Flying High with Flicka : An Interview with Frederica von Strade

It is difficult to overstate the remarkable impact world-renowned mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade has had on the world of opera. She has appeared with every major leading opera company in the United States, received an award from President Ronald Reagan in 1983, and France’s highest honor in the arts in 1998. With more than 60 recordings to her credit on every major label and six Grammy nominations, von Stade is known as a Bel Canto specialist, a delightful and believable interpreter of trouser roles, and an unparalleled stylist of the French repertoire.

Nearly four decades after her Metropolitan Opera debut in 1970, Frederica von Stade continues to thrill audiences worldwide. In the ever-gracious, down-to-earth style that has long endeared her to audiences, “Flicka” (as she’s known to friends and family) opened up about her years on the stage, her collaborations with living composers, and how she got her technique back on track after several wrong turns.

“Riveting” is one of the descriptions I have read of your portrayal of Ottavia in “Poppea.” Has Ottavia provided you with any vocal or dramatic challenges?

I think the challenge of Ottavia is that the part is so short. She is a desperate woman. She knows that all of her power is gone and that somehow she will be removed, either by death or by expulsion. That’s not much fun for a woman in middle age.

I remember fondly your portrayal of Penelope in the Washington Opera production of Monteverdi’s Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria with Richard Stilwell. Do you remember it?

I do remember it. I was lucky enough to do the Raymond Leppard version. I know that anyone who is a historian and a musicologist clucks disapproval at what he did to those scores. I think he brought them alive and gave them a life that made them intensely popular. Who knows what they did in Monteverdi’s time? Clearly illustrated in “Ulisse” and “Poppea,” Monteverdi had some great tunes in him, as well as exquisite texts. I saw every performance of Janet Baker’s in “Ulisse,” and I don’t think I’ve ever had an experience before or since that compared to it. I did perform it with Richard a lot, and loved every minute of it. We did it in Glyndebourne and recorded that. We did the production with Washington Opera that you and I were in, and the one at City Opera. I did it here, in Los Angeles, with this director, Pierre Audi, in a very unusual production with Tom Allen, but it wasn’t the Leppard version.

Your Rosina in “Barbiere” and Cherubino in “Figaro” also stand out in my memory. Which were your favorites, the lovely ladies or the young men?

I loved Cherubino because it was my debut in almost every great house. In many regards he is the spirit of Mozart. That’s how I imagine him [Mozart] to have acted and looked, from his letters. I think it’s very close to his character without the dark side. I loved him [Cherubino] much more than Rosina—although I loved the challenge of singing Rosina.

How many roles are in your repertoire?

I have really never counted them. With all of my little roles, probably 30, you know, Stefano, and lots of maids and boys. [We laugh.] I was thinking the other day—doing “Sonnambula,” and the “Barbers,” the “Cenerentolas” and Chérubin—I have done a lot.

Do you have any favorite roles?

My favorites would be Mélisande, and Cherubino; I love “Sonnambula” [Amina]. If I were a soprano, I would sing nothing but Bellini. I think Bellini comes closest to everything I believe about the greatness of singing. I did “Sonnambula” in Dallas, and two productions in San Francisco. The “Ah, non credea” is the height of passion and also expresses disappointment on Amina’s part.

Are there any roles you wish you had performed?

I think it’s too late, but I would love to have done one of the other nuns in Dialogues of the Carmelites. I did Blanche. I would love to do The Telephone, and La voix humaine.

You were a big fan of Broadway when you were growing up. Did you want to be a Broadway star?

I wanted Broadway more than anything. I came to opera because I went to music school to learn how to read notes. Everyone said, “You should learn an aria and become part of the opera program.” I did, and I am terribly grateful for it. It’s been an easier life, believe it or not.

Opera has taken me all over the world. The wear and tear on the voice is so much more on Broadway—and our generation wasn’t really the golden age of Broadway. You could be a star one day, and unheard of the next. The world of Mary Martin and Ethel Merman, and their longevity, didn’t exist. I love the challenge of singing high notes and long phrases in different languages.

You began your career at the Met, but left for a time.

