INTERVIEW: Frederica Von Stade Comes to Opera Philadelphia

Frederica Von Stade in "A Coffin in Egypt."

Frederica Von Stade in “A Coffin in Egypt.”

To say that the extraordinary Frederica Von Stade (better known to opera fans as Flicka) has had a remarkable career is an understatement: the American mezzo-soprano has performed at nearly all of the world’s leading opera houses, including the Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, Los Angeles Opera, Teatro alla Scala, Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera, the Paris Opera…and the list goes on.  Widely acclaimed for her interpretations of both the bel canto and French repertoires, Ms. Von Stade has sung leading roles in La CenerentolaIl Barbiere di SivigliaLa Sonnambula, and La Damnation de Faust.  Now, Philadelphia audiences will have the chance to see Flicka first-hand in Opera Philadelphia‘s production of A Coffin in Egypt: these performances mark Ms. Von Stade’s Opera Philadelphia debut.  I had the pleasure of chatting with Flicka about her legendary career and the future of opera.

Ticket: I know this is not the first time you’ve performed A Coffin in Egypt. As a singer and actor, what’s it like to revisit a role? Do you feel your performance evolve?

F.V.S.: Every time you walk on stage, even in a role you’ve done many times, you look for something new and certainly experience something new. In this opera, I find that I’m thinking about this character all the time, trying to clarify who she is and why she is as she is and what she wants. It is very beautifully written both musically and dramatically, so most of the work has been done by Ricky Ian Gordon and Lenny Foglia, but I have treasured all my experiences of getting to see what this lady’s world is. I went to Egypt, Texas, have read [the character’s] poetry, seen some of her paintings, and met some people that remember hearing about her.

Ticket: How would you describe the score of Coffin?

F.V.S.: The score of Coffin is very beautiful and very touching and very clear. Ricky [Ian Gordon] writes in a way that is most accessible because of its beauty. He is also a master of setting words in ways that the intention becomes very clear. And the libretto is sensational, a real genius of adaptation and invention. Throughout the score are beautiful spirituals sung by four soloists and they are simply breathtaking.

Ticket: You’ve had an amazingly expansive career, with such a wide repertoire. When you look back, what are the moments that you feel are truly definitive of your work?

F.V.S.: Thank you for these kind remarks. At this stage of my career and my life, I find it increasingly difficult to even fathom that I was a part of it and it was a part of me. I am intensely grateful for every single moment of music making that I’ve been able to participate in. I’ve loved every stage in different ways but I would have to say that my collaboration with Jake Heggie [for Dead Man Walking] and now with Ricky Ian Gordon mean so much to me. Through them and what they have asked me to do, I have had a chance to look at three different women whose lives will always fascinate me. I have had the chance to try my darndest to be them and the process has been a deeply spiritual experience.

Ticket: Have you performed in Philadelphia before? If so, what do you think of the audiences here?

F.V.S.: I have never performed with the Opera, which is beautifully thriving now and am so excited to be a part of. I have sung many times with the Philadelphia Orchestra, at the opening of the new [Verizon] Hall, and I have done a recital somewhere in Philadelphia but I can’t remember where!

Ticket: There’s so much talk about opera and the future of the art form. What do you think is most important to keep audiences coming to the opera?

F.V.S.: There is a great deal to talk about and I believe that it’s very important to talk about it. Thanks to great efforts and courage, the San Diego Opera will not be laid to rest, which is thrilling news for any of us. I think what will keep it alive is great singing first and innovation next. We are in a golden age of singing right now. To have artists, such as Joyce DiDonatoSusan Graham, and Anna Netrebko, is a guarantee that singing is safe. And in my travels and master classes, I hear sensational voices, beautiful trained and beautifully prepared and I rejoice that these young artists will keep the art form alive. I also think that there are great opera general managers, such as your own David Devan, David Gockley, Anthony Freud, Perryn Leach and Patrick Summers, who are building their audiences with great care and knowledge and exploring every means possible to extend the opera experience to as many people as possible. It’s been a struggle in the last years with the economy and such, but it’s still here!

Ticket: I’ve read several critics describe you as “semi-retired.” What keeps you coming back to the stage, and do you think any great performer ever really “retires”?

F.V.S.: I have come back for one very simple reason: I was invited and I feel so blessed to have been invited.

A Coffin in Egypt plays June 6-15, 2014 at the Perelman Theater at the Kimmel Center for the Performing Arts.  For more information, please visit the Opera Philadelphia website.