Frederica von Stade is one of the most popular opera divas of our time. She has made more than sixty recordings, and was awarded one of France's highest honors when she was appointed an officer of L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres.
I doubt many young girls, when asked what they want to be when they grow up, answer "opera singer." If they don't say "doctor" or "teacher" or "nurse" or "president" (that last ambition is no longer as far fetched as it was when I was a girl), there are still countless ambitions that don't involve playing Carmen or Mimi (both doomed) or grappling with brass garments and German to sing Brunhilde (also doomed).
When I was growing up in the 1950s and '60s in Somerville, New Jersey, girls didn't think about being a doctor or the president -- or, in my case, at least, an opera singer. Raised a Catholic, however, I always sang the mass in Latin as a teenager in church, and I also sang in parochial school and then public school. My mother loved Broadway musicals, and I remember her listening to them on our old Victrola record player all day long. But the idea of singing seriously never occurred to me.
Looking back, I think my career as an operatic mezzo soprano began in my high school French class. We had a very demanding teacher who insisted that we read 200 pages in French each week. I found that most of what we were reading was very difficult for me, and when I told the teacher I was having trouble, she told me to just listen to the music of the language and not worry so much about understanding every word. Eventually, she said, the meaning would come to me.
Because of that relaxing instruction, my teacher instilled in me a love of the music of French, and I began to hear all music in a different way. But I still had no notion that music could be a career for me. I didn't go to college, though I did go to France. Then I worked as a secretary in Washington, DC, and spent some years taking three buses across the city for ballet class. But I still hadn't heard music by Mahler, or even Mozart.
After I moved to New York, still working as a secretary, I began taking voice lessons, but, like my dance classes, these were more along the lines of a hobby than born of any ambition to become a professional musician. It wasn't until my voice teacher suggested I had a real talent that I became serious, and finally took a chance and entered a tryout for the Metropolitan Opera. So, I was one of those "overnight successes" who had really found what I loved doing pretty much by mistake.
During my career, I've often sung French opera in Paris, a risky venture for an American. Critics have been kind enough to praise my pronunciation. I'm grateful, but not surprised. After all, I've been listening to the music of French since my school days.