Frederica von StadeFrederica von Stade (born June 1, 1945) is an American singer. Since her debut in New York in 1970, she has performed in operas, musicals, concerts and recitals in venues throughout the world, including the Met, La Scala, the Opéra de Paris, the Vienna State Opera, the Salzburger Festspielhaus, Covent Garden, Glyndebourne and Carnegie Hall. Conductors with whom she has appeared include Abbado, Bernstein, Giulini, Karajan and Solti. She has also been a prolific and eclectic recording artist, and has made many appearances on television. A high, lyric mezzo-soprano able to sing music more usually undertaken by sopranos, she is especially associated with the bel canto and French repertoires and with contemporary American music, particularly the works of Jake Heggie. Among her signature roles are Penelope, Rosina, Angelina, Charlotte, Cendrillon and Mélisande, and, in trousers, Cherubino, Hänsel and Octavian.
Her divorce from her first husband, Peter Elkus, was important in the development of American matrimonial case law, helping to establish the principle that the economic value of a performer's career and celebrity status could be marital property subject to equitable distribution.
Von Stade's surname derives from the Hanseatic port city of Stade, near Hamburg. One of her forebears served as Stade's mayor.
Von Stade is a member of a wealthy family long prominent in northeastern American high society, with roots in Ireland and the Isle of Man as well as in northern Germany. Her great-grandfather was Charles Steele, lawyer, banker and partner of J. P. Morgan. Her grandfathers were Edward W. Clucas, stockbroker and yachtsman, and Francis Skiddy von Stade Sr., importer of bristles, President of the Saratoga Association and chairman of the United States Polo Association. Her great-aunt, Eleanor Steele Reese, was a concert and opera singer who gave up music for an ascetic life of ranching and rural charity. Von Stade's parents were First Lieutenant Charles S. von Stade, winner of the 1941 US Open Polo Championship, and Sara Clucas von Stade, a descendant of Jonathan Trumbull, the last colonial Governor of Connecticut, who became a valued advisor of George Washington during the War of Independence.
Von Stade's father was killed in action in Germany on April 10, 1945, when his jeep ran over a landmine. The many letters that he had written to von Stade's mother later inspired Kim Vaeth and Richard Danielpour to devise the song cycle Elegies for her.
Von Stade was born in Somerville, New Jersey on June 1, 1945, a premature baby weighing 2 pounds. Her mother nicknamed her Flicka - Swedish for "little girl" - after one of her father's polo ponies.
On December 6, 1946, von Stade's mother married Lieutenant Colonel (later Brigadier General) Horace W. Fuller, a decorated war hero who had fought both as a Marine and in the special forces of the Office of Strategic Services, the clandestine precursor of the CIA. After demobilization, Fuller was sent to Europe by the State Department to help implement the Marshall Plan. He and his family spent several years in Greece and Italy. Von Stade's memories of her childhood in Athens inspired one of the poems in her lyric cycle Paper Wings, which was set to music by Jake Heggie and features on his CD The faces of love.
The Fullers divorced in 1951. Von Stade's mother returned to the US and took up a secretarial position with the CIA in Washington, DC, enrolling her daughter in the Holy Trinity School, Georgetown. (In later years, she launched a catering business; von Stade recalled helping her mother and brother prepare a wedding banquet for four hundred, and it was "Soupe à Sara" that von Stade contributed to the Metropolitan Opera Cookbook. Ultimately von Stade's mother crossed the Atlantic again, settling in a Georgian ruin in Ballitore, County Kildare, Ireland.)
Von Stade's immediate family was musical. Her father had used to play the piano, and was known to his comrades for his beautiful voice; at Yale, her brother sang in the Whiffenpoof a cappella chorus; and her mother liked listening to operas on the radio. When von Stade was sixteen, her mother took her to the Salzburg Festival to hear Karl Böhm conducting Elizabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig in Der Rosenkavalier; she enjoyed it greatly (and was enchanted when she discovered the nearby village of St Wolfgang, to which she returned decades later to film Christmas with Flicka.) At her Sacred Heart Convent schools in Bethesda, Maryland and Noroton, Connecticut she learned classical music of a graver kind, joining in the choral singing of Mozart, Handel, Palestrina, Roland de Lassus and Josquin des Prez. But the genre that she loved best was the musical theatre of Broadway. She went ten times to hear Ethel Merman in Annie get your gun, and when she was asked to entertain at parties, she sang popular melodies that she had picked up by ear.
