Early last week, the mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade was in a Midwestern airport on her way to a recital in Oklahoma when she found out that her late-night flight had been abruptly canceled, stranding her in a small-town hotel. Though she hates these kinds of travel snafus, the 64-year-old remained characteristically calm and sweet. For a famous diva—a breed given to making scenes even in “real” life—she’s unusually pragmatic about her emotions.
“It is better,” she told The Observer in a phone interview from her hotel room in Corpus Christi. “I notice that when I’m getting hot under the collar, like as I’m approaching the desk at 11 o’clock when my flight has just been canceled, I realize if I’m gonna scream and yell and jump up and down that I’m probably not going to be put on a flight conveniently, you know? Or have my bags sent to Tulsa.”
Ms. von Stade seems to have spent the past 40 years never getting too hot under the collar. One of the most beloved singers in the world, she is universally known by her childhood nickname, Flicka, and it’s hard to find a single example of her being anything but generous, modest and kind. Audiences adore her; no one can say a bad word about her within the industry. She’s self-effacing and undramatic even when it comes to her feelings about her retirement, which is taking place, gradually, over the next couple of seasons.
“I don’t feel sad,” she said. “I feel emotional, but not sad. I’ve been so lucky, and I’ve had such a ball doing it. And there comes a point when you think, to want to go on even longer is just greedy if you’ve been given such a good time. I’ve had the most wonderful colleagues, and the most wonderful managers and agents and accompanists, and most wonderful orchestra partners. I’ve just had a great time. There’s no blow there. The blow doesn’t need to be softened.”
She’s spent the past few weeks on a recital tour through the middle of the country with her old friend, the bass Samuel Ramey, who, along with the tenor Richard Stilwell, will join her Thursday night in her farewell–to–New York recital at Carnegie Hall, an eclectic, idiosyncratic mix of music and personal anecdotes.
“The program I’m doing is a little unusual,” she admitted, laughing. “It borders on tacky. Actually, it doesn’t even border on tacky. It’s kind of like a little musical autobiography.”
Ms. von Stade was born in Somerville, N.J. A 1976 profile in People reported, “She was born into a socially prominent New Jersey family which included generations of yachtsmen, bankers, polo players and other Establishmentarians (one uncle, Skiddy von Stade, was until recently a dean at Harvard).” She grew up coming into New York every weekend with her best friend to see two musicals, a matinee and an evening performance. She wanted, above all, to be a Broadway star.
While working at Tiffany’s, she auditioned for Mannes School of Music on a bet with a friend, and was accepted even though she couldn’t read music. In 1969, while singing in the Metropolitan Opera’s auditions, she was hired on the spot by Rudolf Bing, the company’s general manager, and made her Met debut on Jan. 10, 1970, as one of the Three Boys in The Magic Flute. She did her time in small parts like Tosca’s Shepherd and Traviata’s Flora for a few seasons before making her first appearances as Hansel and as Cherubino in 1972. With her rich, silvery voice and physical elegance, she was a natural in the great “trouser” (girl-playing-boy) roles, and her career blossomed. She gives much of the credit to Matthew Epstein, who was her manager as she started out: “I think he rammed me down everyone’s throats: ‘I’ll give you Marilyn Horne if you take her.’”
In recent years, she’s turned from playing young men to more complicated, darker, older women, in the new American operas she’s championed, including Dominick Argento’s The Aspern Papers, Conrad Susa’s Dangerous Liaisons and Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking. She’s also spent a lot of time in Oakland, Calif., near where she lives, working with music programs for disadvantaged children.
The 40th anniversary of her Met debut was recently celebrated as the judges decided the winners of the company’s National Council Auditions. “If I were auditioning today,” she told The Observer, “there’d be no way I’d get a job. These kids are so amazing, they are so beautifully prepared. I was—I don’t know what, I can’t think of anything low enough—when I first went to the Met. … I would still be selling stationery at Tiffany’s if I was competing today.”
Yet she worries that the higher quality of singers these days has been accompanied by higher stakes. “It seems to me a much crueler business than it was in my day,” she said. “When I first went to the Met, I felt like I was led around like a child in third grade. Now it seems a bit more brutal. You’re not allowed to fail at all. And every career develops. You’re going to make mistakes and have bad times. Sometimes I don’t feel the business today allows these kids to do that.”
For Ms. von Stade, at least, the pressure is off. With her focus now on becoming a grandmother for the first time and putting her house on the market (she and her husband are moving onto their boat full time), she is far too busy to miss singing and the anxieties that come with it.
“When you sing,” she said, “you worry. You just worry. You’ve got to worry about your voice, you’ve got to be in shape, you’ve got to get your dress to the theater. And I’m sort of ready to give those things up.”
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