For Opera Diva Frederica Von Stade, Wearing The Pants Is All In A Day's Work

If you are waiting for an opera diva with big hair, important jewelry, a huge fur and a vocabulary that runs to "Darrrrrrling!" in every sentence, you'll have a long wait.

Instead, a slim, almost boyish figure in leggings slips into Seattle Opera's waiting room, brushing back straight light-auburn hair and looking a little shy, offering a "Hi" that sounds almost apologetic for interrupting you.

It's Frederica von Stade. Despite a name that sounds as if she were descended from the Hapsburg dynasty, this is an all-American woman who still can pass for a girl, even at 51.

Most of the time, however, she is required to pass for a boy. This is a concept that still makes her giggle, though after a long and internationally acclaimed career in the sort of "pants roles" that traditionally fall to a certain type of mezzo-soprano voice, the very feminine von Stade is well accustomed to putting a masculine swagger in her gait.

She'll be doing that in the title role of Seattle Opera's upcoming "Xerxes" (which opens Thursday at 7 p.m. in the Opera House, continuing through March 5, in English with projected titles). In this 1738 Handel opera, performed for the first time in Seattle Opera history, von Stade is the Persian emperor who suffers from unrequited love for his brother's sweetheart. Xerxes is finally won over by his own fiancee, who ironically has spent most of the opera posing as a man in order to observe and assess his behavior. If all of this sounds confusingly gender-bending, von Stade is in complete sympathy.

"It's all so preposterous, opera," she laughs.

"What makes it not preposterous is the music. You can see a totally incongruous person playing a role like Tosca, but within five minutes, you can believe totally because of the music. The music is what makes it all possible.

"The characters are so much bigger than life that they're lots of fun. They're so far from reality - yet the music uses them to create very clearly defined emotions and call forth sensations from the audience."

The music of "Xerxes" is music von Stade finds "so endearing, very touching. I don't consider myself much of an expert on Handel, but I do love this opera, and this production is going to be quite special. Any work from a long-ago era needs clarity above all, and that is what we will have, I think - we're doing it in English in a very accessible translation, with (projected) titles, too, to make everything clear."

Maybe one reason von Stade really understands the needs of audience is that she came rather late to opera herself. She didn't fall in love when she heard her first opera at 15; she preferred Broadway, and entered New York's Mannes School of Music with that destination in mind. It was at Mannes that she discovered a bent for opera, and went on to enter Metropolitan Opera auditions on a $50 bet. That bet led to a Met contract, eventually to von Stade's first appearances as Cherubino (in Mozart's "The Marriage of Figaro"), a role that she has practically owned over the years.

As she entered her 50s, von Stade decided to give up Cherubino (who is supposed to be a teenaged boy), though she still sings most of the other roles with which she made her fame, including Melisande (in Debussy's "Pelleas and Melisande").

Von Stade feels that "singing comes from nature, from your body," but also acknowledges that singers are almost uniquely exposed before the audience because they're "the only musicians whose voice and soul are smack dab in the spotlight. There's no instrument between you and the audience. That's why there's such a tendency to take it personally if someone doesn't like what you do."

More than a decade ago, von Stade's voice underwent a crisis when she was going through a nasty divorce from her former husband; court battles over custody of the couple's two daughters and von Stade's earnings were both bitter and public.

"There was a time when my voice just wouldn't come out," she reflects.

"I just shrieked through my performances. It was frightening. Gradually, though, I recovered.

"There isn't a singer alive who hasn't gone through some period of distress. For the most part, though, singing is a joyful expression; I think singers are essentially joyful people. There's a great comradeship and an intensity that you don't find anywhere else."

Now happily remarried and living in California, von Stade is enjoying as much time as possible with her younger daughter, who is still at home (she's a junior in high school). The older daughter is in college in Pennsylvania, and von Stade wants to make as much time free as possible to be with both girls whenever they are at home.

"In the last two years I've taken a lot of time off," she confesses. "I thought I would really miss my career - but I didn't. I love it with all my heart and it's been marvelous, and there are still things I want to do - more Offenbach, for instance. But then I think it becomes appropriate to move on, especially since there are so many great young mezzo-sopranos today: Jennifer Larmore, Cecilia Bartoli, Anne-Sophie von Otter. They ought to get together as The Three Mezzos! I really think there's a golden age of young singers coming up, and it will be very exciting to hear."

Von Stade isn't ready to hang up the opera costumes yet, especially not while she still has kids in school. But she still thinks about the future; though she would be unlikely to teach voice, she'd like to participate somehow in music education, to supplement what she calls "a sad lack of arts education in our schools."

But not quite yet.

"I'm still having a lot of fun," she says with the cheeky grin that has made her so successful at portraying adolescent youngsters.

"It isn't time yet for me to walk away. But if I have the slightest pout on my face when I do leave, I'll get a hat pin and poke myself with it. I'm so lucky and so grateful for all I've had, in this career that has given me so incredibly much." ----------------------------------------------------------------- The `Xerxes' files

The performances: Thursday through March 5, with Daniel Beckwith conducting, staging by Stephen Wadsworth, sets by Thomas Lynch and costumes by Martin Pakledinaz; with Frederica von Stade as Xerxes (Kimberly Barber, Feb. 23 and 28); soprano Wendy Hill as Romilda, countertenor Brian Asawa as Arsamene (Derek Lee Ragin, Feb. 23 and March 5), soprano Cynthia Clarey as Amastre, bass-baritone Jan Opalach as Ariodate; soprano Susannah Walters as Atalanta.

The story: The young Persian king Xerxes is engaged to Amastre, but neglects her to pursue Romilda, the sweetheart of Xerxes' brother Arsamene. Xerxes banishes his brother to get rid of his rival; the plot is complicated by Romilda's mischievous sister Atalanta, who also is pursuing Arsamene. Despite Xerxes' efforts, Romilda and Arsamene are married; meanwhile, Amastre has been observing all these machinations while disguised as a man, and decides to renounce Xerxes. At the end of the opera, Xerxes' eyes are opened; he transfers his love to Amastre.

Little-known facts: Handel is, of course, most famous for his oratorio "Messiah," but he also wrote more than 40 operas, of which "Xerxes" is among the best-known. The most famous aria from "Xerxes" is a tune almost every music lover will recognize as the beloved "Largo," and it is addressed to a tree. This is our first indication that Xerxes' powers of romantic distinction are not high.

In Handel's day, many of the leading roles were sung not by mezzo-sopranos but by castrati - singers who had been castrated as youths in order to keep their voices high. This may have produced brilliant singers, but few of today's singers are sorry that the practice died out in the last century. (For a highly dramatic account of the life of one famous castrato, rent the video of "Farinelli," an R-rated Gerard Corbiau film released in 1995.)

Seattle Opera is providing projected titles for the production, even though it is sung in English. That's because even when singers are performing in their native tongue, you can't always understand what they're singing.

Watch your ticket: The opening-night show starts at 7 p.m.; other shows start at 7:30 p.m., except for the Sunday matinee, which starts at 2 p.m. Running time is just under 3 1/2 hours. Tickets at 389-7676; information at 389-7600.