After graduating, von Stade spent a year in Paris as a nanny to three children, studying piano at the École Mozart. She heard Schwarzkopf in recital at the Théâtre des Champs Élysées, and Carmen at the Opéra. Once back in New York, she worked as a secretary for the American Shakespeare Festival, as a sales assistant in the stationery department of Tiffany's and as a singer in oblivious cocktail bars ("customers were not expected to listen, and didn't").} But she also began auditioning for small parts in summer stock musicals. Eventually she made her stage debut in the Long Wharf Theater in New Haven, Connecticut, playing Beauty in a production of Beauty and the Beast.
A friend's $50 dare prompted her to apply to a conservatory. Hoping to learn how to read music and how to play the piano well enough to handle pop tunes at parties, she auditioned at New York's Mannes School of Music with Mignon's Connais tu le pays?, and was accepted as a student singer. She was funded by help from her family and part-time secretarial work, including a day's temping as Ethel Merman's PA. Despite a disappointing evening at a Metropolitan Opera Arabella - "Awful, no melody" - she chose to make opera her speciality, because it offered the quickest route to a degree. Under the tutelage of Sebastian Engelberg, she discovered talents in herself that she had not anticipated, yet she was still so unsure of herself that she contemplated a switch to nursing. After a good review of her Lazuli in the college's production of Chabrier's L'Étoile, however, she found enough self-confidence to enter the Met's 1969 recruitment competition. Her singing of Charlotte's letter aria from Werther got her through to the semi-finals, and Rudolf Bing was sufficiently impressed to sign her up on a comprimario contract without further ado.
Von Stade debuted at the Met on January 10, 1970, as one of the Three Boys in Die Zauberflöte, singing from a vertiginously airborne basket: "We were so scared by the time we got down to the stage that we didn't even know what opera we were in". Her subsequent comprimario roles were Bersi, Cherubino, Hänsel, Lola, Maddalena, Mercédès, Nicklausse, Preziosilla, Tosca's Shepherd, Siébel, Suzuki, Tebaldo, Virginella, a Flowermaiden in Parsifal, an Unborn Child in Die Frau ohne Schatten, Wowkle ("Part of my job was to zip Tebaldi up before her high B-flats"), Flora ("The dress was too long, and I kept tripping over it" and a Stéphano whose swordplay almost cost Franco Corelli a finger.
The Met allowed von Stade to work in other theatres too. In 1971, she gave her first performance with the San Francisco Opera as an F. Scott Fitzgerald-inspired Sextus, later giving her first Cherubino in Santa Fe opposite the Countess of debutante Kiri Te Kanawa. "It was two of the newcomers who left the audience dazzled: Frederica von Stade as Cherubino and Kiri Te Kanawa as the Countess. Everyone knew at once that these were brilliant finds. History has confirmed that first impression." Santa Fe also saw her creating Maria in the posthumous premiere of Villa-Lobos's Yerma. In 1972, she returned there for her first Zerlina and Mélisande ("At the point where Pelléas was coming toward me singing 'Je t'aime, je t'aime', I was trying to decide whether to go to a certain pizza parlor after the show").
The Met's Goeran Gentele advised her to interrupt her Met career with a period abroad. After recording her first LP in February 1973 - Haydn's Harmoniemesse, conducted by Leonard Bernstein - she went to Paris to sing Cherubino at Versailles and at the Garnier under Georg Solti in the Giorgio Strehler production that introduced the intendancy of Rolf Liebermann. Summer saw her Glyndebourne debut under John Pritchard in Peter Hall's production of the same opera. In the autumn, she returned to San Francisco as Dorabella; and, at Christmas, she came back to the Met as a per-performance contracted principal, debuting her Rosina.
In 1974, she made her Washington Opera debut as Monteverdi's Penelope, having been drawn to the part by Janet Baker's assumption of it for Hall. In Houston, she created Nina in the premiere of Thomas Pasatieri's The Seagull. She sang Cherubino under Herbert von Karajan in her debut at Salzburg, and in San Francisco sang her first Cenerentola. In Alice Tully Hall, she performed a programme of songs, arias and duets with Judith Blegen and the Chamber Music Society of Lincoln Center, subsequently becoming the first singer admitted to the Society as a member.
