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Frederica von Stade on being inducted into the Opera Hall of Fame

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

The Opera Hall of Fame honored seven new members this week. I think even the producers and composer included would agree that the marquee name of their class of inductees was this mezzo-soprano.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "LA CENERENTOLA")

FREDERICA VON STADE: (As character, singing in Italian).

SIMON: Frederica von Stade singing Rossini. She debuted at the Metropolitan Opera in 1970. She has performed at all the world's great opera venues, all the great works, and premiered dozens of new compositions. Frederica von Stade joins us now from Berkeley, Calif. Thanks so much for being with us.

VON STADE: Thank you so much for inviting me. I'm delighted.

SIMON: Just hearing your voice, this wasn't the first question I'd planned, but let me ask it. How do you do that? How do you sing like that?

VON STADE: (Laughter) I ask that same question of many of my colleagues, let me tell you. It's luck, good fortune and a lot of singing lessons.

SIMON: Wow. You grew up in New Jersey and Washington, D.C., briefly lived as a child in Greece and Italy. How and when did you first begin to grasp that you had that extraordinary voice?

VON STADE: Oh, thank you. I sang from the time I was a little girl and loved Broadway more than life. And so I decided to try and be a Broadway girl. So I went to a music school around the corner called the Mannes College of Music, and I studied with the angel of all time, Sebastian Engelberg. And he suggested that I try for the Met auditions, which I did, and to my utter complete amazement and delight got a prize and then eventually got a contract. So my first big job was really with the Metropolitan Opera, which is pretty blessed in many ways.

SIMON: May I ask you about your father, your birth father?

VON STADE: My dad?

SIMON: Yeah.

VON STADE: My dad was killed in World War II. He was killed in April of 1945, just a couple of months before I was born. So I only knew him by reputation and stories. And I was lucky enough to be part of a project to celebrate him. And that was a composition based on his letters, which I absolutely adored. And I do have all of his letters from the war.

(SOUNDBITE OF RICHARD DANIELPOUR SONG, "ELEGIES")

SIMON: They were turning into a very haunting work called "Elegies."

VON STADE: Exactly - by Richard Danielpour. And it's a beautiful, beautiful work.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ELEGIES")

VON STADE: (As character, singing in non-English language).

SIMON: And forgive me this. What is the difference between a soprano and a mezzo-soprano?

VON STADE: In notes that we can sing, it's a little bit close. I think a mezzo and a lyric soprano are kind of in the same area. It's just our voices, mezzo voices, are a little bit lower, and there are all kinds of sopranos as well, which makes it complicated if you want to be a singer.

SIMON: Yeah.

VON STADE: But I had great leaders in Janet Baker and Marilyn Horne and Teresa Berganza, and I sort of just listened to them and followed their lead of what to sing.

SIMON: And do I have this right? You didn't learn to read music until you were 21?

VON STADE: Yes. I could do everything by ear. And then I - when I went to Mannes, I had to learn to read music. But it's not a skill that should be is as developed as it should be.

SIMON: I don't even know if they teach it in schools anymore. I don't think our daughters were taught how to read music.

VON STADE: Yeah. You know, the real tragedy of all the last years is that music has been pulled from so many public schools. I work with a wonderful organization now called Young Musicians Choral Orchestra, and we target just those kids. It's an after-school free program from age 10 to 18, and it's all through music, with opera, jazz, Broadway, everything. And our aim is to get kids from slightly disadvantaged communities and get them into college. And we've been terribly successful with this, and I'm so grateful to my 20-year affiliation with the program.

SIMON: Our people talk to your people, as they say. And you asked for a song of Barbra Streisand's that you sing. And I must say, it kind of surprised us. Let's listen to "Jenny Rebecca."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JENNY REBECCA")

VON STADE: (Singing) Trees to be climbed up, days to be young on, toys you can wind up.

I love the song, and it is also - I named my daughter after this song.

SIMON: Ah.

VON STADE: So I have my very own Jenny Rebecca. So every time I've sung it, I think of my Jenny, who's in her 40s now, and I have two granddaughters that I absolutely adore. They are the loves of my life. I'm very, very lucky to be their nanny.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "JENNY REBECCA")

VON STADE: (Singing) Wind in your hair.

SIMON: Forgive me, but let me ask this. Do you sing in the shower? Do you sing around the house?

VON STADE: I sing in all the rooms that have a good acoustic.

(LAUGHTER)

VON STADE: So the bathroom comes through as the most effective.

SIMON: Ah. Opera, or...

VON STADE: Well, I sing a lot of opera, a lot of songs. I try out arias that I can't even begin to comprehend or do, but I still try. And the main part of my singing is with my dog, Sadie.

SIMON: Oh.

VON STADE: And I sing on all our long walks up in the hills, the beautiful Oakland hills, and all over.

SIMON: And Sadie sings with you?

VON STADE: Sadie sings with me and walks beside me. My grandkids, however, if ever I start to sing, it's, no, Nanny. No, no. Nanny, Nanny, that's too loud. No. Nana, Nana, no. Even when we go to mass, it's like Nana, Nana, keep it down.

SIMON: You teach master classes at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music. What do you tell young students is necessary to put a song across to an audience?

VON STADE: The thing I tell them the most is not to be hard on themselves. I think that, born with the gift of a voice and developing that voice, one tends to be pretty hard on themselves. I also tell them Mr. Engelberg's phrase, sing with all the meaning you can find in the words. Never underestimate the value of the words because it's all about telling a story, and it's all about communication and making people feel what you feel about it and what the song is about.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

VON STADE: (As character, singing in non-English language).

All the hard work and the slog has been done by their vocal teachers and their coaches, and I just love to go in and share those last bits of - sing the music that you love, that you really love, and that you understand and that means something to you, and then it will mean something to all of us.

SIMON: Frederica von Stade, inducted into the Opera Hall of Fame. Thanks so much for being with us.

VON STADE: Thank you very, very much. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.