• The Exclusive Opera Lively Interview with Frederica von Stade

    Opera Lively has interviewed the legendary singer in person, on March 6, 2013. [Opera Lively interview # 78]


    Photo Credit Lieberman Photography

    Ms. von Stade is a beloved artist in our opera community. Her phenomenal discography on video and audio media (with the amazing number of 119 items!) contains some of the most exquisite operatic performances on record, such as this absolute gem:



    We are also thrilled to know that the veteran singer is coming out of opera stage retirement (she remains active in the recital circuit) for the East Coast premiere of the new American opera A coffin in Egypt by Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist Leonard Foglia, when Opera Philadelphia features it next year (June 6, 8, 11, 13, and 15, 2014), an event that Opera Lively will make sure to also attend.

    Flicka is not only a great singer, but also an extraordinary human being, involved in advocacy, leadership, and charitable pursuits. It is a great honor for Opera Lively to have been granted an in-person interview with one of the Grande Dames of opera.

    We met Ms. von Stade in the context of her recital sponsored by the The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Music, and the William S. Newman Scholarship Series, on March 5, 2013. She also delivered a master class to students of opera programs at UNC-Chapel Hill and UNC-Greensboro, which will be the subject of another article we'll be publishing shortly. Accompanied by pianist James Meredith, the celebrated “Flicka” performed a selection of songs with special significance to her remarkable career.

    Described by the New York Times as “one of America’s finest artists and singers,” von Stade has appeared in leading roles with every major American opera company (Metropolitan Opera, San Francisco Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Los Angeles Opera) as well as Teatro alla Scala, Royal Opera Covent Garden, the Vienna State Opera, and the Paris Opera. An impressive versatility has led her to an ever-broadening spectrum of musical styles and dramatic roles, from Italian bel canto to the French repertoire to operetta and musical theater.

    As a recitalist, von Stade combines expressive vocalism and exceptional musicianship with a rare gift for communication. Her solo repertoire encompasses a rich variety, from the classical style of Mozart and Haydn to the popular songs of Broadway’s greatest musicals; from Italian “Arie antiche” to the songs of contemporary composers such as Dominick Argento and Jake Heggie.

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    Talking about that extraordinary La Cenerentola, let's listen to the singer in the final numbers of that show:



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    The Opera Lively Exclusive Interview with Frederica von Stade

    © Opera Lively - Disclaimer: this exclusive interview is copyrighted by Opera Lively with all rights reserved, and is not to be reproduced without express authorization. Brief excerpts can be used after consultation (use the Contact Us form) as long as proper credit and a link to the full interview on Opera Lively are provided. Links to the interview can be posted without authorization. All photos were used with permission of the artist, and fully credited.

    Credits - Questions by Opera Lively journalists Mary Auer and Luiz Gazzola.

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    Opera Lively - Your program, “An Evening With Frederica von Stade,” is a compelling arc with your reminiscences about your life and career. Some parts are extremely funny, light, and entertaining, while others are pungent and even a bit bitter at the very end, with “Send in the Clowns.” How did you develop the concept for this program?

    Frederica von Stade – I started actually maybe two years ago trying out little bits and pieces of it and incorporating speaking and telling stories, and as I was doing it, I went further, and I thought, “oh yes, this corresponds with that time of my life. It’s not too egotistical and it’s not in such detail that I think would be off-putting, so I thought it would be fun, and it’s been fun for myself as well because a lot of the music of different periods has been important to me in forty years of career. Plus a lot of the concerts that I’ve been doing for the last couple of years have been sort of retirement concerts, so there it seems appropriate.

    Recitals and concerts have changed in my forty years in the business. They used to be a little bit stricter. You usually sang in two or three languages and very often didn’t include English if you were American. And now it’s changed, as the generations of foreign-speaking audiences exist. I think we’ve had to change it. Having Winterreise is very challenging for an American public that don’t speak any German, even if you see the translations, because the point of Winterreise is a musical and a real journey. So, I don’t know that we have built the public to really understand and enjoy that, and I’m a firm believer that we are entertainers. We are artists, we study great music, but Adele is an artist too, she is a great singer and she writes her own things, there’s not a big difference. We are there to give joy, pleasure, whatever to people, and if they enjoy a lighter program, so be it.

    OL – That’s exactly what I said in my review of your program, that you are such an entertainer. That program was so entertaining!

    FVS – Oh, good! [laughs] Good! Well, it’s fun, at this point in my life I don’t do that many things, so when I get a chance to, I really, really enjoy it. I enjoy every minute of it. I began my career with the great joy of singing and I’m ending with this joy of expressing myself through song, and it’s fun.

    OL – The last song in your program – “Send in the clouds” from Stephen Sondheim’s musical A Little Night Music - when you say this line here – “losing my time this late in my career” – do you feel some psychological impact of going away?

    FVS – I feel the impact. In this song, the way Sondheim wrote it, the character Desirée actually split up, she’s been rejected by her true love, because she didn’t realize that he was her true love for years, so he’s married someone much younger, so that’s what it’s about; it’s about someone who has lost; her timing is completely off. She should have stayed in love with him when it was appropriate. And they do get back together in the end.

    But I do not feel a gram of bitterness. I don’t feel a gram of envy for the young voices coming along. I feel nothing but a celebration. I’m not sad about leaving, at all. I think I had better than I deserve. I loved every minute of it. I’m a little bit at a point where I can’t remember. People say “when you sang this” and I think “I don’t think I ever sang that song” but I take their word for it. I remember seeing a marvelous older singer at a party. They put on her records. She listened to them not as a great diva who was applauding herself. She listened to them as though she was watching her grandchildren play. And that’s how I fell. I have grandchildren, and it’s the most exciting thing that has ever happened to me. My children are top, and then they are up there. I feel like I’m watching or thinking about something that was very joyful. I know that there was a lot of sorrow and pain and anguish there as well but I’m sort of left with the joyful part. [laughs]

    OL – You say that these are pre-retirement concerts, but you are engaged in two new operas.

    FVS – Yes!

    OL – So, you’re not about to quit!

    FVS – I know! When Patrick Summers asked me to do it, I felt that also in a way that at this time of life you just say yes to what you want to do and see what happens. I’m working hard on it already, and I love the subject and the music. It’s like a challenge, like taking courses at a later stage. So, it’s fun. I just say “yes to the dress.” There is one of those terrible programs in television, a reality show about choosing your wedding dress: “Just say yes to the dress!”

    OL – So, you do look back at your illustrious career with a great dose of joy.

    FVS – Yes, I do! One of the most joyful parts of it has been the people I’ve worked with, the colleagues. Jim Meredith who is here, Marilyn Horne, Pavarotti, Plácido, Michael Tilson Thomas, Seiji Ozawa, when I actually do enumerate any part of that I think “oh well, have I been blessed, to be in the presence of these people, participating with them!” Because opera singers are really fun. They really are fun. Rehearsing in opera is very serious and we work very hard, but there comes a funny moment, it bursts like a bomb, and it’s fun for all of us to be together. There is really not the backstabbing jealousy that people would like to think there is. It’s fun to think about it but that’s not been my experience at all.