In 1975, she went to Houston for her first Octavian ("He has had the best, and it's been done with taste and finesse"). Rosina was her debut role at the Royal Opera House, Covent Garden in March. In the autumn, she returned to the Met as Adalgisa: "Unfortunately it wasn't as well prepared as I would have wished."
In 1976, she gave her first recital at Carnegie Hall: forgetting the words of Charles Ives's Tom sails away, she fell across Michael Tilson Thomas's piano in laughter and embarrassment. She was the only American invited to join the opera companies of both Paris and La Scala when they visited the US in honour of its bicentennial, singing Cherubino with the French tourists and Cenerentola with the Italians. In December, she rejoined the La Scala company at their home in Milan, debuting in a concert performance of La damnation de Faust.
Her 1977 began with President James Carter's New Spirit Inauguration Concert, singing Take care of this house from Bernstein's 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue under the baton of the composer. Cherubino introduced her to the Vienna State Opera in May. In October, she sang Béatrice in concert under Seiji Ozawa, reflecting her especial affinity with the French repertoire: "French is my favorite because I identify with it and I can completely understand it".
In 1978, she sang her first Charlotte in Houston. In the summer of 1979, she sang Massenet's Cendrillon during the opera festival at Ottawa's National Arts Centre, a performance that was also telecast.
On January 18, 1980, BBC TV broadcast Call me Flicka, an hour-long documentary profile of von Stade filmed over two years in Europe and America. She was seen singing arias by Mozart, Rossini and Massenet, as well as songs by Marie-Joseph Canteloube, George Gershwin and Joni Mitchell. In the autumn, she went to Paris to sing Iphise in Jean-Philippe Rameau's Dardanus; an account of the production's troubles was later written by its conductor. In 1981, she was Elena in Houston in the twentieth century's first American staging of Rossini's La donna del lago. In 1982, she went to Santa Fe to sing her first Mignon. In the autumn, she came back to the Met after a hiatus of six years, singing Idamante opposite Luciano Pavarotti in Jean-Pierre Ponnelle's telecast production of Idomeneo.
In 1983, Hamburg heard her as the Composer in Ariadne auf Naxos. At Carnegie Hall, she was the cynosure of a festival of French opera, starring in semi-staged performances of Cendrillon, Mignon and La Périchole. In Minnesota, she premiered Casa Guidi, a song cycle written for her by Dominick Argento. She sang her first Blanche in the Met's production of Poulenc's Les dialogues des Carmélites. In 1984, she sang her first Amina in San Francisco's La Sonnambula. In 1985, she sang at the inauguration of President Ronald Reagan's second term of office. In 1987, Granada TV filmed a documentary, The Show Boat Story, about the making of her recording of Jerome Kern's musical.
In 1988, she went to Tanglewood to sing A little bit in love from Wonderful Town in a telecast gala celebrating Bernstein's seventieth birthday. Also telecast was Dallas's premiere of The Aspern Papers, in which she created the role of Tina that Argento had written for her. In 1989, she went to London to sing Mozart's Requiem for Carlo Maria Giulini, and to Santa Fe for the US's first staging of Chérubin.
In 1990, von Stade was invited to the White House to give a song recital for Presidents George H. W. Bush and Mikhail Gorbachev. (Her uncle, Taft Broadcasting Company vice-president Frederick H. von Stade, was a Bush family friend). In 1990 too a telecast Flicka and friends: von Stade, Hadley and Ramey in concert featured numbers from Show Boat. In 1991, she went to London's Barbican Hall to portray the naughty child in a concert presentation of L'Enfant et les sortilèges. In New York, she sang in a telecast of the Richard Tucker Music Foundation's Gala XVI.
In 1992, she went to London's Barbican for a filmed, semi-staged production of Bernstein's On the Town. In New York, she was at Avery Fisher Hall for the telecast gala marking Rossini's bicentenary. At Santa Fe, she sang her first Xerxes, losing her way in her first big aria: "I came offstage and told my manager, 'I'm here to tell you that you don't actually die from shame'".
