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Video Published: 24 Aug 2022

An Oral History with Frayda Lindemann

On May 4th, 2022, arts administrator and trustee Frayda Lindemann sat down with OPERA America's President/CEO Marc A. Scorca for a conversation about opera and their life. 

This interview was originally recorded on May 4th, 2022. 
The Oral History Project is supported by the Arthur F. and Alice E. Adams Charitable Foundation. 

Frayda Lindemann, arts administrator, trustee

Frayda B. Lindemann is president and CEO of the Metropolitan Opera and immediate past chairman of Opera America. Together with her late husband George Lindemann, she established the Lindemann Young Artist Development Program at the Metropolitan Opera. Previously, she served on the board of directors of Lincoln Center and the Palm Beach Opera. She is co-chair of the music advisory board at Hunter College and was the director and chairman of the executive committee of Young Concert Artists. Prior to her nonprofit work, Lindemann was an assistant professor of music history at Hunter College. She earned a bachelor’s degree from Hunter College, and a Ph.D. in musicology from Columbia University.

Oral History Project

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Marc A. Scorca: Well, I have some questions for you and I'm so grateful for you taking time to chat with me today.

Frayda Lindemann: Well, I'll chat with you today more than once.

Marc A. Scorca: So, Frayda Lindemann, who brought you to your first opera?

Frayda Lindemann: My mother. It was in the old house. I was 12 or 13. It was Cesare Siepi as Don Giovanni.

Marc A. Scorca: So, as a 12 year old, were you just swept away by this opera experience, or did you find it kind of boring and think, "I don't wanna do that again.”

Frayda Lindemann: I remember being there physically, but I don't remember my reaction, but for the next 25 years, I would say that Don Giovanni was my favorite opera. That's all I remember really, and then it became Otello. And it was the Otello with Plácido Domingo and Renée Fleming that just stuck in my mind for a long time. But then with age, little by little, it really turned into Wagner.

Marc A. Scorca: Wow.

Frayda Lindemann: And it came with age.

Marc A. Scorca: Good selections. I know that you were a music student - piano - from an early age, and you clearly had a talent, an affinity for it. Who figured out that you were good at this music thing and who encouraged you?

Frayda Lindemann: It's quite simple. My mother was a local piano teacher, so she played the piano and she was a piano teacher for young people in the neighborhood. And she recognized it immediately. I was about two and a half. I was born in 1939, so it was probably during World War II. We had an upright piano at the time in the living room, and we had a radio; we had no TV. So I would pick out the little tunes that I heard on the radio on that piano. And my mother knew. So at three and a half or four, she took me to New York to a 91 or 92 year old professor, Kate Chittenden. I never forgot her name. She had been professor of music at Vassar. I cannot tell you how my mother knew that, but I remember being there. It's the building on Broadway and 56th street, which now has Petrosian: that gorgeous building. When you go up in the building - I'll never forget - it was kind of like the Dakota. It was on the wrong side of too old, very high ceilings and very narrow corridors. That's what I remember. I walked in - this little three and a half, four year old - and her assistant, a woman of about 60, Miss Nugent...can you imagine what I've forgotten, but that I remember?...greeted me and escorted me and my mother into the living room where there were two pianos. And I don't remember what I played, but she tested me, and I played something and she tested my ear and she said to my mother, "Yes, this child is gifted, but she's too young to start. Come back when she's five.” And I think that's what happened. I can't remember who taught me when I was five.

Marc A. Scorca: In your youthful practice sessions, with your mother as a piano teacher. Did you resist practicing or did you enjoy it from the start?

Frayda Lindemann: At the beginning, I really enjoyed it. I can only remember, because I had an older sister. She was four and a half years older than I was. First, she wanted to be a singer, so my mother paid for singing lessons. Then, when I was about seven or eight years old, my mother bought a Steinway grand piano, not the great big one, the L, I think, was the letter, however big that is: close to six feet. And my sister decided when she saw that piano, that she wanted to play the harp. So my mother said, "I cannot afford to buy a harp and a piano; I'll rent the harp.” It was a very wise decision by my mother. She rented the harp, which came to nothing. I wound up playing that harp, you know, for a little bit, nothing much, but my mother knew that was not going to work. We then moved to Coral Gables, Miami, Florida for two or three years. I was nine and 10. My mother found a very good piano teacher. I remember his name. It was well known: Hans Barth. And he took me on as a pupil, and I tried little recitals and we sent the Steinway down to Miami. The soundboard cracked, and they replaced the piano. No charge.

