Frederica von Stade

Life is but a Song

An interview with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who performs with composer/pianist Jake Heggie in the Dallas Opera's Art Song series. With giveaways for tickets and for a signed CD of Heggie's The Radio Hour.

published Wednesday, January 27, 2016

Photo: Karen Almond/The Dallas Opera
Joyce DiDonato, left, with Frederica von Stade in Jake Heggie's Great Scott at the Dallas Opera


Dallas — A song recital is an opportunity to interact, up close, with world famous opera singers—as themselves. At 2 p.m. on Sunday, Jan. 31, at City Performance Hall one of the greatest of the greats, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, will offer that opportunity. She presents “A Life in Song,” an autobiographical collection of her favorite songs from a career that spans 45 years and appearances in major opera houses and concert halls around the world.

This is part of the Robert E. and Jean Ann Titus Art Song Recital Series under the auspices of The Dallas Opera.

Operagoers recently heard her in a leading role written for her in Great Scott by Jake Heggie, commissioned by the Dallas Opera. Heggie has written music for von Stade many times over the years, and it is an additional bonus that Heggie will be at the piano for this Dallas performance.

Photo: Robert Millard
Frederica von Stade

In addition to Heggie’s songs, the recital by “Flicka,” as von Stade is affectionately called, will feature works by other major composers who have created work for von Stade or whose songs have been important to her over the years. It is a Who’s Who list, including living composers: Heggie, William Bolcom, and Ned Rorem; as well as 20th century masters who are no longer with us: Aaron Copland, Francis Poulenc, Maurice Ravel, and Virgil Thomson. There will also be a few arias from her signature roles and even “Send in the Clowns” from A Little Night Music, a quasi-opera by Stephen Sondheim.

“I originally put this concert together for my farewell concert at Carnegie Hall six years ago,” says von Stade. “I picked selections that have been important to my career, but also some that are important to me personally. A song can become like an old friend who was always there with you though better and worse. You never get tired of them and some of them bring back waves of memories.”

“Farewell” is relative for the energetic von Stade. She only said farewell to a full-time career of singing operas around the world. She still sings recitals and takes on projects of interest, Great Scott being a prime example. Another was the 2014 premiere of an opera written for her by Ricky Ian Gordon, A Coffin in Egypt, set in Egypt, Texas, and based on a story by Horton Foote.)


The Art of Art Song

Three years ago, Sarah Titus started the Robert E. and Jean Ann Titus Art Song Recital Series in conjunction with The Dallas Opera. The recitals have featured Ian Bostridge, Matthew Polenzani and Marilyn Horne Song Competition winners Michelle Bradley and Michael Gaetner.

“This series was started as a tribute to my mother, who is a huge fan of art song recitals,” says Sarah Titus. “She is especially fond of Schubert, but it is the personal nature of a song—one singer and a pianist—that she finds the most interesting.”

In pre-recoding and radio days, song recitals used to be the way that audiences got to know the great singers of the day in a very personal encounter. In an opera, the singer is someone else and most opera houses are immense. Recordings changed everything. They brought the recital into the homes of the listeners. While you wouldn’t want to return to an era without recordings, the actual in-person recital itself fell on hard times for wont of an audience willing to get up off of the sofa for a few hours. This also goes for instrumental recitals with audiences preferring something bigger: concerto appearances with orchestras.

This, fortunately, is changing lately. Recitals are making a most welcome comeback as audiences are rediscovering the joys and insights that such an intimate encounter with an artist can bring. Dallas is blessed with two such series with very different aims. One local songfest is Voces Intimae, which uses high quality local singers and occasionally presents songs by local composers. But a series that presents the very top level of international singers was a void until the Dallas Opera launched the Titus series.

“We're very fortunate that these two great artists agreed to bring this historic recital to Dallas,” Sarah Titus says about the von Stade and Heggie appearance.