Yes, that was my first job. I received a prize in the semifinals. I also received a contract, so I couldn’t compete in the finals—and then three months later I was playing boys, brothers, and maids.

I left for a year because I had this wonderful offer to do Cherubino in Paris in a new production with [Sir Georg] Solti and the great British director, Peter Hall. It was an incredible cast, with Mirella Freni and José van Dam. The Met said, “You’ve been invited to two dinner parties, which one are you going to?” Well, I picked Paris, and I am so very glad that I did. I got all kinds of offers and so many wonderful things happened after that. The Met asked me back to do Rosina. That was a good move, a lucky move. It’s all been lucky.

Tell us about your first manager, Matthew Epstein. Are there many like him today?

Matthew was sensational. I will always adore him. You know, I’m so much out of it now. I have a very good manager at IMG, Jeff Vanderveen, but he’s much more high-powered. I think it has become more of a business. It’s harder for the kids now, because they can be sensational, and if they make a mistake, they’re out. We had a little more “girth” around us, and Matthew was so nurturing. I was extremely lucky to have him. In the beginning, he rammed me down people’s throats, because he believed in me, and still does. He would say, “I’ll give you Marilyn Horne if you’ll take ‘Flicka.’”

I would have had a career, but I wouldn’t have had the career I’ve had without Matthew. He believes in his people. I see him all the time, and he’s just as passionate now as he was then.

It’s another time now than when you and I began our careers. The whole backstage thing is also different. I hope this isn’t the way the business is going. I am leaving so grateful, and feeling so lucky and so blessed. I’ll always believe in it, the music, and everything else.

With whom did you study? Do you still study or coach?

I studied with Sebastian Engelberg, who gave me the foundation of my singing, but unfortunately, he died at the beginning of my career. I paid for it vocally, because I really took some wrong turns. I think I’m finally coming to an understanding of my voice now. I always knew there was something missing, but I couldn’t get it, no matter how I read about it, tried, and experimented. And now, in my 60s, I’m starting to get it! I mean technically, just the relationship of air to cord.

I’ve always been very self-conscious about my voice, because I’ve never felt it was a great voice. So I pushed, and pulled, and yanked it, and it cost me at times. There have been many times when I was far from hitting vocal excellence. I honestly feel that it’s because right when I was learning it, singing it, and recording it, Mr. Engelberg died, and I just kept on going. And then I had to redo what I had done. I recently went to a great lady in Oakland, who is so spiritual, and so kind. Her name is Jane Randolph. She has helped me so much. I would have stopped singing three years ago if it were not for her. And, yes, I study every single day.

Is your expansive range and coloratura technique a
natural gift?

I think coloratura is just [a matter of] how much time you put into it. You must spend hours and hours doing it. You may have the facility for it, but to get it right is a daily grind, and [singing] every variety of scales.

You and I both know that singing is work. Many singers today really don’t do that. They don’t have to go back to basics, because the voice is so magical. If they can learn an aria or a musical theatre number, they can sing it. It’s hard for these kids because they don’t get it. All those technical things are fine when you’re singing on youth, but by 35, 37—if it’s not there by then, you’re in trouble. You see it every day, but you can’t tell them. I didn’t think about those things because it was too easy. Then it becomes difficult, so you push a little and say, “Well, I got away with it this time.” But the time comes when you don’t get away with it. You and I both know that it’s the hard work that pays off in the end. A lot of times, it’s just plain time.

How do you learn new repertoire?

When preparing a new role, I usually translate it first, but then I’m not a musician. I came to [singing] so late, and I have a mild touch of dyslexia, so I have a lot of difficulty learning, and now, my memory [we both laugh]. I work harder now than I ever did when I was younger.

Martin Katz has been your accompanist for a number of years. How did that come about?

Marty will always be beloved in my eyes. I don’t get the chance to work with him so much now. He’s busy teaching at Ann Arbor, and he has a lot of concerts with other people. I enjoyed every minute with him and absolutely adore him.