Marc A. Scorca: Now, along the way here, you discovered you had perfect pitch.

Frayda Lindemann: That's why I could play the little jingles from the radio on the piano. I don't know where that came from. My father had a good voice, like Bing Crosby's voice, like what they called a crooner, and he loved to sing til the day he died. He was in a chorus in Florida. So I remember him singing, but I don't know anything about his musical gift or anything like that, but I think it's random. I think there are people born that way. I assume.

Marc A. Scorca: I do too. I think it is. I don't think you develop perfect pitch. You develop relative pitch, but you don't develop perfect pitch.

Frayda Lindemann: Exactly. So my mother knew that, because she was a piano teacher. She heard me picking out the tunes on the piano from the radio.

Marc A. Scorca: But when you came back to New York, you began doing...was it sort of Saturday lessons at Juilliard?

Frayda Lindemann: Yes, I was part of the preparatory division at Juilliard when Juilliard was on 125th Street. And my mother took me every Saturday. And it was all day, because you had theory, counterpoint etc., Solfège and your piano lesson. It was Saturday only.

Marc A. Scorca: When you went to Hunter (College), was that a music degree as well?

Frayda Lindemann: Yes. It was a Bachelor of Arts in music.

Marc A. Scorca: Just music from early childhood.

Frayda Lindemann: Well, you know, Marc, I was interested in history. I loved history, but music was easy for me, and I think that's why I gravitated back to it, because it was the path of least resistance. I'm assuming that, but that must have been the reason.

Marc A. Scorca: I think it's okay to do what you're good at. I'm then so amazed that more than 15 years after you graduated with your Bachelor's...

Frayda Lindemann: No, it wasn't. I know the date. It's not 15. I graduated at 21, and I enrolled at Columbia in 1971, so I was 32 years old when I enrolled. I had three children already.

Marc A. Scorca: What motivated you to? 

Frayda Lindemann: I was bored, and Sloan at four was the youngest and started Lycée Français, which was all day. So I said, "I'm going.” And I went to Hunter where I had been a music student (on the 15th floor then). Now it's on the fourth floor, but it was on the 15th floor. I went and I ran into a music student, Michael Griffel, who still was teaching at Juilliard, in the graduate school. I ran into Michael. I recognized him. He hadn't changed. We had been piano students together. He's a couple of years younger than I am, maybe two or three. And my mother then took me out of Juilliard, and through some connection, put me with a teacher from Vienna called Professor Angela Weschler. And that's where I met Michael. He was a piano student with the same person. So I knew Michael's mother and father and brother, because he used to do these little musicals. And who had to show up? The parents. And when I ran into Michael at Hunter, I recognized him immediately; (he) looked exactly the same to me. And I said, “Hello," and I gave him a hug and he asked me how my family was and blah, blah, blah. And I told him why I was there. And he said, "Frayda, if you go to do a graduate degree at the City University, all the classes are at night, so you're not gonna be able to do it with a husband and three children. You have to go to Columbia where I went.” So I immediately took myself up to Columbia. I sent them my record from Hunter and I enrolled - just like that. It was 1971. And I show up there on Dodge Hall, on the third or fourth floor. And I meet two other women - younger than I was: one from Montreal and one from New York. And we bonded. There were seven in that graduate class. Michael and his wife, Margie had been ahead of me by two years. We enjoyed each other's company. We ate lunch together. We did work together. We studied for our comprehensives together. We're still friendly. And I was there from 1971 physically, til 1978, when I finished.

Marc A. Scorca: What was your concentration? What was your specialty?

Frayda Lindemann: My concentration was a French subject, because at Columbia then (I don't know about now) you had to pass four language requirements. So I knew French very well. The three of us had a German teacher. The three of us had an Italian teacher with a long gold chain at NYU. And we had a Latin teacher, Craig Nobles - on 110th street. He taught us Latin, the three of us together, and I passed all the language tests, but French, I knew best. So I figured if I take a French topic, it'll be easier for me. And I did take a French baroque topic, 'Pastoral instruments in French baroque music'. And I knew that I couldn't (as most graduate students in music must do) go and spend time in Europe. I just couldn't. So I did what I could do. And we passed our orals first time. And I wrote the dissertation in about three years, maybe four. And then I got a job at Hunter teaching in the music department. And I was teaching in the same department on the 15th floor where I had been a student.

Marc A. Scorca: What a fabulous full circle.

