Von Stade Recalls Life With Cherubino, Role She Owned For Decades

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Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade sang her first Cherubino at the Metropolitan Opera 50 years ago, on February 15, 1972. (Lieberman Photography)

PERSPECTIVE – The name Frederica von Stade continues to bring a contented smile to those generations of opera and concertgoers who saw her perform, to colleagues, and to those who know her prodigious recordings. Her signature role — and passport to a stellar international career — was the mischievous page in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. For anyone who witnessed von Stade’s irresistibly winsome and coltish Cherubino onstage or on the several videos that fortunately preserve the interpretation, it may come as a shock to realize that this season marks a half century since the still very vital New Jersey-born mezzo-soprano first donned his trousers at the Metropolitan Opera.

Cherubino was the then-fledging Met comprimaria’s breakthrough part at Santa Fe Opera’s 1971 summer festival. Eight months later — Febr. 15, 1972, or 50 years ago this week — she stepped into Cyril Ritchard’s old Nozze staging mid-run on the Met stage surrounded by established Mozartean stars including Cesare Siepi, Roberta Peters, and Pilar Lorengar. Reached by Zoom in Oakland, Cal., where she now lives, von Stade recalled the joy and adventures her favorite role brought her.

Frederica von Stade as Cherubino at San Francisco Opera in 1991. (Larry Merkle/San Francisco Opera)

“I loved Cherubino and loved every time I was able to perform in Marriage of Figaro,” said von Stade, 76. “It was always fun. The first time ever was in Santa Fe, with Kiri (te Kanawa), one of the most beautiful productions ever, before the improvements in the opera house. For Act IV, the garden scene, it went right through to the desert, and we made all our entrances from there. I didn’t know then that I would do it at the Met.” The next season, she brought the page to San Francisco (again with te Kanawa, plus frequent colleague Judith Blegen as Susanna) and Houston.  

Then came an event that changed her career: an audition for Paris Opéra general director Rolf Liebermann, who’d seen her Met Cherubino and Stéphano (in Roméo et Juliette). “The Met said I was welcome to go, but that the long Paris rehearsal period wouldn’t work for the comprimario contract I had. So I took a chance and went to Europe; my first big roles were (Rossini’s) Rosina and Cherubino.” The legendary Giorgio Strehler directed the Nozze, led by Georg Solti (who later cast von Stade in his starry 1982 recording with the London Philharmonic; she had already recorded it with Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic).

“Working with Strehler was unbelievable: He was a great man of the theater. We rehearsed in the sets, with the lights! Can you imagine what a nightmare for the administration? I remember standing beside him singing “Non so più” and getting a rush of his extraordinary energy, and he didn’t move a muscle. ‘Trust this,’ he said, ‘the essence of communication is getting the energy without movement.’ I worshipped him. He was wonderful to his artists. We all adored being able to rehearse with him for almost two months.

“And we were rehearsing in Versailles, so when we went outside, we were in Mozart land! That little theater had all that Marie Antoinette azure blue, and our costumes were remounted antiques from the Opéra-Comique. I had a gorgeous vest with stitched flowers, with colors I’ve never seen before or since. His Figaro was very much about the times of day. You had to feel the heat of the morning, and the way the sun goes down. It was a magic time.”

After several shows at Versailles, the staging transferred to the Opéra’s main home, the Palais Garnier. Among another ensemble of stars — Mirella Freni, José van Dam, Gabriel Bacquier, Gundula Janowitz — the American singer, only 27, caused a sensation. Opera‘s critic Pierre Breger raved, “Cherubino, as portrayed by Frederica von Stade, was an incredible achievement. Never have l seen a Cherubino who looked so much the male adolescent in love with the whole world: the travesti, instead of being the usual handicap, helped create an equivocal charm which fitted perfectly with the period.” The Opéra revived the production often and even toured it to the Met stage in 1976, but Strehler’s assistants handled the direction and von Stade missed his presence. “It was the same way with Jean-Pierre Ponnelle. They were so much the center of their productions, giving them energy. Two great directors and visual artists. How lucky to have had them both!”

