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Arts’ Friend Flicka

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade has entered a new phase of life, moving, as she put it recently, “from stage to stage.”

She left it open, however, as to whether she was referring to concert stages or to the stages of life. But the more she spoke during a car phone interview while on the road near her home in Alameda, her voice crackling from static, the more it seemed she was talking about life.

“The cruelty of empty-nest syndrome!” she pronounced with almost operatic drama, noting that her two doted-on daughters recently moved out of the house.

“My husband and I go and look at their rooms that are empty and tidy for the first time in four or five years. . . . It’s strange, it’s strange,” said Von Stade, who sings four concerts in Costa Mesa this week. “You can’t call them every day.

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“You can’t irritate them the same way,” she added with a chuckle.

Seems to her it wasn’t that long ago she arrived for an opening night at the Concertgebouw in Amsterdam with spit-up on both shoulders and a banana in her pocket.

Yet it can seem a lifetime ago--though it’s only about a decade--that divorce from bass-baritone Peter Elkus shook this good Catholic girl’s world. It’s a period she still doesn’t spend much time talking about.

A sense of normalcy returned soon, however, with her marriage to businessman Mike Gorman. Her husband of nine years is a lot less directly involved with performance than was Elkus, the girls’ father and Von Stade’s singing coach.

“No, he’s a normal dude,” she said of Gorman, an avid sailor currently starting a bank near their home.

Von Stade--who’s become very involved with arts-education projects, the latest a concert by Oakland’s East Bay Symphony to benefit Alameda’s public schools--has big plans for Gorman’s bank.

“By the time it gets nice and profitable, I can hit him up for lots of donations to the arts,” she said.

On Monday, she helped raise money for Orange County music programs by appearing as featured speaker at a fund-raising luncheon in Irvine sponsored by the Pacific Symphony.

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The orchestra has the 53-year-old mezzo exceedingly busy this week, singing four concerts at the Orange County Performing Arts Center. Besides Monday’s luncheon, she’ll do a pair of classical concerts today and Thursday and a pair built around Broadway tunes Friday and Saturday.

Despite the vestiges of a cough, on Monday she proved irresistibly charming as she praised the orchestra’s programs for children: “The thought that a child could go through life without hearing a Mozart symphony, or even a Broadway musical, is heartbreaking.”

It’s still easy to see how she made a career out of playing maids and young boys such as Cherubino (in Mozart’s “Le Nozze di Figaro”) and Hansel (in Humperdinck’s “Hansel und Gretel.”)

For her classical concerts here, she’ll be the soloist in Cantaloube’s “Chants d’Auvergne” (Songs of the Auvergne) and Ravel’s “Sheherazade”; music director Carl St.Clair also leads the orchestra in Ravel’s “Alborado del Gracioso” and Brahms’ Symphony No. 2.

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Later this week, the American singer (who just happens to have a very European name) offers songs from Broadway musicals by Cole Porter, Jerome Kern, Lerner and Loewe, the Gershwins, and Rodgers & Hammerstein; Jack Everly conducts the pops concerts.

Don’t let the fact that Von Stade is one of the world’s great mezzo-sopranos mislead you. And never mind that a spectacular career that began with an audition at the Metropolitan Opera almost three decades ago continues with “The Merry Widow” at the Met next year.

Show tunes are Von Stade’s first love, Ethel Merman her first hero; Carol Burnett is her latest.

“Once you hear the brassy sound of a Broadway band, or a Broadway singer, you never get over it,” Von Stade said, adding humbly, “I don’t think it’s in me.”

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She heard that sound early on, growing up in New Jersey, where she fondly recalls summers spent with her grandmother in tony Far Hills. She also spent time in Greece and in Washington, where her mother worked as a secretary for the CIA.

It wasn’t until the age of 16 in Salzburg that Von Stade saw her first opera, Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” with Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. When she began formal music training, she had heard of Mozart but not Mahler or Rossini.

The nickname she’s gone by all her life, Flicka, comes from one of her father’s polo ponies. But she never knew her father, who was killed four weeks before the end of World War II, seven weeks before she was born.

All she knows of her father comes from relatives, friends and his letters. Richard Danielpour--by coincidence the Pacific Symphony’s new composer-in-residence--has based a song cycle, “Elegies,” on about 100 letters written to Von Stade’s mother during the war, a commission engineered by the Jacksonville Symphony. The Jacksonville Symphony, which commissioned “Elegies,” gave the premiere in January and Von Stade has just recorded the cycle for Sony Classical; she’ll sing it in Washington, D.C., next summer.

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Von Stade never knew her stepfather very well, either. He was in the foreign service; she was 4 or 5 when he and her mother divorced. She later attended an exclusive convent boarding school, then went off to France after graduation.

Can early stints as nanny and barkeep in Paris affect performances of Ravel and Cantaloube three decades later?

“Oh, definitely, definitely,” Von Stade said. “The most extraordinary part of my year in France was to become at home with the language, if not exactly to be bilingual, to achieve a certain fluency.

“When you get to that stage in another language, it’s a revelation. It makes you appreciate not just the language, but the food, the architecture, the people. At this stage of my life, when singing French music I have a certain instinctual knowledge that is invaluable.”

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Von Stade’s eldest daughter, Jenny, following in her mother’s footsteps, is off to live in France. Lisa has left for college. Both dabble in singing, “with ever greater aplomb,” their mother reports.

“To hear your daughter singing rock ‘n’ roll, singing it really well, I can’t describe the thrill I felt,” she said of a performance by Lisa. “I made a jazz record with my other daughter, Jen, ‘Flicka Sings Brubeck.’ We did this beautiful duet, ‘Across Your Dreams.’. . . I’ve seen them both perform and, oh, my god.”

* Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade appears in a classical program with the Pacific Symphony tonight and Thursday at the Orange County Performing Arts Center, 600 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa. 8 p.m. $10-$48. Also 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday in a Broadway program. $14-$52. (714) 755-5799.


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