Frayda Lindemann: And Michael was still there at Hunter. He hadn't left. George Stauffer, who graduated the year before me at Columbia, who now runs the Rutgers humanities - the big art arts department. He was at Hunter for a while. Anyway, I was at Hunter as an associate professor for about 10 years, give or take. And then the children went to college and we started to go to Florida. And that was the end of my teaching career. So that was about 1992, 3 or 4.

Marc A. Scorca: And that begins to overlap with your joining the board at The Metropolitan Opera around 1990?

Frayda Lindemann: That's right; I was. First, I was on the board of Young Concert Artists. I promised my friend Mortimer Levitt, who was the chairman of the board for many years - I said, "I can't do it while I'm in school, but once I finish school, I promise to join the board,” which I did. And I enjoyed it. Susan Wadsworth was there, she's a couple of years older than I am, and I stayed and stayed and stayed and stayed and stayed. And in between all of that, before we went skiing on the weekends with the children, we used to go to The Met for New Year's Eve. And we would come back to the apartment with another couple, have a champagne and a little caviar. And that was our New Year. So then all of a sudden I got a call from Marjorie Lowry. Did you ever know her?

Marc A. Scorca: Yes, but this a long time ago.

Frayda Lindemann: Yes. I get a call from Marjorie Lowry. "This is Marjorie Lowry. I'm a volunteer at The Metropolitan Opera and my husband and I would like to invite you, as a couple, for dinner in the Opera Club.” So I said, "Okay, sure.” So we go for dinner, turns out Walter Lowry was a member of The Metropolitan Club, as was my husband. And so we had a connection and we had a lovely dinner and we went to some opera - I don't remember which one, and then (there) must have been somebody (who) called me to join the board originally. I said, “Okay." That's when it all started actually. And I think it was 1995. I got a call in Florida. We were already spending most of the winter in Florida. The children were already in college or out of college or whatever and it was Jim (James) Kinnear, "Hello Frayda." He was then chairman. "Hello, Jim.” "We'd like to put your name on the young artist program.” And I remember I said, "Well, I'll have to get back to you Jim, about that.” And I asked my husband ('cause we had to give some money) and he said, “Okay." And we gave the money and they put my name on the program. And Jim Kinnear, who's 93, is coming to lunch Saturday.

Marc A. Scorca: How wonderful.

Frayda Lindemann: I'm gonna tell him what he did for me, because it turned out to be the best money we ever spent, because that program is such a hit.

Marc A. Scorca: It is a wonderful program, and I did make note of the fact that Young Concert Artists about young artists; the Lindemann Young Artist Program is about young artists. You taught at Hunter, teaching young people. There's clearly a resonance. You feel something for helping young people in their career advancement.

Frayda Lindemann: I think it came from my involvement at Young Concert Artists, because when you give your annual contribution to The Met, most everybody directs it in a certain direction. People underwrite part of a new production, all those things. So I just said, "Well, why don't you just put it to the young artist program?" And that's how I got involved. And that's why Jim Kinnear (who was a very clever businessman by the way, in his previous life) called me and asked if we would make the donation, if they would name it for us. The thing that's most interesting, which people don't know, is that much of the administration of the opera house did not want a name put on the program, because they had never been a naming sort of organization. They fought against it. I had to leave the executive committee, while they voted on it, but Jim was determined. So I'm gonna tell him all of that; I think he will remember.

Marc A. Scorca: And, of course, you're right, that your interest in young artists having come from Young Concert Artists was, in a way, what pulled the lever to get you to direct your annual contribution toward the young artist program.

Frayda Lindemann: Exactly, and the nicest thing I can tell you is that when I went to my second Lucia Monday night, you know how you walk in downstairs, and you have to show your card? There was a young man volunteering, so I walked right up and I gave him my vaccination card and my ID, The Met ID, and he looked up at me and he said, "Oh my, are you involved with the Lindemann Young Artist Program?" I said, "Young man, it's me. It's a real person. I am the program. It's me.” And he was delightful. So it's been a wonderful thing.

Marc A. Scorca: So let's think back for a second. So there you are a board member, Metropolitan Opera, 1990's. Were there board members then who were role models for you, or people you looked up to as board members at The Met in those days?

Frayda Lindemann: Well, those days, Bruce Crawford, God bless him. He's still wonderful. I saw him at the opera the other day. And he was running the show. It wasn't a collaborative board...executive committee at that time, the way it is now, but he was definitely in charge and he knew what he was doing. So I remember him and we remain very good friends. There's all kinds of personalities. I can't say they're all my best friends; they're not. And it's a very business-like board. It's quite...the term would probably be... uptight, the way it goes along. But you get used to (it); you do whatever you do because you're sensitive and you learn what other people expect. But Bruce Crawford remains in my mind, and remains a very good friend.