Matthew is the one who sent me to Marty because he [Marty] is so disciplined. He and Matthew are from the same school. It all comes from incredible work. Marty cannot conceive of putting together a recital program without hours of disciplined, detailed study. If you work with him, that’s how you prepare. And I needed that. All young singers need that.

You’ve never been known to be a temperamental artist. How do you deal with that type of colleague?

You’re correct. I’m not temperamental. I have worked with many artists who are, and I love it. People protect themselves in different ways. I protect myself by being quiet, going to my dressing room, and being upset there, by myself. Some people get it out. I admire that more, because then it’s gone. With me, I hold on to it for years, and it costs me. I love seeing artists who have it right on their skin. You and I both know, they’re all going through the same thing.

As much as we use our voices and our minds, we use our confidence. You take confidence away from a singer, and you’ve taken their feet away from them. To protect your confidence takes all kinds of tricks. People have asked me, “How can you work with Kathy [Battle]?” I admire Kathy. She’s a great artist who gave her heart and soul to what she did. She only did things because she believed in them. I loved working with her. It was like working with a great tennis player.

Who are some of your favorite colleagues with whom you have worked?

Where do I begin? Of course, Richard [Stilwell], Tom Allen, Suzy [Graham]. I loved working with [Herbert] von Karajan and Michael Tilson Thomas. My favorite, of all time, was probably [Claudio] Abbado, because of his heart and his passion. I loved working with [Seiji] Ozawa and Janet [Baker]. I love working with Kiri [Te Kanawa]. We recently did a recital tour together. I had the time of my life. I am devoted to Kiri. She has such a heart and soul and has been so good to me.

I can’t think of an artist I haven’t liked working with. Judy Forst, Judy Blegen, [Alfredo] Kraus, Mirella [Freni]. I loved working with José van Dam. I did Wowkle in “Fanciulla” at the Met with [Renata] Tebaldi. I loved it. I just adore Raymond Leppard—and Jimmy [Levine], of course. I am so very proud of our American conductors.

Your discography is amazing. Are you particularly proud of some recordings?

I was part of that recording time. And now there’s so little. It’s tragic. We were all in that recording time paid for by Michael Jackson. It’s all changed, it’s almost gone. I am very proud of my recording with [Dave] Brubeck, Across Your Dreams, because my daughter, Jenny, is on the first track with me. I’m proud of Chérubin, and Cendrillon. I never did quite hook up the Mozarts to where I wanted them in recordings.

You are truly a member of the crossover generation. What about Dominick Argento [The Aspern Papers], and Jake Heggie [Dead Man Walking], who have written works and roles especially for you?

Crossover was all thanks to Kiri. She started by doing West Side Story, and we all got on the bandwagon. I did the Rodgers and Hart collection, and Show Boat, totally thanks to Kiri. I loved working with Dominick and now with Jake. He’s a truly great composer. He’s doing some recordings of duets with all of his divas, and he has asked me to be on it. I [did] Dead Man Walking again in Vienna (Theater an der Wien) in 2007, and I’ve been asked to do another in 2011.

How did Dead Man Walking affect your life or your characterization of the role?

Dead Man Walking meant a great deal to me. I’m well aware of how different and how difficult people’s lives are. I feel with all my heart that if we took all of the money we put into the prison system and put it into education, there would be fewer people in prison. There are bad people and sick people. Sick people should not be in prisons, they should be in hospitals.

If we don’t wake up to education in this country, there will be chaos raining down. If we don’t revise what’s happening in the schools, they will become almost like prisons. They’re only good now because of a few principals or teachers. Part of the Constitution of this country was education, and we’ve violated that one.

Jake is a man of letters, and a great human being. Portraying Mrs. De Rocher meant a lot. In preparing the role, I realized that there have been many times in my own life when I have hurt my children by decisions I have made. The worst thing that you can feel as a mother is to know that you have caused your children pain. I don’t think I could have faced that until I started doing the role.

Mrs. De Rocher is a woman who could not do for her child what he needed to have done for him. I am involced with a number of civic and community organizations in the San Francisco/Oakland area where I work with women like that all the time, who have no money or resources. They just keep getting up in the morning with that weight on their heads. I don’t know how they do it. It was an incredible experience for me to go through that, and to see it, and live it. It’s so well written by Terrence [McNally] and by Jake.

