I’ve been absolutely spoiled and spoon-fed. I haven’t really had to struggle,” says blue-eyed Frederica von Stade with characteristic frankness. “I’ve worked hard, but it’s all been rather magical. That doesn’t make me very interesting, does it?” Wrong. The difficulty is in finding superlatives that haven’t already been applied to the beguiling 31-year-old singer who began her professional operatic career barely six years ago. Her light, high mezzo has been called “luscious,” “one of opera’s jewels,” “the voice of an angel.” Last month she was the only American to perform with both the La Scala and Paris Opéra companies in their U.S. appearances.
“Well, being a mezzo helps,” von Stade admits. “You’re lucky because you don’t have to carry the whole show. But,” she continues, “what makes a singer is not the adulation—although if anyone tells you they don’t like the applause, they’re lying—but work and preparation. That I’ve done, and I’ve been helped by both a manager and a husband who guide me wisely.”
“Flicka” von Stade’s first and most important guide was Metropolitan general manager Rudolf Bing, who in late 1969 plucked her from the Met National Auditions and gave her a series of increasingly demanding roles. “I remember her first coming out on the stage in a little gray dress,” says Matthew Epstein, now her personal manager. “I thought she was too skinny to be a singer. But we heard one note, and that was it!” Looking back, Flicka calls them “three galley-slave years,” but acknowledges that the experience was invaluable. “It was a very dangerous but thrilling beginning to a career,” she says. Then she faced a difficult choice: a new contract at the Met or an opportunity to open the Paris Opéra’s season in a new production of The Marriage of Figaro under Sir Georg Solti. Met general manager-designee Göran Gentele advised her: “You’ve been invited to two sumptuous dinner parties. Come to ours next time.” After scoring her first international triumph at the Royal Theatre at Versailles, she returned to New York as a full-fledged star the following Christmas.
Before her Met audition, von Stade had never even been on an operatic stage. She was born into a socially prominent New Jersey family which included generations of yachtsmen, bankers, polo players and other Estab-lishmentarians (one uncle, Skiddy von Stade, was until recently a dean at Harvard). Convent-raised, Flicka was a sunny extravert with vague yearnings to be a pop singer. “It wasn’t a frivolous life,” she insists. “I spent more time mucking out stalls than riding horses.” After nine months in Paris as an au pair to three children, she came back and worked at Tiffany’s. On a $50 bet with a friend, Flicka auditioned and was accepted at the Mannes School of Music, although she couldn’t read a note. “I was the daughter of a widowed working mother,” she says. “My family helped pay for my first two years at Mannes. After that, I’ve made my own way.”
Today her life is crammed with “the struggle to make it all fit.” Next month von Stade will sing with the San Francisco Opera and in December will make her Italian stage debut with La Scala in Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Three years ago she married Peter Elkus, a young bass-baritone from San Francisco, now trying to launch his own career. “I was told the marriage would never last,” says Flicka, smiling at Peter in their 23rd-floor blue-and-green living room overlooking Lincoln Center. “But we plan so that we are never apart more than three weeks. It’s tiring and expensive, but it keeps the home fires at least lukewarm.” If Peter lands a singing contract in Europe, the couple are considering moving their base to Paris. “I have learned to make a home quickly wherever we are,” says Flicka. “I’m too happy and busy to worry about the future.”