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Oh, the Life of the Diva : 20 years since her debut, Frederica von Stade finds herself at the peak--and a crossroads in her career

Backstage in the chill of a cavernous concert hall here, opera star Frederica von Stade suddenly burst into song.

Alone in her dressing room this Valentine’s Day night, she was singing--not for anyone but herself.

She had just finished a two-hour recital before an audience of 2,400, singing in Italian the songs of Respighi, Puccini and Pizzetti, plus a Mozart aria; in French, works by Messiaen, Satie and Honegger, and in German some Schubert Lieder and Schonberg Brettl-Lieder or cabaret songs.

Now changing out of her off-the-shoulder flamingo-colored ball gown, the world-famous American mezzo-soprano rang out exuberantly: “Fish got to swim and birds got to fly , I got to love one man till I die ... .”

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After “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man” from “Show Boat,” Von Stade--known as “Flicka” to childhood friends from posh Far Hills, N.J., and to just about everyone else--sailed into the tuneful “Jenny Rebecca,” the song of a mother to her 4-day-old daughter asking how she likes the world so far.

By this time a score of fans, who had gathered to bestow congratulations and offer programs for autographs, were shaking their heads in amazement at the private concert.

It was the last stop on this lap of Von Stade’s (pronounced Von Stah- deh) winter-season tour that was scheduled to crest at Carnegie Hall on Feb. 25. Tuesday night, she sings much of the same program plus some American art songs at Ambassador Auditorium in Pasadena. Then she’s off once more to Europe to sing with the Vienna Staatsoper and record with Leonard Bernstein.

Wearing a grin as broad as sunshine, an elegant white silk blouse, knee-length black skirt and sheer black stockings that show off long designer legs, Von Stade emerged, lean and tawny-haired, looking more like a member of the Junior League than a diva. She spoke only about the second song, noting that “Jenny Rebecca” was “written by a girl named Carol Hall” who also wrote the songs for “Best Little Whorehouse in Texas.”

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“My Jenny’s named after the song,” she said to the crowd about her older daughter, who is 12. “She actually started to come while I was recording it. Right from the recording studio to the hospital. She heard her name and figured she’d better come out.”

On the road she talks about Jenny and 9-year-old Lisa, who are fans of Milli Vanilli, every chance she gets. They weave in and out of her conversation like persistent melody. It seems to bring them closer. “They’re just so funny, so hysterically funny,” she says. “It’s like eating peanuts. You can’t get enough of them.

“My Jenny has a really beautiful voice, and very musical, and Lisa can sing anything and dances up a storm . . . .”

At 44, Von Stade has a lot to sing about professionally--and personally.

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In the 20 years since her Metropolitan Opera debut, after she was plucked out of the Met auditions and given a contract when she was barely out of the conservatory, Von Stade has become one of the world’s leading lyric mezzos. In her repertory, dominated by Rossini, Strauss and Monteverdi, in playing the adolescent boys such as Cherubino in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro” (which she sang in Los Angeles in January) or Hansel in Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel” as well as in certain French opera such as Massenet’s “Cherubin,” Von Stade has few peers.

Dominick Argento, the Pulitzer-winning composer who wrote “The Aspern Papers” based on the Henry James novella with a central role specifically for Von Stade, recalled a dinner party several years ago at his home in Minneapolis. It was attended by Dame Janet Baker, who was talking of retiring. When someone said, “Janet, when you quit, there goes the greatest mezzo of our time,” Argento said Baker responded, “ ‘Well, there’s Frederica Von Stade . . . .’ ”

Today, Von Stade is probably at the peak of her career, but she’s also at a crossroads.

She’s garnering glowing reviews for her acting as well as her singing, and earning more than $500,000 a year. But she is so in demand that she worries she does not have enough time at home on Long Island with her daughters. While she has “a wonderful housekeeper--our guardian angel, we call her"--she does not want to be away while they are “on the brink of adolescence. And I feel it’s pretty important to be really around and really available. I could sing three times as much in Europe, but I don’t like being across the sea.”

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She recognizes the consequences. “If you stop singing as much maybe you stop being asked as much. There’s a risk that you take.”

How long she will sing is another question. Over a year ago she suggested in an interview that she has “enough good counsel” around her that when someone says, “ ‘Flicka, your performance is embarrassing. Please go home and dig in your garden,’ ” she’ll know it’s time.

“My career goals are changing,” she said in Charlotte. “I thought I was going to sing maybe five, six more years. Now what I want to do is cut way back and sing 10 more years. I want to be well and raring to go every time I sing. I want to be in tiptop form ready to go to a party nearly every time I sing . . . . I’ve had so much joy from career, I want to give it back joyfully.”