    OL – I hear that you are very beloved by your colleagues.

    FVS – I have had so much fun with them, you know, we’ve shared so much of our lives, we’ve been away from our families at times, we’ve been in different countries together, we’ve gone on adventures between performances… You get very close when you are rehearsing eight hours a day, especially in the operas I did, like The Marriage of Figaro where it is sort of a family situation anyway.

    OL - While interviewing a Grande Dame of opera like you, a singer of legendary stature, we’d be highly interested in compelling memories. I know it’s too vague a question, but since you’ve prepared a program that is autobiographic, I bet that you’ve been giving some thought to it, so, here we go: do you have a couple of really essential crossroads or defining moments in your long career that might be of interest for your fans to hear about? Something very dear to you or important to you?

    FVS – Oh, so much is extremely important and dear to me. In the beginning I was such a novice and such an ingénue, not in role but in my thinking; I knew so little about it. I didn’t know to be frightened, almost like a child. They learn an instrument before they learn it’s hard. I’ve had extremely funny times with colleagues. The dear ones have been unusual. There’s a famous maestro, Carlos Kleiber…

    OL – Wow, one of the greatest.

    FVS – Yes, Carlos Kleiber… actually I was invited to do a Rosenkavalier with him, but I knew that he was probably one of the greatest artists of all time and I was frightened to do it with him, so I didn’t do it. But about two years later I was in London recording, and there was a gal that I knew very well from DECCA who was a friend of his. She brought him to my house and at that point I was having my second baby. My first baby was two and a half and she had spilled tea on her face, so she was in terrible pain, it was just awful, we went for treatment every day, it was one of those horrible accidents. So this friend brought Carlos, and I thought “oh my gosh, what am I going to do?” And he sat with my daughter. He entertained her by singing nursery rhymes to her from a book; she sat on my lap, and he just sang the entire book to her. And she was fascinated by him, because she didn’t know him, and he just sang for her. I’ll never forget that moment. It was so kind.

    Another one that I remember – unbelievable – we did the opening night of The Merry Widow and I was with Plácido at the Met, and we were upstairs at the opening night party, and I had invited my husband, and my father-in-law with his wife – his first wife had died, and this was his second wife. He had Parkinson’s. He was thrilled to be in New York and to go to this party and meet Plácido. He had terrible shakes. By mistake he knocked a glass of wine over. I could see him, his face drained, he was so embarrassed. Plácido and Marta, his wife, stood up and they put their hand in the wine and they blessed themselves. They said, “we were hoping someone would do that, you have no idea what good fortune this brings, it brings blessings on everybody at the table.” Plácido probably doesn’t remember that he did it, but I’ll never forget it.

    OL – Wow, very interesting! Back to Carlos Kleiber, he had a reputation for being reclusive and sort of odd, but then, in person, he wasn’t?

    FVS – Oh, no. At least my experience with him was that he had a depth and a kindness… I will never forget my encounter with him; I wish I had done the opera.

    OL – Was that the one Anne Sofie von Otter did with him?

    FVS – Yes, exactly. And at the time he was recruiting. I think he had just conducted Otello at La Scala. I went to one of the rehearsals. It was unbelievable.

    OL – I rank him as the number one conductor of all time.

    FVS – Yes, he was absolutely brilliant. Brilliant, brilliant.

    OL - In a couple of hours you’ll be engaged in a master class. You’ve conducted master classes at a number of universities and conservatories in recent years. Let’s talk about some of the trends you’ve been observing as you instruct these young talents. First of all, has the training vocal performance majors receive now changed in any significant ways since you were a student at the Mannes College of Music?

    FVS – I’ll tell you how it’s changed. On the one hand singers are better prepared, more ready mentally and musically to walk on stage. They are very beautifully prepared. Probably in this music school [UNC Chapel Hill Department of Music] and all the young artists programs that exist all over New York, San Francisco, Houston Grand, Dallas, the Lindemann, Chicago, they all have these extraordinary programs, so in that regard they are way ahead of certainly where I was. On the other hand I think they tend to over-emphasize the vocal things they are doing, and not really express what the works are about. I think the biggest worry I have in the trend is that they all seem too big, too loud. In the preparation I did for this class, there is a Saint-Saëns song [she sings a bit of it] and there is also a Fauré version of it, so I listened to quite a few people sing it, and the most enjoyable was Louise Homer, it was breathtaking, and what was wonderful about it was the youthfulness of it. Everybody seems to be darkening their voice and thickening it, and in my experience the singers who have remained true to themselves like Kiri, Kathleen Battle, Berganza in my day, have had the greatest longevity and terrific success in their singing. Joyce DiDonato never drives her voice. Susan Graham never drives her voice. They treasure that lightness and fluttery sound. The danger of darkening and thickening and making voices heavy is that you don’t hear words as well, and sometimes you don’t get the nature of the song. It gets bogged down. So that’s the biggest thing. I don’t think it’s the singers’ fault.

    OL – Why are they doing it?

    FVS – I think they are doing it because most orchestras play too loud, because we don’t have someone like Carlos Kleiber keeping the orchestra way down. Way down! I blame electronics. I think people walk into an opera house and expect to hear what they heard in their ear buds or on their Hi-Fi, and that’s not the point. The point of opera and singing is that you hear the singers. If you are eighty to one, there is no way you can. I think orchestras take on a more exciting and interesting sound when they go from loud to soft, from forte to mezzo-forte, from mezzo-piano to piano, from soft to loud again. Another person who is a genius at that is Claudio Abbado. He could go from pianissimo to forte and it was a sixty-miles highway. There was every degree of it, and I don’t think that is often explored. People are more thrilled with the big sound and the big boom, and voices cannot always take that, especially not young voices. They just need to be reminded that what carries is the slimness of sound, not the volume of sound. And if you don’t have a big voice, don’t be hard on yourself; don’t try to make it into a big voice. Have the voice you have.

    OL – I just attended a master class with Lawrence Brownlee, he stopped the singers all the time, saying, “can’t you sing this, piano?” “If you keep the dynamics down, people in the opera house will try to listen to you.”

    FVS – Yes, exactly. For vocal technique and for longevity, when you master the hard parts of your voice… one of the reasons you sing loud is because you can’t sing soft. If you work and work and work and that’s what it takes to control that part of your voice, the rest of your voice falls in line. If you blast it out – and I’ve done it; I’m not speaking as one who has mastered it, I’m almost seventy and I’m still at it… [laughs]

    OL – Yes, when you sang that song, “why did they shut me out of Heaven? Was it because I sang too LOUD?” you sang very loudly and the public startled and laughed.

    FVS – Yes, especially for mezzos, if you manage that – it’s around E-F-G, it’s the hardest part of the voice, the passagio – you will go higher and you will be able to manage the lower part of your voice. If you blast it hard eventually the sound spreads and then you can’t do it. Then you can’t sing soft; you really can’t do it without closing your throat. I’ve done it, and I know the pain of that. It takes a long time to recuperate.

