Act II Opening
Frederica von Stade chats with OUSSAMA ZAHR about getting older, coming out of semi-retirement and taking selfies with her granddaughters.
Photographed by Terrence McCarthy with Hannah in Alemeda, California
Makeup and hair by Gerd Mairandres
© Terrence McCarthy 2014
Frederica von Stade is having a hard time staying retired. The sixty-eight-year-old mezzo and blissed-out grandmother of six bid her official farewell to the opera stage in 2011, playing the mother of a death-row inmate in Leonard Foglia's production of Jake Heggie's Dead Man Walking at Houston Grand Opera. But it wasn't long before HGO artistic and music director Patrick Summers roped her into the world premiere of composer Ricky Ian Gordon's A Coffin in Egypt, which opens on March 14 at the company's smaller venue, Cullen Theater, before traveling to Opera Philadelphia in June. (The source material, a play by Horton Foote, has been adapted for the opera stage by Foglia.) Von Stade will be playing the role of Myrtle Bledsoe, a wealthy, ninety-year-old widow who has outlived everyone around her, and who spends her days rehashing painful memories of her husband's degrading infidelities and her misspent, youthful beauty. Likewise, in 2015, von Stade is scheduled to sing in the world premiere of Heggie's Great Scott — featuring a libretto and story by Terrence McNally — at Dallas Opera.
When I got in touch with von Stade for an interview last June, a couple of weeks before she was due to workshop Coffin in Houston, we coordinated our phone call around her granddaughters' bedtime. Her legendary warmth was on full display, and even over the phone, she radiated contentment with semi-retired life.
OPERA NEWS: I figured we could start at the beginning. How did you get involved with A Coffin in Egypt?
FREDERICA VON STADE: Patrick [Summers] asked me. It was a little bit out of the blue — I mean quite out of the blue, because I had sort of retired. [Laughs.] If it had been up to me to initiate this, I wouldn't have dared, but I said, "Well, if he thinks [I can do it], I'll just go for it." I've loved working on it, and I change my mind almost weekly about who Myrtle is, and what it's really about. And I probably will continue to change my mind. I think it's one of those kinds of stories.
ON: You said yes on the spot?
FVS: I did. I thought, it's way in the future, I would have the time to work on it, and what the heck? I'm kind of in that period of my life when it's "say yes to the dress." I don't want to try and kick off my career or do anything inappropriate. And maybe this will be inappropriate, but there's no way to find out except to try. I love to sing, and heck, I'm playing a ninety-year-old woman, you know? [Laughs.] I can't go that far off.
ON: So what do you think of Myrtle this week?
FVS: In the beginning, I wasn't really convinced that I liked her very much. I feel that one of the recurring themes in the piece is this wonderful melody that Ricky has written about what the desert looked like — riding in the morning, what it looked like in the prairie. I think that's what's kept her alive, not forgiveness or not anger, but this extreme excitement of loving this beautiful prairie. And also there's the other part of it, of being dismissed and neglected and insulted — when that happens to you, it takes a chip at your character. A big chip. You can't always recover from something like that. How she has chosen to go on, it's not brave or anything, it's just essential. That's how I think this week. Next week I may be more sympathetic. [Laughs.]
ON: In the past you've spoken openly about coming from a well-to-do family and being proud of your background.
ON: In the play Myrtle is also from a well-to-do family. I'm wondering — have you met a woman like Myrtle in your life, and what have you learned from these kinds of women?
FVS: Oh yeah, I think I've met many. I don't think I've met one that was so abused to a certain extreme, abused emotionally, but there is a modus operandi that she was brought up to be, and I think that's the source of her enormous disappointment: he was rich, she was beautiful, she married maybe for wealth, or to continue her own wealth, and none of her reasons seem to have panned out.
