encouraged, they’ve taught their public to keep their ears open to new music. Dead Man Walking has been in I-don’t-know-how-many countries and it’s had I think over 50 productions. Now that rarely happens to a new work. And Heggie’s Moby Dick is already scheduled for six or seven productions since its debut in Dallas. That’s very exciting. I’ve just loved every collaboration and felt, How lucky am I to be doing this?
The American idiom also brings it full circle to your love of musical theater. For you, are those idioms very close or are they separate but equal?
I think they’re very related because they’re two men who really know the voice. They know how to show it off well and they know how to use the most expressive parts of the voice. Sondheim is an absolute master, and he’s an absolute master of combining words and song and usually, his meanings are very deep and quite also bitter in some regards. They offer an amazing spectrum of human emotion. And I find the same with Jake. These are men who, they know their words and they know their intentions and they know their theater timings. They’re amazing culminations of theater, music and words. It’s dealing often with issues that are of today, that are big issues. There’s no one who isn’t aware of, in some regard, of the prison system. They may not have an intimate knowledge of it, but It affects all our lives in some regard. To be introduced to it in such a spiritual way and such a positive way through the marvelous relationship between Sister Helen Prejean and this man on death row, it’s just fantastic. And it’s not an opera about the death penalty; it’s an opera about the humanity all around that, the people that are in this world.
It’s really not that far off from a work like The Marriage of Figaro, which has the backdrop of a cultural, political and social shift but focuses on the characters created by Mozart and Da Ponte.
Exactly. They’re who they are because of what’s going on around them. In the Marriage of Figaro, it’s the system of nobility and everything around it and it’s full of the injustices. Ours is…it’s a bit the same.