    I think sometimes it’s the agents, the managers, who need to be very careful about what a young singer sings, and when they sing it and at what house they sing it.

    OL – We were having a discussion at the website exactly about this. People are driving to the Met and listening to Met Opera Radio on their car’s sound system with eight speakers, and they crank it up, then they park and enter the Met and think they will find the same sound. If these people can’t realize that what comes from their eight speakers is not the same direct relationship they can have with the unamplified beautiful voice of a singer from the stage, they don’t even belong in the opera house in the first place – what are they doing there? They should have stayed in their cars.

    FVS – Yes, yes! And it is the only thing left that is not intercepted electronically. That’s throat to ear. That’s why opera still exists: people need that. Look at pop singers – very often the public would like to hear them without a microphone. Everything changes when there is a microphone.

    OL - Some leading international singers who are now teaching or serving on voice competition juries have expressed concern over what they view as a trend at opera houses to cast young singers in inappropriate roles. They believe these new talents are not being given the chance to properly develop – like singers in houses like those in German-speaking countries where they hire a cast for the entire year can do. What are your views on this?

    FVS – Oh, I agree with that. We are very lucky in San Francisco because we have a wonderful general manager who sang, he began his career as a singer. He really knows voices. He can pick them out. One of the gals who runs the Merola Young Artist Program there is one of the finest. She also was a singer for years, Sheri Greenawald, she knows voices. They are very careful about what singer should sing, what they are ready for. It’s not always just the voice. It’s the emotion. You never want to do anything to step on the self confidence of a singer, because as much as they use their voice and their talent, they are using their self confidence. What enables you to get out there and be free, is that you feel you can do something and you have something to contribute, and if you are out there in the wrong piece, chances are that it’s not going to work, and you have to be careful.

    Like the Charlotte aria. People will sing it. I heard young singers singing the Letter Aria and when you’re singing this of Charlotte, you have to look at the first two acts, you have to look at the size of the orchestra. There is almost no excuse in today’s world, because you can’t get on your computer without finding ten versions of an aria. It behooves you to either have the best advice, which is what I had, or get on there and say, “oh my gosh, the first two acts, Charlotte sings in the lower middle voice everything, and then the second two acts, boom, high.” The orchestra is a big orchestra at times, in that piece. So you got to know that; you have to have your coach or your voice teacher tell you “beware.” Sometimes I hear kids singing Verdi, and in my opinion until you are thirty you shouldn’t even touch it. Even the great big voices, they worry me the most, because once they are big, everybody wants to hear the big sound. So they push them to be bigger, and I think they should be singing Mozart, and learning to refine all their abilities. Bel canto is the best place to start, with anything.

    OL - There is also frequent discussion today about the impact visual and online media are having on singing careers. Some believe it’s led to an over-hyping of talent that hasn’t matured yet; others contend that it’s contributed to an overemphasis on singers’ physical appearance. What are your thoughts about this?

    FVS – Oh, I have to say, I’m all for TV, I really am. A great voice comes along, and you don’t care about anything, you want to hear that voice. There is no danger that a voice will be eliminated because of the size of the singer or the look of the singer. Now I must say, singers are more and more beautiful. Really, the young singers, the Adler Fellows, they could be models. But a voice like Caballé comes along, and you could have her playing Cherubino and I’d listen to it.

    OL – Yes, we see some bigger ladies like Leah Crocetto and Deborah Meade, and they are doing fine.

    FVS – Yes, yes, they are doing fine. I’m all for that. I don’t think it’s really affecting anything. Look at Luciano; Luciano was enormous, and had that big television career as he did. He was Luciano! I don’t think it’s a danger, and I applaud it. I think it brings opera to many more people than they would ever be able to go. I think Peter Gelb is doing an amazing job. I love the incorporation of all the new modern day projection techniques and everything. It’s fascinating, I’m all for it.

    OL – I see. Please walk us through the ins and outs of a master class. What can be accomplished in such occasions, and what are the limitations?

    FVS – For me a master class is a misnomer. I’m not a master; I’m still working at my voice. Maybe Isaac Stern is a master. Many of my singer colleagues are masters. I’ve always struggled with my technique. I’m always working, always have been. I think what happened to me is that I was almost rock-solid in my technique and my career took off, and then my teacher died. I was learning and singing, and I got into bad habits. So I had to go back and re-work. But it is hard to re-work when you are out there. So some things always eluded me.

    So with me, my master classes are not me impacting my brilliant information. I think they are opportunities for people to perform. They are a little unnatural. I think they should be done in here with all the singers participating, and not an audience. But they are also fascinating to an audience to hear different things. A, I think it’s an opportunity for the kids to perform. B, I can share my experience with them. I can say – “You do that for two more years, you lose your voice!” Which I’ve never said to anybody; I never had to, but I’ll say – “Look out for this part of your voice, slim it down there.” Or, on interpretation, “Make up your mind what this song is about. There’s no right or wrong answer, but be sure that you know what you are trying to say, because if you don’t and you are just thinking vocally, it gets very boring for the public.” And, “Then, explore all the variations of loud and soft, all the variations of fast and slow, of rhythm, and have them related to something concrete, not something vague; something very specific. If you can, paraphrase poetry and operatic words. In other words, put it in your own words. First of all translate all words. Don’t have, you know - ‘it means I went out the door and jumped up the window.’ With poetry sometimes it’s hard, but find a place where you are almost singing in your own language to an English speaking public, because that’s what you will remember; you won’t remember to take a deeper breath when you are out there. You’re hyped up, and what you hang on to are the ideas and the intentions. Intention, intention! What do you want to get, over there? Sometimes what you want to get across is – ‘This is hard but I am fantastic because I can do this.’ I mean, that’s what Rossini is about! And you can add to that – the basic bravado, you can add to the intention.”

    OL – Very nice answer!

    FVS – Yep!

    OL - What would be your most decisive advice to a young singer facing the realities and hardships of an operatic career these days, in this time of economic crisis?

    FVS – First of all, “Don’t get bogged down in it, in the realities and hardships, because you really don’t know.” I don’t know what is going to happen next week with the Sequester [Editor’s note – The agreement in the U.S. Congress to cut federal funding across the board for all federal programs], and chances are that music singers who are wrapped up in their careers, their voices aren’t going to know. One marvelous example was that I was introduced yesterday to this wonderful young conductor Tim Myers from this new company here [Editor’s note: Timothy Myers, artistic director and principal conductor of the North Carolina Opera], in that with such a limited budget you can put on these great productions, especially if you are going to do something like Aida which they are planning to do [Editor’s note – NC Opera is presenting semi-staged Aida on May 3rd and 5th, see announcement by clicking (here)]. So, you have to innovate, you have maybe to find a way of doing it semi-staged, of building platforms, using projections, but always having the essence: voice and orchestra and story. It’s a time when we have to innovate; we cannot fall back on “Yes, the Philadelphia Orchestra will last forever.” It didn’t. It won’t. The wonderful rich people who have made these things go on can’t do it anymore, so we have to find a reason to make it work. We have to bring it into our time. But more than ever, we need the intimacy of song and the intimacy of music and the connection that it gives to people.