In 1994, she created the role of the Marquise written for her by Conrad Susa in San Francisco's telecast The dangerous liaisons, finally granting Frank Corsaro his wish of twenty years earlier that she should one day play a villain.
In 1995, the Met honoured her quarter-century of service with a new Pelléas et Mélisande produced by Jonathan Miller. In 1997, she sang in San Francisco's telecast Golden Gate Gala. In 1998, she was in San Francisco again for her debut as Countess Geschwitz in Alban Berg's Lulu; in New York, she sang in a telecast gala with the San Francisco Symphony Orchestra. In 1998 too she premiered the Danielpour song cycle Elegies. 1999 saw her in a Mostly Mozart Festival telecast from Lincoln Center. In Paris, she sang her first Hanna in The merry widow. In Los Angeles, she appeared in A little night music as Desiree Armfeldt, singing a role that had been especially enlarged for her.
In 2000, von Stade went to San Francisco Opera to create the role of Mrs de Rocher in Heggie's Dead man walking; she had been offered the leading part of Sister Helen Prejean, but had declined it in favour of a younger colleague. She shares Prejean's opposition to capital punishment ("an extreme form of state-sponsored vengeance that only demeans and dehumanizes everyone").
In 2001, she sang in the telecast gala that opened Philadelphia's Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts. In 2002, she made her belated debut at the BBC Proms in London's Royal Albert Hall, singing Shéhérazade; she had been scheduled to headline the festival's Last Night the year before, but had been thwarted by the grounding of aircraft in the aftermath of the events of September 11. In 2002 too she sang with the Mormon Tabernacle Choir in the festivities accompanying the Winter Olympic Games in Salt Lake City. In 2005, she sang Despina in San Francisco, the Grande Duchesse de Gérolstein in Los Angeles and Ottavia in Houston's L'incoronazione di Poppea. At the 57th Emmy Awards, she appeared with William Shatner, singing Alexander Courage's Star Trek theme.
In 2008, she created Madeline in Houston's world premiere of Three Decembers, a chamber opera written for her by Heggie. In 2009, she went to Kitchener, Ontario, to premiere Nathaniel Stookey's Into the bright lights, a cycle of songs setting three poems that she had written about ageing, singing and her love of her children. Also in 2009, she went to Washington to sing with Bill Cosby, James Taylor, and President Barack Obama at the seventy-seventh birthday celebrations of Senator Edward Kennedy.(As a 10-year-old, she had helped to babysit some of Robert Kennedy's children.) She took with her some young singers from the Bay area's Young Musicians Choral Orchestra (YMCO) whose musical training she had helped to advance.
In 2010, von Stade was again accompanied by some of her young protégés when she paid a visit to Garrison Keillor's radio show, A Prairie Home Companion. In New York, she was honoured at the Metropolitan Opera Guild's annual Waldorf-Astoria luncheon, and gave a farewell recital at Carnegie Hall. In 2011, the Herbst Theater, San Francisco, was where many colleagues joined her for Celebrating Frederica von Stade, a gala to raise funds for some of her charities. San Francisco Opera honoured her with a farewell tribute in 2012.
In 2014, she returned to Houston to create Myrtle in A coffin in Egypt, an opera written for her by Ricky Ian Gordon. In 2015, she created Winnie in Heggie's Great Scott in Dallas, and twice appeared with the Dallas Street Choir, a chorus of people enduring homelessness. In 2018, she visited Philadelphia to create the role of Danny, an Alzheimer's sufferer, in Lembit Beecher's chamber opera Sky on swings. She continues to sing, to teach and to help young people from disadvantaged backgrounds to enjoy and perform classical music. Among the charities with which she has been most deeply involved are the Steinerite Sophia Project and the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra. (Oakland's St Martin de Porres School, which she supported for many years, was closed by its presiding bishop in 2017.)