Back to Frederica

Photo: Lynn Lane
Frederica von Stade in Ricky Ian Gordon's A Coffin in Egypt at Houston Grand Opera
Photo: Robert Hart/TheaterJones
Jake Heggie, center, with librettist Terrence McNally (left) and director Jack O'Brien, photographed during rehearsals for Great Scott


Von Stade debuted in 1970 at the Metropolitan Opera and followed that at the Santa Fe Opera in 1971. Both times, she sang the role of Cherubino in Le nozze di Figaro, which became her most celebrated role.

Cherubino is a “pants role,” that of an adolescent boy but sung by a mezzo-soprano. Opera is full of such roles and von Stade was physically perfect and her acting chops made her characterizations uncannily believable. Another singer who went on to fame, soprano Kiri Te Kanawa, debuted in the same production.

Oddly, von Stade will not sing one of Cherubino’s arias on this program, but will sing an aria from one of her other pants roles, “Me Voici dans son Boudoir” from Mignon by Ambroise Thomas, an opera that isn’t performed all that frequently these days. The other opera aria on the program is a real treat: the heartbreakingly gorgeous “Va, Laisse Couler mes Larmes,” from Massenet’s Werther, one of the most beautiful operas in the repertoire and deserving of more productions.

Werther is a marvelous opera with one of the great mezzo roles, Charlotte. And I get to wear a dress,” she says with a laugh.

As for collaborating again with Heggie, she has nothing but praise.

“The two of us have played hundreds of recitals and benefits together over the years,” she says. “He is an extraordinary composer with musical gifts galore, who explores every corner of the human soul.”

“He wrote three exceptional operas for me and they came at different times, allowing me to explore my own life as I created the characters,” she adds, reflecting on each. “In Dead Man Walking [2000] I played Mrs. Patrick De Rocher, mother of the convicted murderer. She is a woman who lost the ability to shelter her children because of poverty, making a wrong choice that did great harm.

Three Decembers [2007] came at a time when I was in much the same situation as my character, Madeline,” von Stade says. “She is a famous Broadway actor at the top of her career, but plagued by the thoughts of getting older, but more importantly, what has my career cost my kids, being away from them so much.

“In Great Scott, my character, and also myself, has the joy of watching young people come up behind her, to have somehow been part of that progress and also a part of their lives—even if in some remote way.”

This is really the secret to Von Stade’s true genius, in addition to a glorious voice, of course. Whether it is an opera role or a song, which is really a little mini-opera, she doesn’t just sing it, she inhabits it. She doesn’t tell us what the song is about, she becomes the song and we get to live in it with her.

The recital on Sunday afternoon is a rare opportunity for those of us who couldn’t make it to Carnegie Hall for the first time she presented this very personal concert to experience her narrative about “A Life in Song.”

This time, she is playing the role she does best: being herself.

And she gets to wear a dress.


» Ticket giveaway: We have one pair of tickets to "A Life in Song," 2 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31 at Dallas City Performance Hall in the Dallas Arts District. To be entered to win the tickets, email an put TITUS STADE HEGGIE in the subject line, and in the body of the email, include your name, phone number and address. For this giveaway, you have until 11:55 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 28 to enter. We'll notify the winner by noon on Friday, Jan. 29.

» CD giveaway: TheaterJones has several copies of Jake Heggie's The Radio Hour, a choral opera in one act, which was released in October on the Delos Music label, and they're signed by Heggie. To be entered into a drawing to receive one, email and put HEGGIE RADIO HOUR in the subject line. In the body of the email, put your name, phone number and address. You have until 11:55 p.m. Sunday, Jan. 31 to submit an entry. We'll notify winners on Monday morning and put your CD in the mail.

» You can enter both giveaways, but send separate emails. Thanks For Reading

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Life is but a Song
An interview with mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, who performs with composer/pianist Jake Heggie in the Dallas Opera's Art Song series. With giveaways for tickets and for a signed CD of Heggie's The Radio Hour.
by Gregory Sullivan Isaacs

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