San Francisco Opera | Opera Legend Frederica Von Stade Talks Costumes, Confidence, and the Long Arc of Justice

Opera Legend Frederica von Stade Talks Costumes, Confidence, and the Long Arc of Justice

The phone line goes silent. The legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is rustling around, looking for a poem. “Are you there,” she asks, reemerging from her search. She’s found the lines that have been speaking to her lately.

“Listen closely,” she begins, before reciting a verse from Seamus Heaney: “History says, ‘Don’t hope on this side of the grave.’ But then, once in a lifetime, the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.”

That tidal wave of justice seems distant now. At the time of our phone call, the novel coronavirus had claimed over 223,000 deaths in the United States alone. Still more face economic peril, with record job loss and uncertain financial prospects ahead.

The young artists von Stade has befriended weigh heavily on her mind. “All my young colleagues who just burst on the scene four or five years ago are now in danger of being out of work for two years,” she says. “What are they going to do?”

Von Stade herself has started to plan her next move. With over four decades of experience starring on the world’s greatest stages, she wants to do her part to bring hope to this moment in history.

“I’m in the process of trying to start a street choir,” she explains, pointing to the Dallas Street Choir as a model. It provides music training, concerts, and other opportunities for marginalized communities, particularly those experiencing homelessness. Von Stade has performed with the group before and would like to bring the concept to California, where she lives.

“Yes, there’s drugs and there’s mental health issues, of course. But there’s also just plain normal people who have been devastated by plain old poverty,” she says. “I feel it’s our job to take care of these people first. It’s impossible to think that this exists in a country such as ours, which is so wealthy.”

Social justice has long been a passion for von Stade. It’s even shown up in her work on stage. In 2000, von Stade was part of the world premiere cast of the opera Dead Man Walking, based on a book by activist Sister Helen Prejean. She played the mother of a murderer sentenced to death.

“It was very controversial at the time, very controversial,” von Stade recalls. The premiere took place at San Francisco Opera. “There were a lot of patrons that were not on board. You know, what do you think of an opera that starts with a murder and ends with an execution?”

As San Francisco Opera prepares for its 2020 costume sale, featuring outfits from her time in 2002’s The Merry Widow, von Stade agreed to look back on highlights from her career in this exclusive interview.

She started to practicing music when she was young, using a Victrola turntable at home to learn by ear. When she arrived at music school, she couldn’t read music. She couldn’t tell you what a middle-C was. But she could sing it.

“It's not easy to be a singer. You doubt yourself, you have all these auditions, you have masses of rejection along the way on your journey. It's true: It’s not easy,” she says. In these excerpts from her conversation, von Stade explains how she found her confidence — and what advice she’d share with emerging artists today.

 

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: When did you start to find yourself drawn to opera, as a potential career, as an artistic outlet?

FREDERICA VON STADE: Oh, I've always loved it. I actually am more of a Broadway fan than opera in many ways. But I just couldn't get over this one performance of Der Rosenkavalier with [soprano Elizabeth] Schwarzkopf and [mezzo-soprano] Christa Ludvig. It was just extraordinary and I just adored it.

Then I used to try and take my mom to operas in New York. We’d go every once in a while, sitting way at the top of the old Met. I really just wanted to learn how to sing and to read music. So I went to the Mannes College of Music and there, I found my greatest hero, Sebastian Engelberg, who was my first teacher and just one of the most brilliant, amazing men in the world.

He just taught in a way that was so full of the love of music and so understanding of the voice and what it can do and what it can't do. And he was really probably my greatest influence from then on.

Then I went to Mannes and I started to learn all about music and I just absolutely adored it. It was suggested that I should enter the Metropolitan Opera auditions. And I did, and I got a prize — to my utter bewilderment — and a contract. It was magic. It was like living a dream.

I'd never dreamt of being an opera singer. I really thought I would be a Broadway singer, if anything. When I turned the opera, I just loved it more and more. I sang everybody's maid and everybody's little brother and all kinds of things.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Did you ever take a character home with you and see your relationship with the character changing your relationship with the people around you in your real life?

VON STADE: Absolutely. Absolutely. It really makes you think about a lot of things.

The mother in Dead Man Walking, for sure. It just made me realize so much about what difficulties I may have caused my own children just by being away at times.

If you're a performer, you're busy all the time between the performances and the rehearsals and the photo sessions and interviews. That takes time away from your kids. So I've apologized, with all my heart, to both of them.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What was their reaction to that?

VON STADE: They’re forgiving and understanding. You know, I am blessed with two of the greatest daughters that God ever put on the earth and I adore them.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What are the things that you want to impart from your career onto young singers?

