War Memorial Reopens

Danielpour’s `Elegies’

von Stade Bio

Sebastian Engleberg

Corrections or additions?

Von Stade’s WW II Reunion

This article by Elaine Strauss was published in U.S. 1 Newspaper on

March 3, 1999. All rights reserved.

One of the ways mezzo soprano Frederica von Stade

differs from other singers is that she doesn’t give a hoot about revealing

her age. Most female vocalists feel compelled to hide how old they

are. One of them responded to my inquiry recently with, "There’s

no point in telling my age. Even if I gave it correctly, people would

add 10 years because they would think I was lying."

Just how old von Stade is becomes immediately apparent because of

Richard Danielpour’s "Elegies," a piece inspired by the letters

von Stade’s father, Lt. Charles von Stade, wrote to his wife during

World War II. Charles was killed in battle in 1943, two months before

their daughter Frederica was born. It doesn’t take advanced math skills

to calculate that Frederica turns 56 in 1999.

Revealing an earthiness that contrasts with her cool onstage demeanor,

von Stade, interviewed by telephone from her home in Alameda, California,

says, "there’s no necessity of hiding my age. I’m an old broad.

I’ve been around 30 years and I’m proud of that. I don’t want to compete

with kids half my age. This is not my time, it’s their time. It helps

being a mom. I want to see the next generation flourish and fly. The

fact that I’m still able to perform makes me pleased and grateful.

But it’s not my time to be the center of attention."

Frederica von Stade and baritone Frank Hernandez solo in Danielpour’s

"Elegies" when the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra makes its

return to Trenton’s historic War Memorial at 7 p.m., Wednesday, March

10, under the baton of music director Zdenek Macal. In the War Memorial,

a hall built to honor those fallen in World War I, "Elegies,"

the centerpiece of the NJSO program, honors a hero of World War II.

The Danielpour work uses as its text, poems by Kim Vaeth that were

based on Charles von Stade’s letters. It was commissioned and premiered

by the Jacksonville Symphony Orchestra in 1997. The Trenton performance

is a New Jersey premiere.

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War Memorial Reopens

The reopening of the War Memorial is a major event in both the civic

and the cultural life of the area. Closed in 1994 for extensive restoration

and improvement, the hall hosted its first "hard hat" concert

in December, 1998, and was rededicated in January, following Governor

Christine Todd Whitman’s State of the State Address. With its 1932

grandeur restored as the result of a $35 million historic preservation

project, the hall is the site of festive performances throughout the

month of March by groups that were forced to turn to makeshift arrangements

during the period when the hall was closed (U.S. 1, December 9, 1998).

The NJSO performance opens with Ellen Taaffe Zwilich’s

"Celebration for Orchestra," the work with which Macal opened

the first program he ever conducted with the NJSO at the War Memorial,

in March, 1989. The program concludes with Beethoven’s magisterial

Symphony No. 7 in A major.

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Danielpour’s `Elegies’

When Von Stade appears on stage, she is elegant and collected. Danielpour’s

"Elegies," however, touches her life intimately. Is she able

to keep enough distance from this piece to let her craft dominate

her personal history?

"When I’m performing," she replies, "I’m a performer.

`Elegies’ is an emotional piece. I’m very impressed with it. I’m also

thrilled that such a thing was done honoring my dad. The joyfulness

is more important than the sorrow."

Elegies has also proved to be a connection for von Stade to the father

she never met. "One of the nicest things about doing `Elegies,’"

she says, "was getting a letter from a man who served under my

father in the war. He was there in the Ruhr Valley when my father

was killed. Now he’s very ill. It was a thrill to meet him on the

phone and to hear how revered my father was."

The appeal of "Elegies" for Von Stade is both personal and

professional. "It’s a beautiful and dramatic piece," she says.

"I’m terribly lucky to be part of it. I just sang with Frank Hernandez,

the young baritone with whom I’ll perform in Trenton, who has an absolutely

glorious voice. He’s only 28." The two artists performed together

at the Houston Grand Opera in "A Little Night Music."

