Frederica von Stade and the Power of Music

Frederica von Stade

Opera star Frederica von Stade hosts the third season of KQED's co-productions with San Francisco Opera. This year's operas — The Magic Flute, Salome, Il Trittico and Otello air — Thursdays at 8pm, September 20–October 11, 2012.

The mezzo-soprano, known for her roles in Rossini's The Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola, has also performed a wide range of musicals, from Show Boat to The Sound of Music to A Little Night Music, and has appeared on numerous PBS specials. She spoke to On Q's editor about her career and her involvement in Bay Area youth music education programs.

You live in Alameda. What brought you to the Bay Area?
My husband, Mike. You can't take California boys out of California — I'm from New Jersey. I have a granddaughter who lives in Virginia, and I go back every month to see her, so I get my Eastern fix.

Listen to Frederica von Stade singing a hymn to Alameda on A Prairie Home Companion. Recorded January 16, 2010. (Song begins at 36:45.)

What appealed to you about hosting the KQED opera programs?
David's invitation. [David Gockley is San Francisco Opera's general director.] I have such a high regard for him. I'd probably do anything he asked me. We go back such a long way, and I've seen the magic he's created in Houston first and now here. He's put together incredible seasons, which in this economy is pretty much miraculous. I think these high-definition broadcasts open up this magic opera world to so many more people.

Have you seen that singers approach their performances differently if they're being filmed?
Well, of course, it helps if you are Anna Netrebko and you're gorgeous, but I haven't seen a great difference of technique. I think the challenge is for the producer. Deciding what shots to use. I think the work they do is brilliant. I just love sitting and being able to have popcorn while watching opera. That just seems so perfect. I'd take popcorn over champagne any day.

Can you pick a favorite opera house?
I would have to say the Met, because I started at the Met and I absolutely love it. I also feel great affection for San Francisco because I've done so much [here]. Another favorite is the Colon in Buenos Aires. It has this unbelievable public. We performed Pelias [in May 2012]. Nobody loves Pelias, except the people performing it, and they had to put on an extra performance. They had kids standing in the aisles for the whole show. There is a great passion for opera there.

Do you have a favorite opera?
Oh, Marriage of Figaro. Hands down. But, actually, other one would be Dead Man Walking because it had such an impact on the world of opera. It was a really an interesting experience for me to play the role of the mother and to be part of a topic and a world that is so much a part of the American idiom but very few people really know about.

What are your thoughts on changing staging of operas to have them, for example, set in the 21st century?
Oh, I'm all for it. Sometimes it doesn't work. I've seen productions where things have been set in a subway or a diner and they almost work. But as long as the process of singing is respected -- you're not hanging upside down or doing something on a trampoline -- I'm for it all. I think anything is worth trying. You know, some modern productions have had the best success here. Bonesetter's Daughter was terrific.

Is there an opera role that you'd like to sing?
You know, I'm often asked that and there's nothing I covet. I feel I've had better than I deserve. I think everyone, especially if you play boys all your life, would like to do the stabbing scene from Tosca just for the fun of it. But no, I feel fortunate. Well, maybe a tenor role! A tenor role would be fun.

Is there a particular role by another singer that you especially admire?
Oh, there are so many that I admire. I couldn't possibly fit them all in. I'm particularly thrilled with some of my young colleagues. Joyce Didonato and Suzy Graham — I'm picking mezzos — they just blow me away. They are both extraordinary artists — singers and actresses. In my day, my big heroine was Janet Baker. I just felt she could do no wrong. And among sopranos it would be Victoria de los Angeles. I just adored everything she did.

Tell me about your involvement in local arts education.
Everyone is affected positively by music. No matter what music you listen to. And for kids that have very little and have very complicated lives, it offers them even more.

I first worked for a number of years with a little place in Oakland called the Sophia Project. I went in and sang with the kids. Little kids. And I would volunteer there a lot. About seven or eight years ago, I met this marvelous nun at a charity event who told me she had no music program at her school in West Oakland — St. Martin de Porres. So I said, "I'll come over tomorrow."

QuoteAt St. Martin we have choir and violin. Violin, which was my idea, starts in kindergarten. Maybe that wasn't such a good idea — it is adorable for the eyes, but torture on the ears. But I have to say, we do have two or three kids who are pretty darn good. And when they hold an instrument as fragile as a violin and when that sound goes in their ear, something happens to them. It is a long time before anything sounds good on the violin. So if you can get them there, they see that if they just do it a little bit every day, they do improve.

So I find the teachers, and then I go in and help. I pass the violins out and try and discipline the children — although when I'm in charge, they're swinging from the chandeliers! I just love it. I wish I had more organizational skills though. What I do is very humble and helter-skelter. But it's got to be done. You have to go at it with the mindset that something is better than nothing. It doesn't take as much as people think.

Are you exploring ways to expose more young people to opera?
My experience is that most kids want a program where they do something. They don't just want to go and see it and sit and listen. They want to participate. And there are some great programs that do that — having the kids writing their own lyrics, for example. At our school, one of our piano teachers is going to help the kids write a piece and choreograph it. They love actually doing it.

Related: Opera television airdates and more "Opera on KQED"


Frederica von Stade photo credit: Wendy Goodfriend

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