Of course flying all over the place and singing takes its toll. Last Sunday morning she canceled her Carnegie Hall date that night because of the flu. “She was tired and had a head cold that went into her chest,” said her brother Charles von Stade. “She has been singing sick for a couple of months and it finally just got to her.” Four weeks ago she was forced to cancel in Kansas City and Wheaton, Ill. for the same reason.

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Meanwhile she has begun a second career singing Broadway music much like her friend, opera star Kiri Te Kanawa, who began the current trend of classical vocalists doing more popular work. Among nearly 40 albums, Von Stade performs the role of the young Magnolia in the highly successful complete recording of the original version of “Show Boat” (1988). She’s Maria in “The Sound of Music” and the ingenue Hope Harcourt in Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” (both recorded in 1989). There’s also a spinoff single disc of “Show Boat” highlights.”

Yet Von Stade, who says she loves “singing in my own language . . . it’s my idiom, it’s me,” nevertheless does not want to let crossover take over. “I don’t want to stop growing, but I don’t want to reach, stretch to the point where it hurts me.”

Next month she combines both aspects of her music in a “Live From Lincoln Center” production on PBS of “Flicka and Friends: From Rossini to ‘Show Boat’ ” with tenor Jerry Hadley and bass Samuel Ramey. Later in the year CBS Masterworks and Angel/EMI will release separate albums of Von Stade singing Rodgers and Hart.

And in her personal life, after some mid-life turmoil, she has come to terms with ambition--"women (weren’t supposed to) have it; convent (trained) girls especially don’t have it"--and the fact that she is a single woman.

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Although Von Stade began with the Metropolitan Opera, she primarily sang secondary roles. She didn’t win international recognition until April, 1973, when she sang Cherubino in a glittering “Figaro” production--it was staged at the court theater of Versailles--with Paris Opera. “As a result of that I made my debut in almost every European house,” she said. And she came home a star.

In Paris that April, she also married Peter Elkus, a bass-baritone whom she had met at the Mannes College of Music in New York.

Despite the acclaim, Von Stade is no prima donna. She invariably flies coach, styles her own hair for concert appearances with heated curlers, carries a typewriter for doing correspondence and, when in the West, sets the alarm for 4 a.m. so she can catch her daughters before they go to school. With impeccable boarding-school manners, she is also refreshingly down-home. About to be driven with pianist Martin Katz to a rehearsal before a recital in Spartanburg, S.C., she announces, “I just phoned home, and the cesspool backed up.”

Between concert nights in the Carolinas, she decides to take in a movie. She chooses “Stella.” In the nearly empty house in Charlotte, sneakers up on the chair in front of her, hands hugging her knees, she laughs with delight. It’s the scene where Bette Midler unhappily attends a recital of Schubert Lieder. Von Stade gets a kick out of the singer’s over-the-elbow white gloves and sequined gown, and particularly of Midler clutching her throat.

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She sees herself simply as “a performer with two children who likes to do aerobics.”

She may, but the morning after her recital, the Charlotte Observer’s Natalie Shelpuk decided, like a lot of her peers in Los Angeles, Chicago and Paris, that Von Stade is “first a dramatic actress and then an extraordinary singer . . . (with) incredible diction. Even if you didn’t know what she was singing you could hear each word slicing through the huge auditorium . . . she has a voice of such diamond purity that it takes your breath away.”

“I never have realized I had a great voice or a good voice,” Von Stade was saying curled up on the couch in her dressing room at the Music Center, during a dress rehearsal for “Figaro.” “I’ve always thought I had a not good voice, and even to this day I don’t think what my talent is about is my voice. I’m grateful to my voice, but I don’t have one of those drop-dead, knock-down-and-die voices.”

This night she was “bone tired,” and it showed in lines etched like rays around her eyes. Yet Von Stade has that kind of cool that allows her to conduct an interview in the middle of a rehearsal or performance, or to phone home during concert intermission.

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“My voice is now the servant of my expression,” Von Stade said. “I’m here to express myself, and I do it through my voice. . . . I’m not hung up on it. As a young singer you get very hung up on quality of voice. I’ve always had a pretty, a serviceable voice, but it wasn’t--I don’t know, like Kiri’s voice--that people go . . . .” She sounded a deep breath.

“It’s probably better than I’ve given it credit for,” Von Stade continued, “but it’s like looking at photographs of yourself. All you see is your mouth is crooked or your jaw is off and your ears stick out--whatever it is that you don’t like about your looks.”

And what doesn’t she like? “I want to look like Raquel Welch,” she replied playfully.