At Mannes, von Stade met Peter K. Elkus, bass-baritone, photographer and, later, teacher, a son of Richard J. Elkus, chairman of Ampex. Von Stade and Elkus were married in Paris in the Spring of 1973. In the late 1970s, they moved from their high-rise West Side apartment overlooking the Lincoln Center and the Hudson River to a rented Parisian house near the Bois de Boulogne. Their elder daughter was born in 1977; Jenifer Rebecca Elkus was named after a Carol Hall song, "Jenny Rebecca", that von Stade was recording as her baby began to arrive - "She heard her name and figured she'd better come out". Formerly a middle school counselor, Jenny now practises as a clinical psychologist in Virginia, but is also a singer who can be heard duetting with her mother on von Stade's jazz recording Frederica von Stade sings Brubeck - Across your dreams. Anna Lisa Elkus was born in 1980. Von Stade's lyric cycle Paper Wings, sung by her on the CD The Faces of Love - The Songs of Jake Heggie, presents vignettes of Lisa's infancy. Now a manager at a global technology company in California, Lisa was a devotee of dance and pop music as a child and has performed as a singer in a rock 'n' roll band.
As Jenny approached school age, the Elkuses relocated to a Colonial mini-estate on Long Island. Elkus coached his wife until 1985: "It's the same old story," said von Stade. "You can't learn to drive from your husband. A husband-and-wife team is a risky thing, [...] We thought we were strong enough to defy it, and we weren't." The Elkuses divorced in 1990, the protracted litigation that accompanied their parting becoming a staple of legal textbooks.
On December 30, 1990, von Stade married Michael G. Gorman, a San Francisco manufacturer and, later, banker, no musician but rather, in her words, "a normal dude", whom she had met in 1988. Her marriage brought her three stepchildren. The Gormans lived in a 1910 Tudor Revival house in the middle of Alameda before moving to the island's southeast waterfront. Their first grandchild, Jenny's daughter Charlotte Frederica, was born in 2010.
As a child, von Stade was a tomboy. Despite growing up mostly in horsey New Jersey and her family's equestrian traditions, she was never a keen rider, but otherwise she was a lover of life outdoors. On holiday visits to her maternal grandmother or a friend's family's private island near the Kennedys' Hyannis, she enjoyed tennis, cycling, swimming and sailing. As an adult, she also became fond of running, aerobics, fishing, gastronomy, the theatre and the ballet. After moving to California, she was so infected by her new husband's passion for yachting that she spent periods living with him at sea; she also became a golfer, cycling to the links on a bike spattered with paint in order to lessen its appeal to thieves. (In October 2009, she was robbed of heirlooms worth more than $50,000.) Other enthusiasms of hers are country music, the Meghan Markle TV show Suits and the Taken actor Liam Neeson, "because he's Irish".
Von Stade became a Roman Catholic Christian as a child, led to her faith by nuns, priests and a convert grandmother, and attracted by the theatricality of its rituals. Catholicism continues to inform her philosophy, reconcile her to her experience of suffering and guide her work as a musician and philanthropist.
RecordingsVon Stade has sung on more than a hundred recordings, including symphonic works, sacred music, operas, musicals, art songs, pop songs, folk songs, jazz and comedy. Her recordings have garnered twelve Grammy nominations and two Grammy wins, two Grand Prix du Disque awards, the Deutsche Schallplattenpreis, Italy's Premio della Critica Discografica, and "Best of the Year" citations by Stereo Review and Opera News. Her personal favourites are her Arthaus video and Decca audio recordings of Le nozze di Figaro, her EMI Pelléas et Mélisande, her Deutsche Grammophon Mahler Symphony No. 4, her pop album Flicka - Another side of Frederica von Stade and her jazz album Frederica von Stade sings Brubeck - Across your dreams.
All of the von Stade recordings first released on vinyl have now been issued on compact disc as well, but six are only available on CD in boxed collections. Frederica von Stade Live! and Shéhérazade are only available in the 18-CD set Frederica von Stade: The Complete Columbia Recital Albums, and Judith Blegen & Frederica von Stade: Songs, Arias & Duets, Frederica von Stade: Song Recital, Frederica von Stade:Italian Opera Arias and the Mahler album Songs of a Wayfarer, Rückert-Lieder and songs from Des Knaben Wunderhorn are only available in that same anthology and in the 4-CD set Frederica von Stade: Duets, Arias, Scenes and Songs. The two SACDs in the discography are hybrid discs which are compatible with any CD machine. Recordings highlighted in blue are the subject of ancillary articles which deal with their taping, cover art, track listings and release histories and provide summaries of reviews by notable critics including Denis Arnold, Alan Blyth, Edward Greenfield, Richard Freed, George Jellinek, William Mann, Stanley Sadie and J. B. Steane.