An exclusive interview with opera star Frederica von Stade

Frederica von Stade as Myrtle Bledsoe. Photo by Kelly & Massa.

For several years, Opera Philadelphia, often collaborating with the Curtis Institute of Music, has produced one audience-grabbing contemporary opera after another, tucked among the beloved standards.

The latest offering is Ricky Ian Gordon’s chamber opera, A Coffin in Egypt, which had its East Coast premiere on June 6. The libretto, based on Horton Foote’s play, is by Leonard Foglia, who also directs. This Egypt is a Texas town, but neither it nor any coffin can hide the dark memories of the tormented protagonist, 90-year-old grand dame Myrtle Bledsoe.   

But the big news (as they say, but really!) is that the opera was written for one of the greatest singers, indeed, musical artists, of the past four decades: the American mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, from Somerville, NJ. She is not only nowhere near 90 — she's only 68 — but she is also the polar opposite of Myrtle: warm-hearted, witty, generous-spirited, and genuine, never “diva-fied” since her Met debut as the “Ugh! Ugh!”-singing Indian maid in Puccini’s La fanciulla del West in 1970, when we first met.

Though it’s not her first time singing in Philly, it’s von Stade’s Opera Philadelphia debut.

Understandably, she could not resist coming out of three years of retirement for this all-consuming role, a juicy plum for a born-singing actress. Essentially a monodrama, Coffin makes Myrtle the nearly nonstop soloist for 80 minutes, though at times sharing the stage with any of five actors and/or a Greek-chorus quartet of gospel singers. Nine instrumentalists accompany in the pit.

Myrtle is a far cry from von Stade’s most celebrated operatic roles of Cherubino, Hansel, Mélisande, Cenerentola, and Rosina. And there’s nobody like Myrtle among the five roles written for her by contemporary composers, not even the vile Marquise de Merteuil in Conrad Susa’s Dangerous Liaisons.

Von Stade talked with me recently about playing the Texas matriarch.

“I’ve never played anybody who’s spent her lifetime in anger. Deceit, yes: the Marquise was everything I’d been trained my whole life not to be, with the nuns saying ‘Don’t be self-centered or mean, don’t lie’ — and I got to do it ALL! It was such fun!

“But Myrtle gives me the opportunity to look at my own life. I’m not 90, but I am going into those decades when life changes dramatically in terms of physical abilities and attitudes toward things. Is there something in my life I’m bitter about and should let go of?

“And what is really wonderful for me is that Myrtle is the age of my grannies, whom I adored, of their era, when women’s lives had fewer options. She couldn’t divorce this man who on every occasion was abusive: she had two children. And yet there was a connection there, and a great connection to Texas.

“I’m not Texan in any part of my bones, but I love Texas: the oak trees, those prairies; if you were born and bred there, part of you would always want to go back. I feel the same about where I grew up in New Jersey: I sat in fields, sniffing wildflowers that smelled so good. I treasure those memories. That’s helped me understand Myrtle.

“It’s so interesting to play a real person. I went to the graveyard, and there they all were. In fact, Horton Foote wouldn’t let the play be published till he was gone. Word is that the real Myrtle’s granddaughter said ‘If I saw Horton Foote today, I’d blow his head off!’

So if you go, be prepared for one extraordinary evening.

 

Opera Philadelphia's A Coffin in Egypt is coming up on June 15, 2014 at the Perelman Theater in the Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets, Philadelphia. For tickets and prices, call 215-893-1018 or visit www.operaphila.org.

For Victor L. Schermer's review of A Coffin in Egypt, click here.

For Naomi Orwin's review of A Coffin in Egypt, click here.

For Steve Cohen's review of A Coffin in Egypt, click here.