    There is a wonderful quote from this incredible teacher who started the “El Sistema” in Venezuela, his name is [José Antonio] Abreu, and he gave a conference in Berkeley. He taught Gustavo Dudamel. He said, “For many, many people, the only source of human dignity for them is through music.” My uncle who came see me for this last couple of days just got back from Cuba, and he said “On every street corner people are making music.” What happened in the awful time of the Holocaust? There were these choirs started. Music is what takes out of the incredible grief and worry that we have today. It gives you those moments of relief.

    There is nothing that the young singes can do to plan about it. What can they do? They can’t raise the money, so why worry? Be joyful about your singing; you have this gift, take care of it, don’t be hard on yourself, and keep at it. The greatest singers are not always the ones that are rewarded.

    OL – Joyce DiDonato, I interviewed her too, she said – I’m paraphrasing, I don’t remember the exact quote, but something to the effect of “What we need to do is produce, sing, perform great opera, do it well, and that should take care of it.”

    FVS – Yes, that’s it!

    OL – And she said, “We should stop apologizing for our art form, and stop saying that we need to do this and that to attract the young audiences. They will come, if we present good opera to them, because opera is important and essential.”

    FVS – Yes, exactly.

    OL - What do you like most about working with young singers?

    FVS – I love hearing their voices, I really do! It’s not like I think back to how I was at that time. I can’t remember so well. But I just love hearing them, you know? I’m always amazed by the human voice. I love knowing what they have ahead of them, knowing the joy of singing.

    OL - Very early in your career, you attended master classes yourself with Maria Callas. Do you have memories of that event to share with us?

    OL – Oh, it was fantastic! Maria Callas gave these classes at Juilliard, and I was only able to get into one of them. The first thing she did, was that she turned her back to the public. She put her full attention on the singers and unlike the wonderful play by Terrence McNelly Master Class, she was nothing but supportive. A lot of what she said was about volume. I remember, someone did an aria from Madama Butterfly, and the pianist was just playing as loud as can be, and she asked “Why are you playing so loud?” He said, “I’m trying to give the idea of an orchestra with just one instrument” and she said “But look at what’s written. It’s pianissimo! You can’t make the sound of the orchestra. Make the sound of the piano, but it’s got to be soft!” I kind of remember just studying her, noticing how beautiful she was, and her wonderful hair; she was dressed beautifully. I think I was more taken with that [laughs] than with what she actually said!

    OL - At one time, you wanted to be on Broadway. Would portraying the diva in Master Class be something that would appeal to you?

    FVS – No, I could never do it. I’m not a large enough personality to do that. But I loved the play, and I consider Terrance McNelly our great American playwright. And he’s passionate about opera, and that’s clear. I always wanted to be on Broadway, but now I see how nice my life was without having to do a show every night and how I’ve been able to have a family and nights off, and I treasure them as much as all my singing experiences, so… I’m glad I didn’t do it, if I could have.

    OL - You not only conduct master classes for new operatic talent. You also work with the students at Saint Martin de Porres Elementary School in Oakland. You’ve taken some of the older children to opera rehearsals. Please elaborate on this – your goals and objectives, the children’s responses, etc.

    FVS – Oh, I was an educator at the Convent of the Sacred Heart, it’s sort of an order that is devoted to teaching. Not long ago I was at Catholic charity events and I met this marvelous nun named Sister Barbara Dawson, who was also a Sacred Heart nun. She was talking to me about music. She is the head of the school. She is an immigration lawyer but was asked to save the school. There are only sixty students; they didn’t want to have to close the school. So, she had been there for about five years then, and we got talking, and I said “I’d love to come and see if I can help you.” So I started some music program at school. It’s K through 8th. One campus is K through 5th, and the other is 6th through 8th. We started with singing, of course, and had a wonderful young girl who taught it, and the kids all loved it. At one point we took five of them to Washington, DC; they sang at Kennedy Center in honor of Senator Kennedy. We started a violin program, and so I just went and helped the teachers. I didn’t teach myself, but I got the violins out. When the kids had to leave to go places, I took them. I’m on the Board and still very much involved with the school. I’ve seen what it has done to some of these kids. We started four years ago with violins, so now we have 4th Grade Violin, and they are progressing. The people who are dumbfounded are the parents. Our children come from very low income families. They would never be able to afford private lessons. They can’t believe their kids can do this. For the children it gives them a great chance to perform and see everybody applaud them and have great affirmation. It gives them one-on-one training. So I just keep at it. We just hired a new violin teacher.

    OL – Are they kids who were already spotted as having inclinations and talent for classical music in a magnet school, or are they having their first encounter with it?

    FVS – It’s definitely their first encounter with it. It’s a regular school. They have never heard of anything having to do with classical music. And as for taking the kids to operas, I have taken them to four operas, one of them being Don Giovanni which is four and a half hours long. I took the older kids, the 8th graders. Not a single one of them has ever wanted to leave. They’ve been fascinated by it, as much by the mechanics of it, as the singing, as the opera house. Many of these kids have never been to an opera house, it just opens their eyes. We’ve had this conservatory come and do an opera in-house at the school for them, Hänsel und Gretel. This year the San Francisco Girls Chorus is coming to perform. We just take them to as much music as we can.

    OL – I’ve shown your Hänsel und Gretel DVD to kids…

    FVS – Oh! [laughs].

    OL – And I also had a nine-year-old at home and showed her Le Nozze di Figaro. She was fascinated. Her mother, a friend of ours, was taking the girl back home from school but lost her house key and got locked out, so she phoned her husband to rescue them; well, he is a doctor and was busy at the hospital so he said it would be a while. As it was a very hot day, she came to our house to wait for him. The kid looked bored and the mother asked if I had some cartoon on DVD to play on TV to distract her. Being that my own kids are grown, I said, “No, I have no cartoons, but I do have opera!” “Opera?” – the mother said, “that’s not going to work!” I said, “well, we’ll see.” So I fired up Le Nozze di Figaro and the kid was amazed, and glued to the screen. When her father arrived and wanted to take the family back home, the girl said “No way, I got to watch this ‘til the end!” They tried to drag her out and she resisted, pulled back, and they ended up having to let her watch the whole opera.

    FVS – Oh, that’s so exciting!! [laughs]

    OL – When you took the school kids to the opera, were these traditional productions, or were some of them updated or otherwise unusual stagings? Do you think they would be more interested in contemporary operas, or standard repertory works updated to the present time? Does it make a difference?

    FVS – I’ve done very traditional productions, and very, very modern ones. Unless they interfere with the actual process of singing, I’m all for innovation. I don’t mind it updated; I think if it works, it’s interesting.

    OL – Oh, I’m glad to learn that you feel this way, but I rather meant to ask about the Saint Martin de Porres kids when you took them to the opera, in terms of their reaction to different production styles. Do you think it is needed to update opera when we present them to the younger generation?