Ponnelle directed von Stade as both Idomeneo‘s Idamantes (1982) and Cherubino (1985) at the Met — both filmed, fortunately. “Jean-Pierre’s Figaro for the Met had very much the flavor of (Rossini’s) Cenerentola in its look. Everything was very symmetrical and very chic. We all adored it. His view of Cherubino wasn’t my favorite: He wanted him (and also Tom Allen, as the Count) played very demanding. ‘You do what I say!’ There wasn’t the sense of lightness. I found it hard, but I learned so much from doing it his way that I was grateful: There was more of an edge.”

Von Stade reports studying her teenaged male cousins as inspiration for Cherubino’s combination of impatient manic energy and unguarded charm. An avid Francophile, she also cites Michel Deville’s 1968 film Benjamin with Catherine Deneuve and Pierre Clémenti as essentially a slightly older Cherubino. “He goes around the castle being seduced by everyone in closets. He just has this magnetism, everyone wants him around because he’s impossible, and funny, and spoiled and basically kind. That was my image for who Cherubino was.”

Frederica von Stade sings Cherubino on a 1979 release with Herbert von Karajan and the Vienna Philharmonic.

With some other roles, she created a “back story” for the character, but not with the page. “It came so early in my career, I was so new to opera. But also he’s so well defined by Mozart and da Ponte. I think the characters in Figaro are just perfect: the Count, Marcellina, even the two country girls. They’re just fully who they are. That doesn’t hold true for Mozart’s other operas. And every time I did it, the cast became unusually close — even the superstars like Mirella and Bacquier, when they performed they weren’t ‘superstars’ but Susanna and the Count, with a real commitment to the piece. It was such a lucky way to begin my career. Figaro never gets old. It’s like West Side Story: In any production, that it’s a masterpiece comes through.” Figaro served her well in Vienna, Milan, Los Angeles, and Chicago, where her conductor, Andrew Davis, has said, “I don’t think anyone has been a better Cherubino than Frederica in the history of time.”

Von Stade performed and recorded several other Mozart roles: Zerlina, Sesto, Annio, Idamante, Dorabella, and Despina, the other character that the composer and da Ponte created for Dorotea Bussani, the first Cherubino. But the page boy remained her favorite; and unlike some Cherubinos, she never took on Figaro‘s other possible roles, save for occasional concert excerpts. In recent years she was offered Marcellina and would happily have done it, but family responsibilities intervened. Her second favorite role — Debussy’s Mélisande — couldn’t be more of a contrast: feminine, guarded, and mysterious, where Cherubino is a male hormone-driven open book.

And Octavian, the title role of Der Rosenkavalier, whom Strauss and von Hofmannsthal clearly modeled on Cherubino? “He’s written so differently: It’s like an older Cherubino, who’s lost that youthful impulsiveness. He’s kind of an actor, watching himself do things. He’s of the court. His impulses have been refined out of him and he’s putting on different identities. I loved doing Octavian, but it was a stretch for me. It’s for a slighty bigger voice than I have. I had a light voice, and I always had to respect that, so I had to be very careful of where I did it. But I loved every minute of it.”

Frederica von Stade (Photo by Robert Milland)

She credits her dynamic, “amazing” agent Matthew Epstein with helping her shape her career and discover appropriate roles, including Mélisande, Cendrillon, and an even rarer Massenet title role, that of his 1905 Chérubin — a kind of unauthorized sequel to Nozze. “I only did that at a Carnegie concert and at Santa Fe. Again, he’s closer to Octavian than Cherubino: The opera’s real lead, the Philosopher, has to convince him to grow up and stop breaking hearts. An adorable opera, I wish they’d do it more! But very expensive to do. You need a full ballet and chorus.”

Von Stade continued to tackle new challenges with mature roles, from Monteverdi’s Ottavia to Berg’s Geschwitz and beyond, creating rich contemporary roles in Jake Heggie’s Dead Man Walking, Lembit Beecher’s Sky on Swings, and others. But now she’s firmly retired from the stage, singing only occasional benefits. She’s very committed to serving Oakland’s unhoused population, helping to set up The People’s Chorus of Oakland in a shelter and visual art facilities. What Susanna says of Cherubino surely pertains to his leading late-20th century interpreter: “Everything (s)he does, (s)he does well.”