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EXCLUSIVE: Frederica von Stade Uncovers Dark Family Secrets in 'A Coffin in Egypt,' to be Staged by Chicago Opera Theater

By Louise Burton l.burton@classicalite.com on Apr 22, 2015 04:22 PM EDT

Ricky Ian Gordon's opera A Coffin in Egypt, written for legendary mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade, is coming to the Harris Theater in Chicago on April 25 - May 3. Von Stade will reprise her tour-de-force portrayal of Myrtle Bledsoe, grande dame of Egypt, Texas, in this Chicago Opera Theater production.

"It is an incredible honor and rare opportunity to have the regal Frederica von Stade fill the powerful lead role in A Coffin in Egypt written precisely for her," Andreas Mitisek, Chicago Opera Theater's General Director, said in a statement. The opera received its world premiere last year at Houston Grand Opera with von Stade in the leading role. She has since performed the role in Los Angeles and Philadelphia. 

Von Stade is currently in town preparing for the Chicago premiere. I recently had the opportunity to talk with her about this powerful role and opera, over a cup of coffee in the diva's Chicago apartment.

"I think Ricky's music is really, really beautiful; it has that sometimes jazzy feel to it that is very easy on the ears," von Stade told me. "One of the big strengths for me, one of the most beautiful elements--are the choruses, sung by an African-American choir. They're almost like a Greek chorus; they say what's going on... they comment on the emotion of the time."

Myrtle Bledsoe can hear this gospel quartet singing in a nearby church at key moments in A Coffin in Egypt. Vocalists in the quartet include Leah Dexter, Bernard Holcomb, Kimberly E. Jones and Nicholas Davis. Von Stade and the quartet have the only singing roles in the opera; actor David Matranga plays the non-singing role of Hunter Bledsoe, and actress Carolyn Johnson portrays Elsie Bledsoe.

A Coffin in Egypt, based on the play by Horton Foote, evokes a particular time and place in the early 20th Century, which von Stade describes as "...a geographical area that is fascinating: early Texas, where it was undeveloped... If people had money, they had huge, thousand-acre properties, farms, ranches."

The opera holds a magnifying glass to this society, focusing on Myrtle's tumultuous family history, in particular her troubled marriage to wealthy landowner Hunter Bledsoe. Hunter turns out to be a charismatic but difficult character, who cheats on her and causes a scandal that threatens the family's privileged position in Texas society.

Although their names have been changed, Myrtle and her husband were real people, known to playwright Horton Foote when he was a resident of nearby Wharton, Texas.

"Because she is a woman who would have been my grandmother's age, I feel I know her," von Stade observed. "I know that generation; I grew up with [it.]"

Life back then was very different, von Stade said. "Women had a very different set of rules in those days," she explained. "You didn't get divorced, and you had to protect your children. And he was the man with the money; she had no money. And that was a big consideration."

Over the course of numerous performances of this opera in Houston, Philadelphia and elsewhere, von Stade has come to believe that the relationship between Myrtle and her husband is deeper than it may appear. "...As cruel as they are to each other, they have a mutual understanding, an incredibly deep and unusual understanding," she said. "They are completely truthful with each other, as brutal as it can be.

"And, basically, she is crazy about him," von Stade revealed.

Von Stade said that she knew someone in her own life who was very much like Hunter Bledsoe.

"I have someone in my life... I wasn't crazy about him, but I knew him very well; he was a great friend of mine," she said. "He was brutish, but so attractive. So appealing... Women just fell all over him. And he was inconsiderate, and I don't know why people liked him! He didn't do much that was nice for anybody. He was rude; he was boorish.

"Who would be a similar character in movies?" she asked, thinking for a moment. "I guess... Jack Nicholson. He always plays someone who is just impossible... And that's who I think her husband was. And she was nuts about him, for 50 years of her life.

"No one would do it today," she reflected. "Today, no one would put up with [that behavior]. They'd be like, 'see ya around, buddy. I'm not putting up with this.'

"But [back then], life was really, really different," she concluded.

A Coffin in Egypt was co-commissioned by Houston Grand Opera, The Wallis Annenberg Center for the Performing Arts in Los Angeles, and Opera Philadelphia. 

More information about the Chicago Opera Theater production is available at chicagooperatheater.org.

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TagsFrederica von Stade, A Coffin in Egypt, Chicago Opera Theater, Ricky Ian Gordon, Leonard Foglia, Harris Theater, David Matranga, Andreas Mitisek, EXCLUSIVE