    FVS – No, I don’t think so. I mean, it would be like updating a painting. Are you going to update a Vermeer or a Michelangelo? No. If it’s part of it, great. There was a production – The Rake’s Progress – it’s a hard opera to understand, you are never totally sure of what is going on. There was a very modern production of it, done by the man who does the Cirque du Soleil, and it was fascinating, full of gimmicks, it was such fun, and the kids adored it. But that’s not what got them there. And it’s not what kept their interest, the whole time.

    OL - Later this month, you’ll be appearing in Saint Martin’s Gala. What’s on the program there?

    FVS – Oh, our Gala is a short little presentation. We are honoring a priest who is Irish, this year, so we are singing Irish songs.

    OL - There is concern, not only here in the States but also in Europe, that children no longer have the connection to music and singing that those in previous generations did. A few years ago, a group of well-known German opera singers made a recording of folksongs and lullabies just to preserve this material. Is there a need to preserve a similar repertory in America?

    FVS – It breaks my heart. It’s not just what you sing to them, it’s just that they sing. When I first became aware that children are not singing anymore was with my step-grandchildren who were in Kindergarten, and come Christmas time, none of them knew any Christmas carols! Well, to me that’s obscene! So I started going into their classes and teaching them Christmas carols, and doing programs in the public schools to try and get them to put music in there. Not every child is born with a scientific brain. There are those who are inventive. Everybody should sing. Singing is in our human nature. So is dancing. It doesn’t mean you have to be a dancer or a singer by profession, but we’ve taken this away from children. I bet that if there was an experiment and they put this back in the schools – it won’t happen, at least not in my lifetime – I bet it would be life altering for the nature of the schools. The school system is not working, clearly. Music helps; there’s been all sorts of studies. Music helps with Math, it helps with concentration.

    What children today do not have – both privileged and underprivileged children – is quiet, is silence. They do not know what silence is. The world is so loud! What do you learn from music? You learn music, but you learn silence. You learn the value of silence. You learn the value of control and discipline. And you see that what you can do on Monday you can do on Friday, as you work on it. Think of the lessons of that. Now we are getting more and more computers in school… I don’t know… why wasn’t this number one on the ballot? I do not understand. Because if you changed the education system in the United States, probably the prison system population would drop. Every problem we have, practically, is related to education: not being educated to be good citizens, not being just plain educated to get good jobs, it’s a real challenge. Our families at this little school are heroes and heroines, given what they’ve accomplished with what they have.

    OL – Absolutely. I loved your answer. Now, let’s move onto something else. The Baby Boom generation grew up hearing the great Broadway musicals of the ‘50s and ‘60s, and knew many of their songs. You’ve also included some musicals in your career. You’ve recorded Magnolia in Show Boat, Maria in The Sound of Music, and Claire in On the Town, to name some of your roles.

    FVS – Oh yes, I just love doing these, oh! [excitedly]. I grew up with this. The world was safe when I grew up, and I used to take the train from New Jersey to New York with my dear friend, when I was fourteen, and we’d buy standing passes to everything on Broadway. We’d go to a matinee and an evening show, and it was safe enough to take the train back home late at night. I saw everything. I saw Annie Get Your Gun with Ethel Merman. I never saw Julie Andrews. Ah, everybody. Elaine Stritch, so, that’s a musical I’ve been in love with most of my life. My idea of dying and going to Heaven is walking in a Broadway theater and hearing the overture. Just the sound of it, there’s something about it. I think it is the proximity to the smaller, intimate space. For me to get to do these things that I did, The Sound of Music which I’ve loved all my life, I grew up with [sings a song from it], it was just Heaven.

    My wonderful friend Kiri [Te Kanawa] is the one who really started it. She is the one who, with West Side Story, started the tradition of opera singers being able to sing this, because it is not easy. You don’t change your voice, but you sort of change the style a little bit.

    OL - You’ve also sung Hanna Glawari in The Merry Widow. The conductor Christian Thielemann recently observed that people don’t realize how difficult operetta is. How would you compare singing operetta roles to singing those in opera?

    FVS – I’m in love with The Merry Widow. I think it’s the most wonderful piece in the world. It has more genuine charm than almost anything. The orchestration, oh! [sighs]. The idea of it, the melodies… [sings a part of it]. The Merry Widow may be easier than some of the other ones. They are very hard. Just like in our own tradition, Gilbert and Sullivan operettas are very hard, very difficult to sing.

    OL – Why?

    FVS – It takes a certain style. These works have five thousand words; you have to keep great rhythm. Sometimes things are very wordy, you don’t really get to sing. You have to get that right balance between voice and song. It’s a challenge.

    OL - Contemporary operas have been an important part of your career. Jake Heggie composed the roles of Mrs. De Rocher in Dead Man Walking and Madeline in Three Decembers for you. You’re scheduled to perform in the world premiere of his latest opera, Great Scott, in Dallas in 2015. Can you please tell us about that?

    FVS – Oh, I’m so lucky in my association with Jake Heggie! He’s been one of the treasuries of my life. He is as great a talent as a great human being. To do this part in Dead Man Walking was fantastic; also in Three Decembers. He is writing this new piece for Joyce, Great Scott, and he very sweetly asked me to play the Benefactor in it. I said, “of course” and I’m really excited about that.

    OL - Before then, you’ll be starring in the world premiere of Ricky Ian Gordon’s new opera, A Coffin in Egypt, next year in Houston, and I’m even more excited about it. I understand this opera has only one character, Myrtle. Tell us more about it.

    FVS – It’s very interesting. It’s based on a Horton Foote play. I’m still learning my way through it, not just learning the piece but learning what’s going on, really. I’ve read a lot of Horton Foote in preparation, trying to understand. My impression is that he is a very precise person, in trying to be very precise about an event and what one’s memory is of an event, and how one’s memory of it can form one’s character and one’s own life. Fundamentally, it’s about a woman who is reflecting on her life. She had a very unhappy marriage to a man who from the beginning had a mistress, a mulato mistress, and flaunted it. She was terribly embarrassed by it, and at one point couldn’t stand it, so she took her daughters to Europe, to live all over Europe. She was very beautiful as a young woman, and people fell in love with her in every continent. She took her daughters with her, and they took ballet lessons and lived the European life, then for some reason she comes back, and by then his mistress has gotten sort of fattened, and then he was going after some young girl, and everything had changed when she went back. She had loved going riding on the prairie and there was no more of that. Her husband was home a lot of the time. Eventually the father of the girl he was having an affair with wanted to kill them and they had a fight, and the father was killed. In the opera, everybody is dead when she is sitting on her porch reflecting upon all of this. She says – “I’m still poisoned by it.” It’s a study in her character and her reflection. This is what she saw, and it is filtered all through these beautiful negro spirituals that have soothed her.

    I don’t even know whether I like her, of whether she is just a woman who let bitterness overtake her life. It’s a real exploration for me. There is no other singing, so I’m a little nervous about that. There will be actors, and there is a lot of dialogue.

    OL - Does this type of work place a greater burden on the singer, who has to carry the whole show?