The Danielpour piece "was designed with my voice in mind,"

von Stade says, "but it’s more universal than that. Most composers

compose for the person who’s doing role; they can always alter a piece

later for someone else. It’s well-written for voice, and has no big

vocal problems. The biggest problem is projecting the text. It’s very

poetic, very beautiful, and elevated. The diction and intention are

important. You have to make clear the subject, predicate and verb

of each sentence. It starts with `Cradled in your deepest name.’"

Informal, and ready to engage with an interviewer, she asks, "What

does that mean to you?" When I tell her that I have to stop to

work out what the words mean, she says, "That’s right. It makes

you think. Basically, it means `I have your name.’" With wonder,

she quotes the poem’s second line, "Each bell tone flourish tasted"

— not an easy bit of syntax to send out into a concert hall. "One

of the most beautiful parts," she says, "is a baritone solo

that begins, `Little soul, where will you go from the dark of the

womb?’"

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von Stade Bio

The Danielpour piece leads von Stade to consider both her personal

passage and the passage of history. "I’m pleased that this is

a way of honoring my parents," she says. "My mother died about

15 years ago." Her mother’s premature death thrust von Stade into

becoming the oldest living generation in her family at age 40. "One

becomes very aware of the life cycle. Most of my friends are losing

their parents now. Becoming a parent oneself also makes one aware."

Von Stade supports a present-day revisitation of World War II. "People

gave their lives so we can have the life we have now," she says.

"Steven Spielberg has helped to enlighten and instruct. There’s

his `Saving Private Ryan.’ People are trying to get a World War II

monument in Washington, D.C. And then there’s `Life is Beautiful’

[the Italian film in which a Jewish father pretends to his son that

the concentration camp in which they find themselves is a game]. It’s

a fanciful treatment, lighthearted in a way. It’s a piece of theater

that enables us to look at something awful and address it. Not that

we won’t make the same mistakes; but we’re able to see our fathers

and what they went through."

Von Stade was born in Somerville, New Jersey. Her name comes from

the town of Stade, north of Hamburg, Germany, where her great grandfather

was a Burgermeister — von Stade uses the German term for mayor.

"My grandfather came to the United States before the turn of the

century," she says, and quickly calculates the family history.

"Let’s see. My father was born in 1917 and died at 26. My grandfather

was born in the 1880s, so he came as a young man. I don’t know why

he left Germany."

Frederica’s grandfather gave her the nickname "Flicka."

Von Stade has an uncle named Frederic, and her grandfather thought

there were too many Freddies in the family. The nickname has stuck.

As a child, von Stade lived in Athens, Greece, until she was nine,

and in Washington, D.C. Her mother remarried a man who worked for

the U.S. State Department, later divorced, and went to work for the

CIA. As a child, Frederica spent her summers in New Jersey. With her

mother and an older brother, she lived in New Jersey when she was

in eighth and ninth grade, and attended Far Hills Country Day School.

The three habitually went to two Broadway shows on a weekend, followed

by jazz at the Metropole. "I loved Broadway," says von Stade,

who, at one point aimed at a career in musicals and cabaret. She didn’t

see her first opera until she was 16.

As a student at Far Hills Country Day, von Stade was exposed to appealing

musical activities. "The lady solely responsible for the music

program," she remembers, "was Betty Noling. She put on incredible

plays every year. That’s where I started loving to sing. We all dressed

up in our mothers’ old wedding dresses." Von Stade continued her

education at a Connecticut convent boarding school, and then worked

as a nanny in France.

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Sebastian Engleberg

"Opera grabbed me when I was living in New York and working as

a secretary," she says. "I lived around the corner from Mannes,

and I was doing Off-Broadway stuff — it was as far off Broadway

as Connecticut. I couldn’t read music, and I signed up for a sight-reading

course at Mannes. At the end of the course, my instructor said, `I

think you should enroll in Mannes.’ I said, `What for? I’m not going

to be singer.’ Mannes said, `How do you know?’ I started studying

with a fabulous man, Sebastian Engleberg. I was working and studying

at the same time. I joined the opera program so I could finish in

four years instead of five. I just loved it."

