The most un-diva-ish of divas

Next week Frederica Von Stade makes a rare appearance in London. After three decades of performing what does she think of the new generation of singers?

In the 30 years that Frederica von Stade has been singing, she has earned the reputation as one of the music world's most loved figures. In a profession more noted for monstrous egos than genuinely nice people with decent value systems, Miss von Stade is definitely a one off. Not that she would thank you for such formality. This most un diva-ish of divas, with a delicious sense of humour, is known simply as Flicka.

"Actually I'm named after a horse," she laughs, as she makes tea in a rented apartment overlooking Central Park - her temporary home whilst appearing in "a divine production" of The Merry Widow at the Met. "It comes from a wonderful children's story, My Friend Flicka, by Mary O'Hara. The book's a classic, like Black Beauty. As a little girl everyone called me Flicka. The name stuck - even though I've outgrown it by about 45 years!"

Having sung nearly all the great mezzo-soprano roles at the Met, she is celebrating the 30th anniversary of her début there. She knew Joseph Volpe, the current supremo at the Met, when he was just a carpenter. "There aren't a lot of people left from those days. Each time I see a member of the chorus or orchestra who looks familiar, I'm overjoyed."

She says she sang during the best of times. "There are breathtakingly talented young singers today, mezzos like Cecilia Bartoli, Susan Graham and Suzanne Mentzer, but I don't envy them their careers. Not at all. In my day everything was so much more gentle. We were coddled and looked after. That doesn't happen any more.

"When I first appeared at Glyndebourne I felt like a much loved child. It's less tender now. The business - and that's what it is - a business where selling seats is what matters most - is more cruel."

To illustrate her point, she generously bursts into a raucous rendition of "I'm Glad I'm not Young Anymore". (Gigi: Lerner and Lowe). As a young girl, growing up in New Jersey, Flicka was mad about musicals. "I still am," she says, "so it's great to be back in New York - but only for a short time."

Home, since she married her second husband, 10 years ago, is California. They live happily ever after, just outside San Francisco. "My husband has a lot of commitments there. I don't like being away for long. We like to go sailing. Also, I have two step grand daughters who I adore and two daughters from my first marriage who are now 20 and 22. I spend a lot of time with them. At this stage in my life, I'm not prepared to be away from any of them for more than a few weeks."

When Frederica Von Stade makes an all too rare appearance in London next week, with Leonard Slatkin and the Philharmonia Orchestra in a programme of Mahler Ruckert Lieder, the word on the street is, beg, borrow or steal a ticket. As a recitalist, it's not only the voice and musicianship which make her unique. She has a rare gift for communication in all that she does, from classical Mozart and Haydn to popular Broadway songs, Italian arias, or new works by contemporary American composers like Jake Heggie, who write especially for her.

En route to London, she and Slatkin, with whom she's worked many times, are taking the Philharmonia to Dublin. "Ireland has a special place in my heart. My mother lived there for 20 years. She adored the country and her friends adored her. Everyone called her 'Mrs Von'. She died too young, but being in Ireland made her last years very happy." Mrs Von's famous daughter doesn't intend to waste one second of her time in Dublin. Bearing in mind legendary Irish hospitality, London audiences can only pray that she doesn't lose her voice catching up with all the friends who can't wait to see her.

When she was a teenager - like the opera world she was yet to be part of - New York was a gentler, safer place than it is now. "Even when I was quite young, I'd come into town on my own, see the shows, buy the LPs and then catch the train home. Annie Get Your Gun, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady, Wonderful Town: it was a golden time. Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, Mary Martin - there were so many extraordinary talents. I guess that for me, being in a Broadway musical was a kind of remote dream."

Given where she first learned to sing, the dream seems a little incongruous. "I went to a Catholic boarding school, where I had a very good singing teacher. We sang mass each day and learned Gregorian chant." After finishing high school, instead of going to college, she did something unusual for a young American girl in those day. "I spent a year living in Paris. I'd had a marvellous French teacher, who never spoke to us in English. We just had to figure everything out for ourselves. I arrived in Paris incredibly well prepared."

A year later, she found a job in New York. By her own admission she was a "totally hopeless" secretary. Telling no one, she decided to audition for music school. Her aria - "Connais-tu le pays?" from Mignon by Ambroise Thomas must have knocked the judges socks off. Frederica Von Stade (her father's family originally came from Stade, north of Hamburg) was offered a place at college. Her remarkable career as a singer was about to take off.

Offers kept coming, including an invitation to sing for Leonard Bernstein at the New York Philharmonic. He taught her the song from Mahler's Fourth Symphony. "People were waiting to see him but he just sat down with me for 45 minutes explaining, 'Do you know what he's saying here? And here?' Afterwards, I felt I could fly."

One of the first places she sang was Glyndebourne. "Kiri [te Kanawa] became a great friend. Both of us were making our débuts. Unbelievably to me now, we were given eight weeks of rehearsals. It was a glorious time. We would literally fall out of bed and sing. It felt just like being at boarding school. We worked hard, but we also had fun, and the Christies - George and Mary, looked after all their young singers."

She has recently been touring America with Chanticleer - 13 men who sing A Cappella. "We've had a marvellous time, singing mainly in churches and small venues. They do all kinds of things - Mahler, Faure, new works and folk songs. Having been on stage so much by myself, it's fun to be with other people. They've become like my sons."

Later this year she will start to prepare for the world premiere of Dead Man Walking, for San Francisco Opera. Based on the book which became the film, it's written by Terence MacNally, with music by Jake Heggie. Flicka plays the mother of the perpetrator.

"Susan Graham is playing Sister Helen. It's an incredibly dramatic piece on a somewhat horrific but, I believe, important subject. I've heard some of the music which is fantastic."

In 1998, with the American composer Richard Danielpour, Flicka realised an artistic and personal dream when Danielpour wrote Elegies. The work, scored for orchestra, mezzo-soprano and baritone, is a tribute to her father, Charles von Stade, who was killed in the final days of the Second World War. It is based on the text of letters he had sent to her mother during the war. "My father died two months before I was born, so I really came to know my father through those letters."

Last year, in London, Flicka recorded Elegies with baritone Thomas Hampson which will be released by Sony. "I adore being in Europe but I just can't be away for long runs any more. When I started out as a singer, I never had any expectations, so it's amazing to me that I've done as much as I have.

"I've had the best of times. Like I said, there's such a wealth of wonderful young mezzo sopranos, it seems entirely appropriate to hand over to them. There comes a point in your career when you feel that you're dressed up in your daughter's prom dress." Which sounds very much like a cue for another Broadway song.

Frederica Von Stade with Leonard Slatkin and the Philharmonia, at the Royal Festival Hall, South Bank Centre, London SE1 (020 7960 4242, 21 March, 7.30pm

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