    FVS – Yes. I’m nervous about it, to tell you the truth. But I just said “Yes.” Oh, yes, it will be different. But I also have a lot of time to prepare. It’s with one of the finest directors of all time, who also wrote the libretto, Leonard Foglia, so that makes a big difference.

    OL – I’ll be sure to attend it. It will show at the Academy of Music in Philadelphia, right?

    FVS – Yes!

    OL – I’ll be there!


    FVS – Great!

    OL - We are thrilled that you are performing in new American opera. We believe that our country, in spite of the economic crisis, has been relatively more active in terms of advancing the art form, than our European friends who created the art form but seem relatively – with exceptions – stagnant in terms of new opera. Do you see an American style of opera developing, these days?

    FVS – Oh, I definitely see an American style, and I think it’s because we have some great American composers right now, really great. Ricky [Ian Gordon], Jake [Heggie]… to have the success he’s had is unheard of. Dead Man Walking is always being given in some part of the world. Continuously, it’s had ten new productions, it’s incredible. Moby Dick is harder to produce, but it’s had a triumph. Three Decembers has been done all over. He has commissions. Ricky Ian Gordon has done amazing things. He’s just debuted another piece. I just think it’s a very, very exciting time. And I think our public wants it. They love the traditional operas – who cannot love Bohème? But they also… it’s the pleasure of hearing your own language, in the American idiom, too. It’s very exciting, and they address very interesting subjects. In Dead Man Walking, it was approaching an extremely important part of American culture or lack thereof, to examine the prison system. So to do it through music was incredible. When we first opened, there were people who walked out. And then we had to give an extra performance because it was so popular.

    As many people were pro the death penalty as were against it – there are two sides to everything. If you know nothing but brutality your whole life, it becomes your life. And that is where the mistake is. You can’t just remove people. You have to remove what is making them that way, and that’s what we are not doing.

    OL – I just saw Kevin Puts’ new opera Silent Night. It was very beautiful.

    FVS – Yes, that’s fantastic. It’s having a big success.

    OL – And it’s his first one. I’m excited that he is doing next The Manchurian Candidate.

    FVS – Yes, me too! Back to why this piece A Coffin in Egypt will be so challenging, is because there is a retroactive story, but it is as much about character – the character of this woman – as it is about what happened to her. Sometimes that’s a cerebral idea, an intellectual idea. Not always the opera tells a linear story.

    OL – And she doesn’t seem someone you can identify with, because you are quite the opposite person!

    FVS – [Laughs] Yes, yes! But it’s always fun to explore.

    OL - On a different subject, you’ve made more than 70 recordings and won numerous awards for them. Do you ever listen to your own recordings? Among all of your recordings, which were your personal favorites, or which do you consider to have been the best?

    FVS – No, I never listen to my recordings. The only one I listen to is one I made of Brubeck songs with Dave and his son Chris, and it’s mainly because my daughter is in it. She was seventeen. I love that recording, I love Dave Brubeck and I love his son Chris, so it brings back a lot of happy memories, but no, I never listen to them.

    OL – But anyway, even if you don’t listen to them, which ones are your favorites?

    FVS – I have listened to them over the years, but only when I had to. The only one I feel [hesitates, searches for the word] proud of, was a recording I did of Mahler’s Fourth, with Abbado. I had the opportunity to sing it many times with him in concert, and I loved it so much! I love this concept of Heaven that Mahler gives – having asparagus, and Sicilia, and baking the bread, it meant so much to me, being a Catholic. The words have great meaning to me. I love the symphony. It was very carefully done. Anything you do with Claudio has a very special quality about it. He is very true to what he believes, and he works very hard to get it out of an orchestra, and that was the Vienna Philharmonic, so that, I am proud of!

    OL - I particularly love your Cenerentola film directed by Ponelle. Do you have memories of that production to share with us?

    FVS – Oh, I loved making that. I loved Jean-Pierre Ponelle, he was one of the greatest directors of all time. A task master with more taste than any man I’ve ever known. Chic! Costumes, sets, everything… he is a genius. To work with him, you work hard, and you are very satisfied at the end of the day, you really feel you’ve accomplished something. We filmed it in an old factory in Vienna, and created the sets. I had my girls with me. It took forever. It took a long time to do everything. But I loved the production so much, and I loved all our cast. It was fun; I had never done anything like that. Someone like Jean-Pierre, you put your total faith in him. You just know that you don’t have to make any of the artistic decisions because you’re being looked after.

    OL – That’s another DVD I’ve used to introduce opera to “non-believers” sometimes.

    FVS – Yes! [laughs] It’s such a sweet opera too; it’s such a sweet take on the Cinderella story!

    OL - In late April, you’re traveling to Austria for a salute to Vienna recording. That sounds like a wonderful event. Can you please tell us about the activities there in which you will be participating?

    FVS – They are preparing a New Years Eve concert and filming it, I’m just the hostess. I’m in to sing the Vilja Song, and I’m already nervous about it. It will be fun to be in Vienna. It’s going to be with the Vienna Choir Boys.

    OL - I must say that we were terribly saddened to learn of the recent death of mezzo soprano Zheng Cao. We know you were tremendously supportive to her in both her singing career and her battle against cancer.

    FVS – Oh, my Goodness, I know… She was… A person like this girl comes along once in a century. First of all, one of the most exquisite voices I’ve ever heard. The very reason it was so exquisite was – beyond her vocal chords – that everything she ever did, even in rehearsals, was connected to her heart and her soul. And she as a person was one of the most expressive people I’ve ever known, and hysterically funny. Very direct, very outgoing, very appreciative. I mean, it was amazing. And all through her illness, we went over to see her a lot, and she always had a big smile. She was in a constant struggle to stay alive, and she married this wonderful man who was her doctor, David Larson. The reason she saved her voice was because she didn’t have full brain radiation, she had what is called gamma knife radiation, and that’s why she could still sing. I saw her the week before she died, and then I was away. Her voice was still there. And she was starting to be in a lot of pain. I thank her with all my heart for working so hard to stay alive for all of us, because we loved her so much.

    A group of her friends and family are giving a memorial service for her in June, and we went through all the venues in San Francisco, and the only one big enough is the opera house. And David Gockley [SFO general director] is giving us the opera house on an afternoon when it’s closed, and I can bet you it’s going to be filled. An extraordinary girl!

    OL – Is there something being done, like a recording, to celebrate her memory?


    FVS – There are a couple of things. There is going to be a new song cycle written by Amy Tan and Stewart Wallace who did the piece that she was singing when she found out she was sick, called The Bonesetter’s Daughter. When she was still feeling well, a group of us got together and established an endowment in her name for either a Pacific Rim singer or a mezzo-soprano, so when one of the kids becomes an Adler Fellow or a student in the Merola Program, their trainee program will be underwritten in her name.

    OL – Nice. Did opera make you grow as a person, psychologically speaking?


