Fredericka Von Stade Comes Out of Retirement for New Opera Performance

"A Coffin in Egypt"
"A Coffin in Egypt"
 Ricky Ian Gordon and Leonard Foglia

It’s becoming a habit with Fredericka Von Stade, coming out of retirement. Four years ago, the then 64-year-old mezzo-soprano called it quits, sort of, as she continued to take singing engagements but no operas. Well, now she’s headlining a new opera based on Horton Foote’s 1980 one-act play, A Coffin in Egypt, portraying a bitter grand dame married to an inveterate philanderer. Composed by Ricky Ian Gordon with Leonard Foglia directing his own libretto, the new opera had its world premiere in Houston last month and is at the Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Beverly Hills for three performances, from April 23 through 27.

“I thought, well, if he’s asking he must think I can do it,” Van Stade tells The Hollywood Reporter about receiving the libretto from Houston Grand Opera music director, Patrick Summers. “If he thinks I can do it, I’ll try. Nothing bad will come of it, nobody will perish.”

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Since the legendary bel canto singer’s breakout performance in the early '70s as the lusty adolescent, Cherubino, in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro, Von Stade has become one of the most celebrated divas of the past 40 years, performing in both opera and musical theater. She has serenaded Presidents and kings, counts George Bush, Sr. as a personal friend, and sat next to Prince Charles at his 60th birthday dinner. “I didn’t know who should reach first for their glass of wine,” she laughs. “I thought, well I’m a woman but he’s a prince. So who goes first?”

A New Jersey native transplanted to Texas, Van Stade is an avid fan of Foote and immediately found herself relating to the story’s embittered protagonist – the 90-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe, who must come to terms with her anger in order to live out the rest of her years in peace. She is the only singing character in this 80-minute chamber opera making it essentially a one-woman show, though speaking parts include her character’s husband Hunter (David Matranga), among others. It sounds demanding but the difficult part was getting into the head of the complicated Myrtle who is matched in her poise only by the strength of her intelligence, but tarnished by her casual racism.

“She’s rather self-centered and intolerant but I go back to the play and find all those soft moments in her,” Von Stade says of the character originally based on a real-life figure in Egypt, Texas, down the road from where Foote used to live.

An icon to traditional opera lovers, Von Stade has actively supported contemporary opera as well, originating roles in modern classics like John AdamsNixon in China, Dead Man Walking by Jake Heggie, and Meredith Monk’s Atlas. In recent years, opera has been on tough times with venerable institutions like New York City Opera closing its doors last year after seven decades, and last month’s announcement that San Diego Opera would do likewise. But with new companies like L.A.-based, The Industry, whose site-specific Invisible Cities took over Union Station last autumn, and Four Larks, whose “junkyard” opera Orpheus (staged in an abandoned warehouse) drew raves last month, the face of the medium is changing.

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“Where I think opera is going, which is very exciting to me, is to the innovative and the new pieces,” Von Stade predicts. “It’s not going to be huge productions with ka-ching ka-ching everywhere. You have to reach out to the younger generation.”

A Coffin in Egypt goes on to Philadelphia in early summer and after that, Van Stade starts work on Great Scott, yet another new opera, this one reuniting her with Dead Man Walking librettist and playwright, Terrence McNally.

She won’t say too much about it, only that it deals with the sacrifice of being an opera star and the time taken from loved ones, which leads inevitably to the reason she retired in the first place -- to spend more time with her family.

“The only thing I really care about is my children and grandchildren,” she sighs. “I’ve had such a privilege to be in this business, I’d be thrilled if it was a legacy of something good for somebody else.”

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