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For 'A Coffin in Egypt,' von Stade goes deep into the heart of Texas

The endless Texas landscape had to be seen if she was to understand what restricted lives it had wrought.

Frederica von Stade with Cecilia Duarte in "A Coffin in Egypt" premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in March.
Frederica von Stade with Cecilia Duarte in "A Coffin in Egypt" premiered by the Houston Grand Opera in March.Read more

The endless Texas landscape had to be seen if she was to understand what restricted lives it had wrought.

For months, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade studied 90-year-old Myrtle Bledsoe, her character in the chamber opera A Coffin in Egypt, and asked how such an intelligent, sophisticated woman, courted by theater producers and sea captains, could have stayed in a humiliating small-town marriage rife with Southern-gothic intrigue.

Was it possible that Myrtle, now looking back at all the people she has outlived, simply imagined the glamorous trips to New York and Paris she so often talked about?

Audiences - first in Houston, where the opera premiered in March, and now at Opera Philadelphia, where it runs from Friday through June 15 at the Kimmel Center's Perelman Theater - no doubt wonder the same. To find her own truth about Myrtle, who was based on a real person, von Stade, 69, drove by herself to Egypt, Texas, once an important nexus for sugar and cotton plantations, to find that it's now little more than a crossroads.

"The moment you get out of Houston and into that open country, it's flat flat flat. It was winter. The cemetery is there. And there was an older lady whose mother - she was of my grandmother's generation - went with Myrtle on her first trip to Paris.

"So Myrtle did travel. But they were still pioneers. Divorces weren't equal-property back then. And she loved the land."

The husband part was tougher: Hunter Bledsoe was openly, gleefully adulterous. His lack of shame, perhaps, was the key to the marriage's enduring.

"They had a remarkably honest relationship. To say they were friends wouldn't be right. But they completely understood each other. You can go a whole lifetime without that kind of clarity with another person. And he did admire her. She was called the Queen of Egypt."

Based on the 1980 play by Horton Foote and adapted for the opera stage by composer Ricky Ian Gordon and librettist/director Leonard Foglia, A Coffin in Egypt borders on being a monodrama.

In an allusion to the plantation culture of the late 19th century, black spirituals were something of an atmospheric backdrop in Foote's play, but here now arrive in the foreground (with original music by Gordon), sung by a gospel quartet. There are a few non-singing actors - Hunter, Myrtle's caretaker, several others.

"We performed it in concert at Horton Foote's hometown in Wharton, Texas," not far from Egypt, von Stade recalled. "It's cowboys out there. They're tough. They really are."

Like so many things in von Stade's long and rewarding career, opportunity seemed to find her. Universally known by her childhood nickname, Flicka, the Somerville, N.J., native was hoping to break into Broadway while working at the Manhattan Tiffany store; a chance opera audition at the Met radically changed that career path.

After her 1970 debut, she was soon cast in major roles, most famously Cherubino in The Marriage of Figaro. But she never forced her honey-flavored mezzo beyond its limits, and did, in fact, record several Broadway scores with far more credibility than most opera singers.

A messy, much-publicized divorce of the sort that sends some singers into early retirement sent her instead to the San Francisco Bay area, where she remarried in 1990, had a more West Coast-based career, began singing more contemporary opera (Dangerous Liaisons, Dead Man Walking), and developed a music curriculum at a Catholic school in Oakland, St. Martin de Porres, a long way from her own well-heeled upbringing.

Farewells to singing were announced, and even celebrated. But they didn't stick. Her participation in A Coffin in Egypt came out of a chance conversation with Houston Grand Opera artistic director Patrick Summers when the piece's metamorphosis from play to opera was still in the talking stages. It made sense in light of how successfully she had assumed character roles, such as the desperate mother of a convicted killer in Dead Man Walking.

"My whole career was luck. I never planned it. I never had enough foresight to say, 'This is what I want to do. This is what I'd like to be doing.' Opera just presented itself, and I just do my darndest to make it work as best I can," she said.

"I told Ricky and Lenny, 'If you think I'm not up to this, it's not going to hurt my feelings if you change your mind about me. It won't do any permanent damage. It's not like I'm building a career."

It can now be said that there were some doubts, quiet ones, as von Stade was still coming to terms with one of the longer roles of her entire career - almost 80 intermissionless minutes essentially alone on stage. In some ways, she had the King Lear problem: Once a performer has the life experience to encompass such a complicated role, the stamina it requires can be overwhelming.

Few composers are as voice-friendly as Gordon, who now has a Metropolitan Opera commission but has long composed song cycles for major singers. In Philadelphia, several early works - States of Independence, The Tibetan Book of the Dead - were seen at the American Music Theater Festival, featuring the likes of (a very young) Curtis Institute grad Eric Owens.

Though Gordon's breakthrough opera was The Grapes of Wrath, Houston's Summers wanted something smaller-scale. And director Foglia, who had directed the play version of A Coffin in Egypt, was interested in writing the libretto. Von Stade's participation made the decision easy, said Gordon: "Duh! Of course!"

"I hear her voice in my head. I know what she does," he said. "Also, the idea of somebody looking back in revenge and anger and hurt, with transcendence and forgiveness, all seemed right up my alley."

The opera, he decided, couldn't be just a matter of making the play sing. The spirituals became a four-voice Greek chorus for which he had to bargain, the price being four fewer instruments in the pit.

And though Von Stade hired a new voice teacher and went back into training to deal with possible high notes, she requested that her climactic set piece be transposed down a notch. Gordon rewrote it. Then she decided his original version was better: Emerging from a December break between workshops and rehearsals for the February world premiere in Houston, she had changed.

"Once she knew who Myrtle was . . . she seemed to enter the piece," Gordon recalls. "She's not afraid to look ugly or appear racist. She goes all the way. She seemed so pure and alive."

All the while, she recalled the words of New York voice mentor Matthew Epstein, who warns aging stars not to try to compete with their younger selves. Being a mezzo-soprano, she feels she wasn't famous enough to worry about that. Well, von Stade's admirers would fiercely object to that self-assessment of her standing. If any singer has maintained A-plus status over the years, it's Flicka. Also, recordings of A Coffin in Egypt suggest that the voice has barely aged over the last 30 years.

"Well, thank you!" she says. You sense the compliment is no surprise.


A Coffin in Egypt

Opera Philadelphia, Friday to June 15, at the Perelman Theater, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce Streets. Tickets: $52-$136. Information: 215-893-1018 or