    FVS – [Laughs] I guess. Everything makes you grow, that happens to you in life. I’d say, it certainly gave me a running-over cup of satisfaction and joy; very hard times as well. I didn’t have to leave my children as often as one would imagine because I took them with me a lot, but every time I went away, I couldn’t even look at the date coming up because it upset me so much.

    I’m sure opera does make you grow. You learn to do a lot, because opera is not only singing, it’s a lot more than that. First of all, learning a new piece, doing photo sections, speaking, it’s a lot of things, dinners… it’s busy. Then if you are managing a family as well, it’s double busy.

    OL - What roles had the most psychological impact in your person, and why?

    FVS – I would say Dead Man Walking, because I played a woman who suffered probably the greatest thing that any mother can suffer – have their child die. And, in addition, to feel responsible, because of having failed him. Her reason for failing him was the abject power of poverty. So, I was able to look at some of the decisions I made for my life, for my kids, that weren’t the best for them, and explore that through this character, and it was really hard, really hard and very powerful. The other one to a certain extent is Mélisande.

    OL – I was about to suggest that.

    FVS – Yes, because with Mélisande, it is very hard to find the key. She is not this, and she is not that. She is not all one thing. The best way I can describe her, really, is that she is young, and she’s been abused – that’s what we learn about her. And that’s a very special circumstance – the youth, and then the abuse – because that makes kids operate a certain way. That’s what I think she is. And I believe everything she says, because any of her lies which are proven to be lies in the opera are lies of necessity. That’s how kids deal with trauma in their lives, they lie about it. They have an alcoholic mother at home, they don’t tell anybody, they say “My Mom couldn’t make it because she is sick.” They learn to lie, so you have to believe them for that, because of their purpose and their intent.

    I don’t think she has any bad intentions. She is young enough to not see some of the consequences of what she might do. It’s actually very beautifully written, because she really doesn’t say much. [sings] “Non… oui… je ne sais pas… peut-être…” And all these people are going on and on and on about it. Pélleas, it’s also youth, it’s that rushed blahblahblah of youth, and it’s almost like all these people want to impose themselves on her and form her to be what they want her to be, and she is just who she is, which is a young, damaged girl.

    OL – And such a death scene! I think it’s one of the two best in all of the opera, the other one being in War and Peace.

    FVS – I know. I agree with you. Very beautiful.

    OL – And probably very impactful to do on stage.

    FVS – It is! The fun part of it is, when you are rehearsing it for hours and hours and it’s after lunch, you are going to have a little snooze when you are lying there [laughs].

    OL - Do you plan on publishing your memoirs? Or writing a libretto? Or doing something else to preserve your legacy (which is of course already preserved in your recordings – but I mean, beyond that or in addition to that)?

    FVS – No, I do not plan on publishing my memoirs. To preserve it, I’m doing something for the Cal library [University of California Berkeley], ongoing interviews, just memories. I don’t really have many mementos from my career. I just haven’t preserved letters. Now I wish I had, but I didn’t. Anything I do have I will give to the library at BU [Boston University]. I’m not going to do my memoirs. The closer I’d come, is that I’d love to write a children’s book. Some kind of a silly children’s book, maybe about opera, maybe involving my dog who I love.

    OL – I interviewed Sylvia Sass in Budapest, and she is writing the libretto for an opera called Callas, about Maria Callas.

    FVS – Fabulous!

    OL – And she wrote three books, and they are beautiful books.

    FVS – Fantastic!

    OL – And I think your career is just as great, I think you should!

    FVS – Maybe I’ll change my mind in the years to come.

    OL - How are you as a person? I suspect, from your recital, that you are energetic, funny, passionate… But tell me more.

    FVS – Yes. [laughs] But I also… there is a deep part of my soul that is very sad. I felt I was born into sadness, because my poor mother, my father was killed in April before I was born in June, it was just a very sad world I came into, because she was so devastated, losing her husband, and her father died shortly thereafter. To give birth to a child without your spouse, it was very, very hard. So, there is a ddep core of sadness inside me. I got to explore it through opera. Because I was brought up so strictly in the Catholic faith, I truly believe in the opposite of joy which is sorrow, and I believe in them both. You can’t always control the biggest element in your life. They are both there so you might as well get used to it. You are not going to live a life that is free of sorrow and pain.

    OL – But you are also very funny. I laughed so much during your recital yesterday!

    FVS – [laughs] Well, I have a heritage of humor from this favorite uncle, Freddie, and I suspect my father was a lot like him. He is the funniest man in the world. All my family, they are eight children, and I’ve been pretty close to them my whole life; I love my aunts and uncles. There are only three left now, but I loved every one of them in a different way. To raise eight children who were pretty balanced and copacetic, is kind of a victory for my grandparents. I loved my grandmother, I worshipped my grandfather. I used to follow him around like a dog. He wouldn’t speak much. If he got up, I’d get up, if he went out the door, I’d go out the door, I just adored him.

    OL - Besides your daughters, granddaughters, and your students at St. Martin de Porres, what do you care about or like to do outside of classical singing?

    FVS – Oh, what do I care about? [laughs] I love doing things with my husband. I love actually fixing things. He can do anything, he is very gifted. I love working on a project, painting or building. We are doing a little bit of that now. He is a great sailor, and I love just being with him when he is sailing, because he is just so happy, he just feels like he is true to himself when the wind is blowing and he is on the sea! I have five step-grandchildren and I love being with them as well. This grandparenting thing is the best thing that has ever happened to me, because I feel that I’m getting back some of the time that I missed with my kids. And to see your child being a parent is amazing. I thank the Lord that I am getting to see this, and see how she is doing it, what choices she makes, what she insists upon, how she structures their lives.

    OL – I envy you. My daughter and her husband don’t want children. They gave a cat, so now I have a grandcat.

    FVS – A grandcat! [laughs hard].

    OL – I do have a son, he is still young to be a father, but maybe, in a few years.

    FVS – Yes…

    OL - If you arrive at a point when you can’t sing anymore due to the natural aging process, will it be a big psychological blow?

    FVS – No, I don’t think so. I feel age in my voice right now, but I’m determined to find my way through it. My teacher, Mr. Sebastian Engelbert, he used to sing every day until he was eighty-four. I mean, he wouldn’t go on the Met stage. I won’t do anything that isn’t age appropriate anymore. The woman I’m playing in A Coffin in Egypt is ninety; I think I can pull that off… [laughs]. You can’t expect more than that of a singer my age; I don’t think anybody would expect that of you. But I don’t see a reason to stop. We’ve used our throats more than anybody else, so like if you exercise, those muscles will stay in shape. I haven’t sang a lot for the last six months, I have a lot of work to do to get that sound [sings a bit] out of it. Because if you don’t use it, you lose it. Just like when you haven’t exercised in a lot and you go do a sit-up and you think your body is going to break in two. And then, five days later, it’s not that bad. And that’s what it takes. It just takes different exercises, maybe some adjustments and different repertoire. Mister E [?] sang until he was eighty.

    OL – I was pleasantly surprised yesterday in your recital. You still got it!


