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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.
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.
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
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.
"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
"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
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
— Elaine Strauss
War Memorial, Trenton, 800-ALLEGRO. Wednesday, March 10, 7 p.m.
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