It was truly amazing. Jake initially asked me to do the role of Sister Helen, but I’d had my heyday and it needed a young star. Sister Helen was there, and I knew that Susan [Graham] had to do it. I got to know Sister Helen. She is amazing and will sign you up for anything [laughs].

Elegies, written by Richard Danielpour, is based on letters from your father to your mother during World War II. You premiered it with the Jacksonville Symphony and subsequently recorded it. Will you elaborate?

It came about because I happened to say to someone that I was going to meet this lady who knew my dad, because I only knew him through his letters. And he said, “That would be a wonderful song cycle.” We asked Richard to write it, and sweet Tom Hampson agreed to do it. It meant so much to me. As a result, this man, who went overseas with my dad, saw my name on the Internet because of the piece, and contacted me. He was there when my dad was killed. His name was Vic Malloy, and I loved him and his wife. That, too, was like the gift of a lifetime. It was a way for me to honor both of them, which means a lot when you get to be a certain age, especially when you’ve outlived your parents.

In 2000, the Metropolitan Opera celebrated your 30th anniversary with the company with a new production of The Merry Widow for you. And in 1995, in celebration of your 25th anniversary, the Met created a new production of Pelléas et Mélisande.

I was thrilled. The “Pelléas” was a beautiful production. I loved being a part of it, as well as The Merry Widow. That’s when I decided that The Merry Widow would be my last performances at the Met. To waltz out with Plácido [Domingo] was perfect [laughs].

Do you ever want to teach young singers? You often do masterclasses in conjunction with your recital engagements.

I do masterclasses, but it’s more like sharing. I can’t tell these kids anything. They have to find their own way. I’m not a teacher. I wish I were. I love sharing what I know, but it’s teachers like you who are the guardian angels, the heroes and heroines. What you give to young people is their dream. I’ve been able to live the dream—but without the equipment, the training and the knowledge, a great voice doesn’t get them anywhere.

How important is professional management?

Management is extremely important, but your interior manager is the best. When you know something is right, you have to trust yourself. I always recommend that kids have two people, their teacher and their coach, who know them and know what they can and should do. You can’t listen to everyone, and sometimes managers don’t always know what is right for you. I think the business has gotten too expensive for the opera houses. I’ve had the best [management].

To what do you attribute your long and distinguished career?

I contribute my long career to luck, a lot of determination on my part, hard work, not giving up, and a lot of luck. And I’ve always had good people helping me along the way.

Are there new roles and new works for you on the horizon?

I get a lot of works from composers. I’m [involved with] a new piece by Jake entitled Last Acts, which is based on a play by Terrance McNally. It’s more like a musical. I’m really looking forward to it. [Last Acts premiered in Houston in February, and San Francisco Opera will present the work under the revised title Three Decembers this December. –ed.]

What advice would you offer to young singers who want a career in opera?

For kids and their future, just don’t give up, if you really love it. And try different things. Talk to other artists and see what works for them. Read, learn, listen to old recordings, those of the masters. Educate yourself. Seek out good, quality stuff. Don’t fill your head with a lot of garbage. Learn languages. Train your mind. This is all so helpful and essential if you want to be a singer.

David F Wylie

Tenor David F. Wylie retired in May of 2007 as associate professor of music in the School of the Performing Arts at Louisiana Tech University in Ruston, where he was head of vocal studies, director of the Opera Workshop, director of Musical Stage Productions and director of the Louisiana Tech Concert Association. During his professional career, Wylie appeared at Wolf Trap, Seattle, New Orleans, Santa Fe, the Washington Opera, the Glyndebourne Festival, Opéra de Lyon, Zürich, Cologne, Bern, the Netherlands Opera, and more. He made his concert debut at the Aldeburgh Festival in performances of Benjamin Britten’s Serenade for Tenor, Horn, and Strings with the London Symphony and the composer conducting. He made his American operatic debut as Fenton in Falstaff with the New York City Opera.