    FVS – Yes! [laughs] My friend Kiri is singing all over the place. We both know we are old, and we don’t try to do the things that we can’t, but there is a lot of music out there that is possible. Tony Bennett is an inspiration too. You just have to keep working. You can’t expect that you don’t have to work.

    OL - Who are some of the current singers that you admire, today?


    FVS – Oh, there are so many I admire, there are so many wonderful tenors now… Joyce [DiDonato] and Susan Graham are top of my list because I love them both and admire so much what they do and how they sing. I’ll always love Plácido until the day I die. I love Anna Netrebko, love her! She is the most passionate, generous singer with this personality that just butts you on the head, I just adore her, I adore everything I’ve ever heard her do.

    OL – I interviewed her, and I think it was one of my weakest interviews because I was as star-struck as you were with Maria Callas… So I wasn’t very articulate in my interview with her because I was so fascinated!

    FVS – She is very funny, and very articulate, and very kind. She is just larger than life, and totally natural. She throws herself into everything. Joyce does the same, as you know.

    OL – Yes, absolutely. I love those two. And what about the tenors?

    FVS – The tenors, I love Piotr Beczala, I just love his voice, and I love him as a person. I love Stephen Costello, young tenor. I love Matthew Polenzani.

    OL – I love him two. I interviewed him twice and met him three times, and we’ve exchanged some email, he is such a nice person!

    FVS – Oh, I love his singing. He has such a heart! Some of the others, I’m not all up on it; you’d be amazed at how often I do not go to the opera. When you start the grandparenting thing, if you are on duty, you are really on duty and it’s hard work when you are taking care of little kids. That’s why I’m not an expert in opera. If I didn’t sing in it, I was going home and was not going to go to the opera, which is a shame, to a certain extent.

    OL - What about historical singers, who are your favorites?

    FVS – Oh, I just love them all. [Teresa] Berganza, I adore. Janet Baker, almost top of the list. Luciano, that’s who I listen to all the time, Luciano and Plácido. Kiri, I adore. She’s my generation, though. De Los Angeles broke my heart every time I heard her sing – talk about true, really true singing! I sang at the Met with some amazing, amazing voices! I loved Corelli. I loved Nicolai Gedda, very funny man. I sang one thing with Birgit, who cannot love her and be amazed by her? Pilar Lorengar was one of my absolute favorites. Just so many…

    OL – Do you feel that singing was better before, than it is now?

    FVS – I don’t think so. I think we have some great voices, now. I think the aura around singers was different, then. The world of singing was a bit more amenable to a life. Singers stayed in one place longer, they didn’t get into a jet plane the next day, so that they could have a life more easily. But that already started in my generation, it was hard to be in one place. The world was different. I think a Maria Callas comes once in a lifetime, really. People are still talking about her today. I think Anna [Netrebko] comes very close to that type of a personality, that commitment to singing, that commitment to her work, that bravado, that exquisite voice. I never like to say Maria Callas around another voice because I don’t think anybody should be put in that position, but I think she comes very close to it. Renée Fleming is one of my most favorite singers in the world.

    OL - What was the most difficult role you’ve ever performed in your career, and why?

    FVS – I did one run of der Komponist [Ariadne auf Naxos] in Hamburg and decided on the spot that my voice wasn’t right for it. I didn’t have that thrust that it takes at the end to do it, that part [sings a bit of it]. I could do Octavian in the right circumstances, but just knew that it wasn’t right.

    OL – About longevity of career, we’ve talked about how admirable it is that you are still creating new roles and you continue to perform opera on stage. Any advice for singers willing to also have long careers?

    FVS – A couple of things, which I have violated, but I can talk about them. Never drive it, never push on it. Thank it every day for what it does for you. I always tell a story – I’ll probably mention it today in the master class – there was a wonderful guy at Glyndebourne named Yanni [?], he’s Hungarian [Editor’s note – we’ll need clarification; Yanni is a Greek pianist, we aren’t sure of the spelling of the name Ms. von Stade referred to], he had a drawing of some poodles by his piano, and I asked, “Yanni, why do you have this picture here?” and he said [she reproduces a heavy accent], “My darling, that is your voice. If you are good to your poodles they will do tricks for you, if you are bad to them, they will bite you!”

    OL – [laughs]

    FVS – Really, it takes something like, “don’t get mad, if you can’t do something, keep at it, you don’t get instant reward with the voice. You can work on coloratura for three months, and still not get what you want, but six months later it will be there. Never underestimate the value of work. Don’t wear yourself out, though.”

    I really love doing songs with different pianists, because you get a new take on it. Someone might go faster, someone might rush here, and it is fun to get those new ideas. You can disagree with them if you want, but try them, see if fit.

    OL - Of the honors you’ve been granted – the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres in France, Honorary Doctorate from Cleveland Institute of Music, the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, etc. – which one is most dear to your heart?

    FVS – Oh, I’m always thrilled with the doctorates. I just basically go there thinking – “Are they nuts?” [laughs] So, that’s how I feel about them. What I’m always thrilled by is that they’re presented at a graduation, almost always, and I feel the energy of the young people, of what they have done to get there. The most moving for me, was when I got an Honorary Doctorate from Georgetown University Medical School; it was one of the first ones I got. The graduation was at the Kennedy Center, and of course since it was a medical school and they study for so long, there were a lot of children there, and wives and husbands, and every girl that walked across the stage I thought “that could be my daughter” who gave her life’s blood to graduate and become a doctor, so I was very emotional about it. That’s the part of it that just thrills me.

    OL - Looking back at your career, any regrets? What would you have done differently?


    FVS – No, I don’t have any regrets. I don’t regret the bad times. Well, maybe one thing. I still don’t work as hard. I wish I had worked harder. The best part of my life, without a doubt, has been my family, and I have often chosen that over spending three hours working on my voice. I do regret that. I should have worked harder.

    OL – I think you are too humble. You are great!


    FVS – No, but it’s very hard for singers to confront their voices. Because you are sort of confronting something that is imperfect about yourself, and they will do anything to avoid it, sometimes. And the only way you are going to improve it, is to confront it, and say, “I need to do this,” and what’s so bad about that? Pianists lose their fingering, so…

    OL – Thank you for a lovely interview!


    FVS – Oh, my pleasure, thank you!

    -----------

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    Comments 5 Comments
    1. Jephtha's Avatar
      Jephtha -
      Thank you, Alma for this wonderful interview! Miss von Stade seems like a truly lovely person. I was especially struck by the passage where she said she felt she was born into sadness. Her voice has always had a melancholy quality to it, to my ear, and it was fascinating to learn that this may have had a real-life basis. She is truly a force for good.
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      She is an angel!
      You should see how sweet she was with the young singers during her master class.
      What a classy and nice lady!
    1. MAuer's Avatar
      MAuer -
      Wiw, this is great!! None of the opera publications I read (four of them) ever publish such in-depth interviews.
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      And you're an instrumental part of it all, MAuer!
    1. Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva)'s Avatar
      Luiz Gazzola (Almaviva) -
      This is a review of her performance in the new opera A Coffin in Egypt:

      [click here]


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