Engleberg, von Stade told an interviewer for On The

Air magazine, taught her to sing as though it "comes from the

bottom of your heart," to "sing on the velvet," and to

"sing on the interest, never on the capital." Engleberg encouraged

his apt pupil. "My teacher said that I should go into the Met

auditions," von Stade says. "I said, `Oh, no. I could never

get a prize.’ But I did. I got money to study and a job at the Met."

After her 1970 debut at the Met, von Stade soon became a master of

trouser roles. "I loved doing trouser roles," she says. "I

grew up on a farm and was comfortable wearing pants. Trouser roles

are a comfort. They’re a good way to ease into the business. There

are a couple of nice arias, but you don’t carry the weight of the

show.

"I think I did all the trouser roles possible," says von Stade,

cataloguing the parts she has sung. She will do Sesto in Mozart’s

"Clemenza di Tito" in Dallas next year, and it pops into her

mind that her first role as a child, Nanki Poo in Gilbert and Sullivan’s

"Mikado," was also a trouser role.

Von Stade is also known as a bel canto specialist. Among her memorable

performances are her appearances in Rossini’s "Cenerentola"

and "Barbiere de Siviglia," and Bellini’s "Sonnambula."

As a celebration of her 25th anniversary with the Met, the company

mounted a new production of Debussy’s "Pelleas et Melisande"

specifically for her.

Von Stade has garnered a bouquet of awards for her more than three

dozen recordings, with every major label. They include complete operas,

operatic arias, symphonic works, solo recital programs, and crossover

albums.

To take good care of her voice von Stade follows a variety of measures

which she summarizes as "not a big deal." Her first line of

defense, she says, is "drinking a lot of water. Also, I run or

work out for a half-hour every day. If it’s cold I’ll put a scarf

around my neck. I don’t drink anything too hot or too cold. I watch

what I eat.

"Flying is one of our curses," she says. "The protection

is drinking tons of water on a plane, and coating the mouth with an

anti-bacterial salve like neo-sporin. If we get sick, we’re out of

work. I watch out for people with colds, and I wash my hands a lot

after greeting a lot of people backstage. I have grandchildren, so

I wash my hands after dealing with them. They are Germ City."

By her inflection, von Stade makes the capital letters audible.

Von Stade is married to Mike Gorman, a California businessman whose

newest enterprise is a community bank in Alameda. The family consists

of Gorman’s three children; his granddaughters, ages 10 and 7, children

of his youngest daughter; and von Stade’s daughters Jenny, 21, a Bucknell

student, and Lisa, 18, a student at San Francisco State College. The

grandchildren live only half a mile away, near enough so von Stade

can drive them to school. Von Stade and Gorman have lived in California

together for about 10 years. Von Stade calls the transition to California

"great fun." "Once the girls got settled, everything was

marvelous," she says.

Comfortable with herself, the disarming von Stade exudes intelligence

and honesty. None of her energy seems diverted into pretentiousness

or excessive reserve. Her vitality is well-geared to tackling new

projects, and her plate is now filling up for the 2000-2001 season.

That’s when she expects to appear at the Met in Lehar’s "Merry

Widow" with Placido Domingo. The same season in San Francisco,

she is scheduled to take on a small part in an opera based on the

book "Dead Man Walking," by American composer Jake Heggie,

with a libretto by Terrence McNally. The vehicle deals with the unfolding

relationship between a nun and a death row inmate. Count on von Stade

to be out there, making no fuss about her age, and giving the performances

her all.

— Elaine Strauss

Grand Re-Opening Gala, New Jersey Symphony Orchestra,

War Memorial, Trenton, 800-ALLEGRO. Wednesday, March 10, 7 p.m.


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