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Born into a prominent New Jersey family, von Stade’s forebears included many distinguished establishment figures such as a great-aunt who sang at the Opéra-Comique and a dean of Harvard University. Her father, an officer in the US army, was killed in action two months before her birth. An early ambition was to become a Broadway star and every weekend von Stade would travel to New York to see two musicals, in a matinée and evening performance each. While working as a shop assistant at Tiffany’s, she auditioned for the Mannes School of Music as a bet, despite not being able to read music. In her second year there she moved from being a part-time to a full-time student, and as a pupil of Sebastian Engelberg she gradually developed a previously unrecognised upper range of her voice.

In 1969 von Stade auditioned for the Metropolitan Opera and was immediately offered a three-year contract, making her operatic stage debut there at the beginning of 1970 as one of the Three Boys / Die Zauberflöte. Other small roles she sang during this period included Wowkle / La fanciulla del West, Shepherd Boy / Tosca, Flora / La traviata, Nicklausse / Les Contes d’Hoffman, Suzuki / Madama Butterfly, Virginella / La Périchole, Lola / Cavalleria rusticana, Mercédès / Carmen and Siebel / Faust. At the beginning of 1972 she appeared as Hänsel / Hänsel und Gretel and Cherubino / Le nozze di Figaro, making such an immediate impact in these trouser roles that, aided by vigorous promotion by her agent Matthew Epstein, she was soon appearing with other companies.

During 1973 von Stade sang Cherubino with the San Francisco Opera, Glyndebourne Festival Opera and Paris Opera, and from 1974 to 1976 at the Salzburg Festival, returning there in 1979 as Marguerite / La Damnation de Faust and during the 1980s to give song recitals. She made her debut at the Royal Opera House, London as Rosina / Il barbiere di Siviglia in 1975; later Covent Garden roles included Charlotte / Werther (1980), Elena / La donna del lago (1985) and Mélisande / Pélleas et Mélisande (1993), one of her finest interpretations.

She first sang at La Scala, Milan in 1976 as Angelina / La Cenerentola and later as Rosina (1985) and Charlotte (1988), repeating this role the same year at the Vienna State Opera. Also in 1976 she sang Octavian / Der Rosenkavalier at the Holland Festival. After appearances at the Met as Rosina (1973), Zerlina / Don Giovanni (1974), and Adalgisa / Norma (1975), she returned there to sing Idamante / Idomeneo, Octavian and Blanche / Dialogues des Carmélites during 1982 and 1983. She continued to sing Cherubino and Rosina in New York through to 1992 and Mélisande to 1995, and was a most successful Hanna Glawari / Die lustige Witwe during 2000 and 2001, the year of her final appearance at the Met.

Throughout her career von Stade sang regularly with many other significant American and European opera companies. Notable roles included Penelope / Il ritorno d’Ulisse in patria (Glyndebourne, 1979), Iphise / Dardanus (Rameau) (Paris Opera, 1980), the title roles in Massenet’s Chérubin (Santa Fe, 1989) and Handel’s Serse (Santa Fe, 1997), Countess Geschwitz / Lulu (San Francisco, 1998), Dorabella / Così fan tutte, the Composer / Ariadne auf Naxos and Sesto / La clemenza di Tito.

Von Stade also sang in many contemporary operas, for instance Pasatieri’s The Seagull (Houston, 1974), Argento’s The Aspern Papers (Dallas, 1988), Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons (San Francisco, 1994) and Heggie’s Dead Man Walking (Houston, 2011). In addition to her purely operatic career, she has appeared in many musicals, including Show Boat, The Sound of Music and A Little Night Music. She remains a distinguished singer in concert and recitals.

Her attractive, soft-grained voice has always been particularly well-suited to the repertoire which she has pursued. Her stage presence was always extremely aristocratic and elegant, but also full of fun when required.

© Naxos Rights International Ltd. — David Patmore (A–Z of Singers, Naxos 8.558097-100).

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