“Or Audrey Hepburn,” she said more seriously. “That’s how it is about your voice. You hear all the things you don’t like. But I work very hard not to do that now. The minute I come up and say, ‘My voice is da-da- da ' or it’s too this, or it’s too that, I think, ‘Wrong. It’s beautiful. It’s lovely. It’s luscious. It’s rich.’ ”

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The change from near-automatic self-deprecation started a few years back after “a series of events in my life. I got very sick. It was mainly a physical problem, kind of a personal problem. I had to do healing or I was going to have an operation. I did positive imaging and I read a lot of books, and I also at that point became single. And that’s a major thing. You know,” she said slowly, “I’m single.”

In the clubby world of opera, the word is relatively recent that she and Elkus, who also had been her singing coach, have separated. “I’ve been single for almost five years,” she noted softly. “I’m not officially anything yet.”

Of course that’s a long time not to have followed through with the divorce. “This is awful, I don’t know if I should say it, but when I was last here (for “Cenerentola” in September, 1987), the Pope was here, and I was convinced the Pope was going to work a miracle (by his presence), but he didn’t.”

To bring them back together?

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“Yeah, I’m a good Catholic girl and I wanted to hold on as long as I felt it was necessary to hold on. But eventually you see that. You accept. It takes a lot of people a little longer to accept things, and I must have held on pretty strongly. And it’s not just because of my Catholicism, I think split families are awful for children, I really do. So you resist it, great resistance . . . .”

Part of her healing work comes from yoga. “One of the best classes I ever had” was during the run of “Cenerentola.” “It was in this old church, and the sun was coming through a window. And all (the instructor) did was teach us how to breathe. And then we did a couple of very simple stretches, and it was just this incredible feeling of tranquillity. What’s wonderful about yoga is there’s not a sense of achievement, it’s more a sense of acceptance. . . . The accomplishment is relaxation rather than drive.”

She also lost about 20 pounds--which she has kept off. “You want to know how I lost weight? I was alone,” she said. “Sorrow.”

Nine days later, in her dressing room on a performance night, Von Stade was more upbeat, her pale green-blue eyes bright.

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“I feel really good now,” she said. “I’m having the most fun I’ve ever had in my career. You know I really settled on the idea that singing is communication, and that’s why I’m here . . . . Also you’re so self-conscious when you’re in your 20s and 30s. You look to the world to see how you are. And then you hit 40, and you look to yourself to see how you are. And the first experience is heavy, but it becomes more and more wonderful. (I’m) more and more willing to take bigger risks, to add more gestures, take a step . . . .

“Maybe this is through a lot of work I’ve done on spiritual things,” she added, “and I worked with a counselor, I do yoga and I do meditation. I really believe that you can have it the way you want it . . . you can even in the most adverse circumstances make your life a great joy.

“Giving up pain and sorrow, it’s hard to do,” she said. “A lot of people don’t ever want to do it. They get attached to it, it’s familiar . . . . It doesn’t mean that I don’t feel pain anymore, but it isn’t the overriding thing by any means. Nor was it ever . . . .”

Self-examination was “jolting. You see how many times without actually lying you don’t tell the truth about yourself. You don’t say what you want. There are a lot of judgments we have, we shouldn’t want things. There are so many shoulds. And especially with my exceedingly wonderful Catholic upbringing, my whole life was a big should-be . . . .

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“I shouldn’t be ambitious. I should be meek and mild and I ain’t,” she explained.

Talking about ambition once more a few weeks later in Charlotte, she said that the bottled-up ambition had felt like “a fist down my throat . . . .”

“I think I was so turned off by my own ambition, I never acknowledged it,” she said. “I kept going for (a career), making the choices that I enter my name in the (Metropolitan Opera) competition. But I said, ‘Oh well, I don’t really care, and if it doesn’t go well, I’ll be a nurse.’ Meanwhile I cared heart and soul about music. Passionate about it. . . .”

Moments later she admitted that she still tends “to admire the good woman with five children. It’s OK that that’s not necessarily me, but I’m still drawn to it.”

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Her operatic career--"this marvelous forest of a career"--came as a surprise. Though she sang from the time she was a little girl, she wanted to be an actress--on Broadway.

“My heart is on Broadway,” Von Stade said. “I love Broadway. I was going to plays-- ‘Sound of Music’ and ‘Camelot,’ one great show after another. ‘Tovarich’ with Vivien Leigh. I saw the reprise of ‘Annie Get Your Gun’ with Ethel Merman. It was a hot time.”

Von Stade saw her first opera at 16 in Salzburg, Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.” “My mom took us on a trip around Europe, my brother and I. We were late because of the rain, so we missed the first act. I thought it was very strange indeed a girl playing a boy (Octavian), but I was sort of fascinated by it. I remember we went someplace afterwards to a restaurant. I saw it with (Elisabeth) Schwarzkopf, I saw her there and got her autograph.”

