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The Sublime Songstress

Legendary opera singer Frederica von Stade takes the lead in this month’s Livermore Valley Opera performance.


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Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade in her Alameda home.

Photo by Cali Godley

Just call her the can-do diva.

Every time you turn around, there’s mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade—a grandmother and alleged retiree at age 72—singing her heart out on a public stage somewhere. Since her star-studded farewell tribute concert at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House six years ago, the Alameda-based singer, known far and wide and with great fondness as “Flicka,” has been coaxed back into performing countless times at venues across the country.

She’ll be at it again this month for Livermore Valley Opera, reprising the Three Decembers lead role created for her a decade ago by her friend and frequent collaborator, Jake Heggie (who also wrote a role in his megahit, Dead Man Walking, specifically for her).

So, what gives? Is von Stade reinventing retirement?

“Well, not deliberately,” she says, laughing from a comfy chair in the airy, sunlit living room of the waterfront townhouse she shares with her husband of 27 years, Mike Gorman. “My operating theory is, ‘Say yes to the dress.’ If someone asks me, I think, Why not? Every time I accept something, it’s with the understanding that if it turns out I’m not in shape and not up to it—no hard feelings. They can let me go.”

Since she sang in a Three Decembers production in Hawaii last year and is committed to doing it again in San Diego next year, von Stade feels well within her comfort zone stepping back into the persona of Madeline, a headstrong, self-involved Broadway star with two adult (but still whiny) children. Their family dramedy plays out over the titular months spread across three decades, and von Stade has reason to believe Livermore Valley Opera goers will love it.

“It’s very, very funny,” she notes. “It’s also touching and real, with an accessible plot that could happen in any family. And it’s very melodic—that’s what I think people will like the most about it.”

Challenging new works have also been on her plate. Among her recent accomplishments are the lead role in Ricky Ian Gordon’s A Coffin in Egypt, in Houston and then Philadelphia, and a part in Heggie’s Great Scott, in Dallas and San Diego. And she’s currently learning a “really hard—oh, my gosh” role as a gifted woman scientist facing an Alzheimer’s diagnosis for a Lembit Beecher opera called In the Air, which debuts in Philly next year.

Through it all, von Stade, as renowned for her generosity as for her artistry, has embraced volunteer causes that are close to her heart. Last summer, she sang on the Carnegie Hall stage with the Dallas Street Choir, an assemblage of homeless people directed by “this amazing young man named Jonathan Palant,” and she still gets goose bumps talking about it.

“They were all in tuxes and gowns,” she exclaims, “and this boy who had a triumph in New York lives under a bridge in Dallas—you know?”

For a full decade, she was passionate in her devotion to the music program she cofounded at St. Martin de Porres in West Oakland. The Catholic bishop closed the financially strapped school last year, “which totally broke my heart,” says von Stade. But she is amping up her commitment to the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra, a Berkeley-based program for 80 disadvantaged kids ages 10 to 18 that offers music training to prepare them for university educations. Last year, the organization raised nearly $600,000 in scholarship funds. “Most of our kids have been homeless,” she notes. “You just can’t believe their stories—or their lives. Music is a lifeline for them.”

Von Stade starred as Hanna Glawari in the January 2002 rendition of Franz Lehár’s The Merry Widow. Photo courtesy of San Francisco Opera.

This native New Jersey girl’s own love affair with music began as an obsession with Broadway shows in her childhood. But it swerved suddenly at New York’s Mannes School of Music, where she had enrolled in a short opera program to learn to read music for—she hoped—a career on the Great White Way. “And then, I met this wonderful teacher at Mannes named Sebastian Engelbert,” recalls von Stade, “and all of a sudden, singing was more fun than I had ever known.”

At Engelbert’s urging, she entered the first stage of the prestigious New York Metropolitan Opera auditions—and to her amazement, she won. Soon after her victory, von Stade returned for a second round of auditions and secured a contract from the Met’s general manager, Sir Rudolf Bing. That single bolt from the blue effectively started what blossomed into an international career that has spanned more than four decades and is, evidently, still in progress.

Asked to name any other 72-year-old mezzo who is still performing, von Stade furrows her brow. “I don’t know any right now—but there will be some coming up,” she declares. She goes on to credit vocal coach Jane Randolph, with whom she has worked for the last 20 years, for facilitating her discovery of “things that have just helped me enormously.”

“I got going before I really had a good grasp on technique, so it’s been an uphill struggle my entire career,” explains von Stade. “I never felt that I could just do the things I should be able to. So, I constantly work at it and am hopeful—just hopeful.”

That hope is well-placed, according to her friend Heggie, a San Francisco composer, who says von Stade has been singing on interest, not principal, for many years now. He calls her voice “gorgeous, full of heart and warmth,” but adds something else:

“When I saw her do Three Decembers in Hawaii last year, what blew me away was not just the singing, but also the presence on the stage and the acting,” he says. “It was like watching Meryl Streep do one of her great roles. It was really extraordinary, and it took my breath away.”

Fun Flicka Facts

GUILTY FOOD PLEASURES
Pho, and popcorn with olive oil.

SECRET MUSICAL PASSION
Country songs.

CELEBRITY CRUSH 
Liam Neeson (“because he’s Irish”).

CURRENT BINGE-WATCH TV
Suits (for the costuming “and that adorable girl who is marrying Prince Harry”).

FEW PEOPLE KNOW
As a 10-year-old, she helped babysit Robert and Ethel Kennedy’s three oldest children, “Kathleen, Bobby, and Joe.”

QUIETLY COVETED SOPRANO ROLE
“Tosca—just to jump off the parapet and stab somebody!”

Livermore Valley Opera

presents Jake Heggie and Gene Scheer’s Three Decembers, starring Frederica von Stade, Kristin Clayton, and Shea Owens.

Where: Bankhead Theater, Livermore.

When: April 28 at 7:30 p.m., April 29 at 3 p.m.

Gala dinner with cast members: April 29 at 5 p.m. at Veterans Memorial Hall, Livermore.

Tickets: $42–$90 for the performance, $200 for the dinner, (925) 373-6800, livermorevalleyopera.com.

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