Mezzo forte – An interview with Frederica von Stade

by Derek Lim

This interview appeared originally in Time Out Singapore.

One of America’s most enduring divas makes her Singapore debut at the Sun Festival. Derek Lim talks horses, arias and faulty lifts with Frederica von Stade

Born in 1945 in New Jersey, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade is loved by generations of opera enthusiasts, particularly for her lovely singing but also her radiant acting as Cherubino in ‘The Marriage of Figaro’, Rosina in ‘The Barber of Seville’ and Cinderella in ‘La Cenerentola’. Now a grandmother, she’s still enchanting audiences – so what makes her tick?

Frederica von Stade - ROBERT MILLERFlicka’s a great nickname. How did you get it?
My nickname comes from my father when he was a little boy – he had a pony called Flicka. And there was a story in the US called My Friend Flicka [Flicka is a horse], and so I’m named after a horse!

Are there any singers outside of opera whom you admire?

I love Barbra Streisand and Frank Sinatra of course, and all the [other] great American singers – for example, Nat King Cole. I actually love country & western music!

Most mezzos would have sung ‘Carmen’ at some point, but not you. Why?
I’m just not a Carmen. I’ve sung the arias many times and I love them. But Carmen takes a special character and I just never felt that I had that character, or could do it properly.

Is there anything you would have loved to sing, but would never be able to?

I would have loved to sing [the title soprano role] Tosca, but it wasn’t to be. Just because of the drama of it and the beauty of the music, I think everybody falls in love with it. But I was able to sing one soprano role in a different key, which I loved and that was in ‘La Sonnambula’ – I love Bellini more than anything. And if I was a man, then [the tenor role from ‘Tosca’] Cavaradossi!

Apart from singing and travelling, what takes up your time?
More than anything in the world, I love just being with my family, and being with my daughters, whatever they’re doing. They’re older now, so it’s a question of helping them if they’re moving into their house, or something like that. They’re 30 and 28. And I love sailing! I go out with my husband on the water a great deal.

When you were first starting out, was there anyone who particularly inspired you?
I began at the Metropolitan Opera, and it was pretty amazing. I sang with [Dame Joan] Sutherland, and [Renata] Tebaldi, and I was always either their maid or a young page, so I had just about the best early experience in opera anyone could have.

Any embarrassing moments on stage you’ll never forget?

I had to do an entrance in ‘The Marriage of Figaro’ years ago, and the door wouldn’t open; and then all of the sudden it opened very quickly and I flew into the room… And another time I came up from underneath the stage in a lift, and the lift got stuck, and so we were sort of singing with just our heads sticking out, and that was terribly funny. That was ‘The Return of Ulysses’ [by Monteverdi].

You’ve had such a long and fulfi lling career. Is there anything you’d have done differently?

I feel enormously blessed in my life. I think I’ve had more than I deserve and I’ve loved every minute… I really want to help young singers now. I feel I’ve been given so much that I would love to give it back. I’ve helped to start a little choir here, where I live in Oakland, California. I think music can change lives and it should change lives – it’s changed mine.

Frederica von Stade sings Berlioz’s ‘Les Nuits d’Eté’, ‘Che Farò Senza Euridice’ and ‘Ombra Mai Fu’ with the UBS Verbier Festival Chamber Orchestra see here for more information.

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