Acclaimed soprano Frederica von Stade returns to San Diego Opera this week to sing the lead role in Jake Heggie’s chamber opera Three Decembers, opening Friday, March 8. In her estimable career she has sung major roles in the great opera houses on both sides of the Atlantic and has made over 100 recordings that span the repertory from Mozart to Richard Strauss to Bernstein.But as a teenager, her sights were not fixed on the Met, but on Broadway.
“We lived in New Jersey, and every weekend my friends and I would take the train into New York City to catch a matinee. Then we would hang out and listen to jazz at the Metropol Café, catching a second evening show before we went home,” she recalled. “I loved Broadway, but never even considered going to the opera. If I had dreamed of becoming a singer, I would have wanted to be another Ethel Merman!”
At age 18, her mother took her to Austria, and in Salzburg they attended a production of Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier with luminary singers Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Christa Ludwig. “That experience opened my eyes to opera, and I knew that if I wanted to be a part of that world, I would need to get more training, so I enrolled in New York’s Mannes School of Music, where I studied with a great teacher, Sebastian Engelberg. He taught me both the technique and the joy of singing.”
In her career, von Stade has worked with a number of composers, including Richard Danielpour, who wrote an extended song cycle for her based on her father’s letters from his service in World War II called Elegies. “I have always felt it was a privilege to be close to the creator,” she said.
But her relationship with Jake Heggie began before he started writing opera, and von Stade proved instrumental in facilitating his first steps in operatic composition.
“I was in San Francisco singing in the company’s production of Conrad Susa’s new opera The Dangerous Liaisons , and Jake was working in public relations for the company. We were doing radio interviews together, and one day at the War Memorial Opera House he mentioned to me that he had written some songs and was wondering if I would take a look at them. I agreed and was bowled over by his arrangements of Irish songs and old American folk songs. I showed them to other members of the cast [which included Renée Fleming and Thomas Hampson] and they were thrilled. We ended up doing a concert of Jake’s songs.”
Shortly after that, San Francisco’s General Director Lotfi Mansouri commissioned Heggie to write his first opera, Dead Man Walking, working with well-known playwright Terrence McNally as librettist.
“I gave Jake my grand piano so he could write his opera on it,” she added. Mansouri ensured the composition would come to fruition in a timely manner, relieving Heggie of his PR responsibilities and creating for him a two-year composer-in-residence post to work on the opera.
Heggie and McNally based their opera on the movie Dead Man Walking, a highly successful Tim Robbins motion picture starring Sean Penn and Susan Sarandon. When the opera premiered in 2000 in San Francisco, mezzo-soprano Susan Graham sang the lead role of Sister Helen Prejean (the Sarandan role) and von Stade sang the role of Mrs. Patrick de Rocher, the mother of the convicted killer Joseph de Rocher, around whom the opera revolves.
Her role was not easy to prepare for psychologically, so von Stade did some research.
“I was able to talk to a woman who worked in a San Francisco government office. Her son and daughter-in-law had been attacked by a man and tortured by him. He set fire to the apartment; her son was killed, and the daughter-in-law survived with severe burns. What made the deepest impression on me was her courage, because in spite of all she had experienced, she was still against the death penalty.”
Von Stade was immediately taken by McNally’s libretto: “The first time I read the mother’s scene in the opera, it left me sobbing,” she confessed.
Although McNally did not write the libretto for Heggie’s Three Decembers, lauded librettist Gene Scheer used an unpublished McNally play Some Christmas Letters as the basis of the opera’s libretto. Heggie wrote the work’s main character specifically for von Stade: Maddy, a famous but self-absorbed actress raising two adult children and their struggles to know and love each other. When asked if she offered suggestions to Heggie concerning her expectations for this role, she laughed. “No, because I didn’t have to. His ideas are always so much better than anything I could come up with!”
In a review of a Three Decembers 2009 production by Chicago Opera Theater that also featured von Stade in the lead role, music critic Lawrence A. Johnson of Chicago Classical Review described the work as “strangely endearing in its key moments and [its] touching intimacy.” Lawrence praised von Stade’s singing and her account of this larger than life character. “The singer’s natural charisma sands off the hard edges of her self-absorbed character making it hard to dislike the histrionic heroine,” he wrote.
For this mother role, von Stade did not have to do extensive outside research. “Maddy was an actress, and I have also had a theater life. And I have two children of my own, three stepchildren, and seven grandchildren,” she added with a knowing smile.
Although local opera lovers have known von Stade over her long career through her recordings, she made her belated San Diego debut in San Diego Opera’s 2016 production of Jake Heggie’s well-received comic opera Great Scott. The San Diego opera community looks forward to her return in this Heggie opera.
San Diego Opera will present Jake Heggie’s “Three Decembers” in the PHAME Theatre located on the campus of Patrick Henry High School, 6702 Wandermere Dr., San Diego, on March 8 & 9, 2019, at 7:00 p.m. and a 2:00 p.m. matinee on March 10.