I know a marvelous woman who passed away a couple of years ago. She was ninety-five when she died, and I was very close to her. And a lot of who she was, was this incredible intelligence, a great education, wonderful sense of humor, and as a young woman she was extremely beautiful — I mean, really, really, Greta Garbo-beautiful. Sometimes being that beautiful can affect your life in a very serious and not always positive way, because what you have, what you bring to things, is your beauty. That keeps recurring in the [play's] theme: "They thought I was beautiful and should be an actress and that my beauty is my worth, and how could he" — how could her husband — "reject someone so beautiful." It keeps coming back. Of all people this one woman would be related, and she was utterly adorable and forgivable, in my opinion, my friend. And that's what I see.
That's not how I think of myself by any means. [Laughs.] By any means whatsoever. And so it's a little bit outside of my understanding. It's what models feel, and actresses, when all of a sudden their raison d'être is removed from them by age.
ON: I hadn't thought of it that way: she had all this beauty, and it all seemed like a wasted opportunity. She wasted it all on this husband.
FVS: I have the sweetest story of a friend of mine's mother. We were all at a cocktail party years ago, and she was about seventy-five at the time. And this very handsome man came into the party, and she really — her daughter told me this — she said she was really kind of aflutter when she saw this handsome, younger man. And then about that time a waiter came by and passed some glasses of champagne, and she reached for the champagne, and then she looked at her hand and she said, "Oh, I forgot, I'm an old lady." [Laughs.]
It's just so sweet, because you do get older, [but] you don't feel older. Sometimes I don't feel any different than I did really in my twenties and thirties. And it's a big shock when I look in the mirror or sometimes I'm taking a picture of the granddaughters, and you know I mistakenly hit that button on your camera that turns the camera around. You're looking at yourself and you think, Oh my God, that's too awful. [Laughs.]
ON: Let's talk about the music. What has it been like to work with Ricky? He adores you, by the way.
FVS: Oh, thank you. I adore him. I haven't actually worked with him, we've just communicated by e-mail. I asked him at one point, there's this beautiful aria called "Red," and I asked him to maybe put it down a step, because I felt at the end of the evening the tessitura was high. He went to the trouble of doing it, and then I was working on it, and I said, "You know, it just isn't the same." It's not as splendid as it is in the original that he set. It just lost something — it wasn't as shiny. Then I said [lowering her voice sheepishly], "No, I think it's better the other way." [Laughs.] He was adorable about it.
ON: Are you in conversation with director Leonard Foglia about the role?
FVS: I haven't really talked with Lenny about it at all. I can't wait for this workshop, because I know it's Lenny's passion. I know he loves this piece. And I know that Patrick does, too. And they're two brilliantly intelligent men. I consider both of them "men of letters," not only theatrically gifted and talented and musically gifted, but really — people like Jake [Heggie] that are just beautifully well read and read poetry and just love learning and love the sound of words and the way words fall on their ear and exploring different ideas. I feel that so much with Patrick and with Lenny. And the fact that it means so much to them means a great deal to me. And I am not a woman of letters! [Laughs.] I'm the Law & Order watcher of the group.
ON: What is your process for learning new music? How do you tackle it?
FVS: I just went little by little by little by little and had some very patient pianists with me. Very often in the past I've used a tape recorder to tape accompaniments and have gone over and over. This I have done live. And I've done a lot on my own just sitting at the piano and going over the rhythms and the notes and that type of thing. I'll tell you what I think Ricky has done beautifully. He's set the words really beautifully. And that's not always easy to do. You know, sometimes sentences become too long or you can't get the sense of it — "Where is the verb?" — and he's amazing. Just fantastic. I think he has a great sense of a sentence.
ON: I was doing some reading, and I came across a 1983 interview you did with The New York Times. And you said, at the time, that you feel a reserve in front of the public. I don't know if that's true anymore...
FVS: No, that's long gone. [Laughs.] Well, I could probably use a little more of it now. [Laughs.] Long gone. That goes somewhere in your forties — kind of like, "Ah, what the heck!" I was convent-trained and had nuns in my life most of my life. And so you do have a certain reserve, you know? I mean, you're brought up to have that reserve. But forty did away with that!
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