VON STADE: Well, I would say the top of the list is: Mean what you say. Mean what you sing. Just mean it. And in order to mean it, you have to completely understand it.

So you really have to not read a translation. You have to make a translation. It's a lot easier today with the internet — a lot, a lot, a lot. But in my day, it meant going through the score, figuring out what form of the verb it was in German, what form of the verb it was in another language. What was really meant? Who were they speaking to?

That kind of training is what I love more than anything. The times that I have not taken enough time in the learning process to do that, I've regretted it. I’ve really regretted it. It's fun to revisit it now with young students. But the crux of everything is to mean what you say. The voice will follow if you have it in your head and heart.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: The Merry Widow — this operetta has been around since 1905. When did you first encounter it? When did you first hear this music?

VON STADE: I had never seen or heard it before I did it, quite literally. And then I explored it in every way possible. And The Merry Widow is one of the most uplifting operettas in the world today. First of all, it has the most lighthearted, exquisite music — exquisite! And it just makes you joyful to be part of it.

The San Francisco Opera production was one of the most beautiful productions I've ever, ever known. It was pure and utter and complete joy wearing every costume. You know, I played boys most of my life. So to get dolled up and have beautiful wigs and extraordinary costumes and sing this glorious music? And come down a staircase? Whooo! It was like playing dress up. [Von Stade laughs.]

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: What’s it like singing when you have this gigantic boat of a hat on?

VON STADE: It’s great. And I've been lucky enough at certain times to wear the costumes for Beach Blanket Babylon [a San Francisco musical revue known for its enormous hats]. So I have had experience with hats, not quite hats that are supported by an entire metal brace, but still…

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Were there any difficulties that you encountered performing this piece that people in the audience might not have noticed from their seats?

VON STADE: I think the difficulty sometimes is managing the dresses. But you rehearse in big skirts. So by the time you're getting close to dress rehearsals, you've really been working on it for quite a long time. And that helps enormously. Plus we often get substitute costumes to work in as well: hats and gloves and things like that.

I'm not especially graceful, and I'm not especially adept at managing these costumes, as many of my colleagues are. So it was always a challenge for me — but oh, a delicious challenge! Absolutely delicious!

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: In your history of performing on stage, The Merry Widow is just one highlight of many. What’s been your favorite costume ever to perform in?

VON STADE: I think my favorite costume of all time was a costume I had with the Paris Opera when I was sang Der Rosenkavalier. It was literally made of silver. The thread was silver. It was unbelievable.

Costumes like that, costumes of that period — which I played many, many times — they’re cut in a way for a man. So they pull your shoulders back and they make you stand up straight. The shoes — the boots or whatever they are — make you walk like a man. Granted, a man in heels. But it all supports the effort you're making to become that personage on stage. That certainly was one of my absolute favorites.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: There was one line in the New York Times I was reading prior to this interview that that really stuck out to me, saying, “There are those who feel Miss Von Stade is too polished, too aloof, and often too ladylike when she performs.” Have you ever felt trapped by your public image in your career?

VON STADE: No. In fact, I had to push through it. Basically, I wasn't a very great believer in my gift. So I had to convince myself that I could do many things that I, by nature, didn't think I could do. So it's a long process.

I didn't really feel I could be myself completely — my changed self, forcing myself to believe that I could do it — until I was probably in my mid-40s.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Why then? What was it about that time?

VON STADE: I think it was just a question of time. It takes a long, long time to become a complete performer. It really does. You have to look at everything about yourself and everything that you can achieve. And some of the things that you know you can't achieve.

I knew I could never sing Carmen for example, which would have been fun. I’ve sung the arias, but it wasn't vocally suitable. It was a too big a role, too big for my voice in many regards. So I had the wisdom to not attempt it.

Plus, I have to throw in the great, great management that I've had in my career. One of the greatest is Matthew Epstein. I credit him with making my career. He got me to sing Cendrillon (Cinderella) and Chérubin, two Massenet operas that weren't done at all for years and years and years and have back into the repertoire, thanks to him. I've had pure joy singing Cendrillon many times in different productions. There’s another favorite costume too, my Cendrillon costumes, which are a hundred years old now, practically.

SAN FRANCISCO OPERA: Can I ask you what you've been up to since the pandemic shut down California?

VON STADE: It's actually a little closer to the way life was when I was a kid. It’s very 1950s, in some regards, having time to do things for the first time. You know, I've done a lot of listening to opera, which I never had the chance to do really before.

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