Von Stade’s background was patrician--a great grandfather had been a partner of J. P. Morgan--and touched by sadness.

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Born June 1, 1945 in New Jersey, she grew up without a father. Charles von Stade, a lieutenant, had been killed in Germany on April 10, four weeks before the war ended in Europe.

She was named for her maternal grandmother, Frederica Clucas, with whom she was very close, and nicknamed after one of her father’s ponies from the book “My Friend Flicka.”

“I loved my life growing up,” she says. “My mother was first widowed, then divorced, but I never really knew my stepfather. He never really lived with us. We lived in Greece, and then we moved back to Washington, D.C., and my mom worked for the government. She worked for the agency (the Central Intelligence Agency), kind of like a secretary. I went to parochial school and then to private Catholic school. Then she quit and moved back up to New Jersey where she came from, and I went to private school. And then I went away to a convent boarding school"--the Convent of the Sacred Heart at Noroton, Conn.--a school attended over the years by daughters of corporate heads, leaders of Latin American governments and assorted Kennedys.

Her mother, Sara von Stade, was “a real kind of Auntie Mame character,” Von Stade said. “She was petite, just tiny. As a young woman, she just knocked your socks off. Very dynamic, very smart, very funny, great sense of humor.” Her voice softened: “She had a problem with booze . . . . She was a great mom actually. She wasn’t easy, but she was worth it.”

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Her mother could be “a little bit unpredictable and very flamboyant” with moods that went up and down “but she adored us . . . . I always had the feeling, if I was any closer to her in mileage even as a grown woman, I knew her heart beat faster.”

She was a “latchkey kid” in Washington but summers at her grandmother’s house in Far Hills, N.J., were “idyllic.”

She remembers being “painfully shy” but singing and performing--" 'Flickie, get up and sing a song;’ ‘Flickie, get up at Christmas’ "--somehow helped. “Singing kind of covered it up a little bit,” she said.

Instead of going to college after her graduation in 1963 from Noroton, Von Stade went to Paris. Her paternal grandfather gave her the money. She worked as a nanny and perfected her French. “It (Paris) was my mom’s idea--learning a new language, getting the experience of being in another part of the world. It was very brave of her because we were very attached.”

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She came home and worked at Tiffany’s and did summer stock at Long Wharf Theatre in New Haven. “I used to drive up to New Haven to do this little off-Broadway show--I mean off- anything show. We did one at this old barn. I was driving five hours round trip to do 25 minutes of singing. Tell me that isn’t drive --literally.”

She took a course at Mannes around the corner from her Manhattan apartment to learn how to sight read music, and one course led to another. She worked as a secretarial temporary to help pay for her schooling. “I never even thought of getting into some place like Juilliard. I didn’t know names of composers or middle C or anything--total ignoramus. I only joined the opera program because you got a lot of credits for it.”

At Mannes, she came under the tutelage of the late Sebastian Engelberg, who urged her to compete in the Met auditions. “He had this wonderful perception of life. He had suffered a lot in the war, his whole family was killed . . . . He taught so much more than singing. He used to say, ‘Singing comes from the bottom of your heart.’ And, ‘Sing with the velvet . . . .’ ”

After 1991, which marks the 200th anniversary of Mozart’s death, and after doing Cherubino at the Met, in San Francisco and Chicago, Von Stade says she will probably stop playing the role of the adolescent page. “At a certain point decency encourages one to give it up,” she said with a laugh.

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Ironically, the Mozart aria she’s singing on her current tour, an aria she’s doing for the first time in public, belongs to the soprano role of Susanna, the young woman who marries Figaro. Is she auditioning for that, perhaps? She paused, “If someone asks, I’ll listen.”

And to some degree she’ll move in an entirely different direction. She’d love to do an album with Mandy Patinkin. “I’m a huge fan. Have you got his album?’ ” She wants to do a recording of “The King and I,” perhaps more. “Of any piece I could do on stage,” she adds, “that would be it. There’s no belting in it. It’s quasi-operatic . . . . Opera has enormous respect for the voice . . . the voice is so fragile.”

For someone who as a little girl pretended that the curlicued-iron bench at the end of her grandmother’s garden was her throne, Von Stade knows that in opera she has “the perfect profession--an extension of make-believe.” And she loves theaters. “Many times in ‘Figaro’ in L.A. I look out there, and maybe I’m backstage waiting, and I look up above at the things hanging and at the lights and all the stuff, I just love the place . . . .”

And yet she talks about “slowing down.” She is booked for a full 12 months this year and next, while 1992 is almost filled. “I really am committed to getting the stress out of my life,” she says, “not running around, taking every job that comes my way and missing my kids. I have been thinking for two years, ‘Why am I sitting in a hotel room?’ ”

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