Marc A. Scorca: And I have been with you when young artists who've been in the program come up to you to thank you for the difference the program made in their lives.

Frayda Lindemann: It's amazing. In terms of PR, it's been the best thing that I've ever done. And it just happened. And when Jim comes to lunch on Saturday, I'm going to go through the whole story, because it really is a wonderful story. Even my grandchildren's music teachers in California and in Miami, they recognize the name.

Marc A. Scorca: That makes you eponymous: the eponymous Frayda Lindemann. And I remember when Ryan Speedo Green came up to you at opening night, last season, and said that the program saved his life.

Frayda Lindemann: That was amazing. And he's having such a wonderful career now; just fabulous. And he looks good and sounds great.

Marc A. Scorca: Yeah, he really does. He really does. Now, you've been on the OPERA America board for about 15 years, first as a member, then as the chair, immediate past chair - now as an emeritus member and the rest of the field is a little different from The Metropolitan Opera.

Frayda Lindemann: A bit.

Marc A. Scorca: And you've gotten to know them from coast to coast. What has struck you as you've come to observe opera in America through the lens of OPERA America?

Frayda Lindemann: The most interesting thing is that the big companies, San Francisco, Chicago, Dallas: they're similar in a way to The Metropolitan Opera, but the tiny companies were a revelation to me. I didn't know anything like that or how they do it - I don't know: on a shoestring. But that really was the very interesting thing. In addition, I met two fabulous older women, my age, that I wouldn't have known without OPERA America and we've become good friends, and we share that and that's really been wonderful. But the best are the people. The best are also the directors of companies who really welcomed me with open arms, in a very warm and appreciative and loving way. And that really meant a lot to me. So I got to know a lot of people I would've never known.

Marc A. Scorca: And you're right, the smaller companies, (and there are so many smaller companies), they are populated by true believers in this art form.

Frayda Lindemann: That's the right term, Marc,: true believers, amazing.

Marc A. Scorca: They really are. So here you are a trustee of organizations, a philanthropist, a mother, a grandmother - of course you must be asked for advice about either life or being a board member, being a grandmother. What are some of the kernels of advice from Dr. Lindemann?

Frayda Lindemann: Well Marc, even if they don't ask for advice, I give it anyway. I always say to them, "I know right from wrong, and I'm not gonna say that wrong is right - ever.” They know that about me. I have one granddaughter just turned 15 and she's on the senior crew in Miami. I went to watch her in a meet. First of all, it's really a labor of love, because you can't even see who's rowing the boat. You're standing there waiting and waiting; you don't even know what they're doing. After the meet was over, I went to find Beatrice and I said, "Beatrice, what do you think of how (it went)?" She was in a four man boat. She said, "Grandma, the other three women did not do what they had to do. They were fooling around. They didn't keep their eyes forward all the time. I'm very disappointed in my fellow teammates.” And immediately I said, "Bea, if you try your hardest (in) everything you do, you will never be sorry. It's a lesson which will go through your life in every way. Try your hardest, and you'll be so rewarded in life, for trying your hardest.” It just came spontaneously because she was quite disappointed. And when I thought about it later, I think that's really pretty good advice for a young person. Do it. Whether it works out, whether people don't try as hard as you do, do it anyway. It's great. And I think that's good advice.

Marc A. Scorca: Whether it's an artist, or a board member, or a grandchild, it's great advice.

Frayda Lindemann: Or an athlete. It's what they have to do.

Marc A. Scorca: Now coming full circle to the beginning of our conversation. You still have that Steinway grand piano from your childhood?

Frayda Lindemann: It's in the living room in Connecticut; that Steinway with its ivory keys is still with me. In fact, I have a collection of Beethoven sonatas sitting on the center hall table. And every time I pass it, I think, "Okay, maybe today I'll do it.” So I might. I don't know if the fingers will work as well, but I'm gonna go back to old favorite musical works, and see if I can move my fingers a bit, just because...

Marc A. Scorca: I think's a great idea.

Frayda Lindemann: It's a good idea, if I could ever get myself to do it.

Marc A. Scorca: Oh well, Frayda Lindemann, what is so wonderful about chatting with you today is that so many people know your name. Again, you're eponymous.

Frayda Lindemann: Am I lucky?

Marc A. Scorca: And you know, in this interview, people have a chance to know who you are. And I think it's really important that someone who has had such a leadership role is someone people can talk to, thanks to a video interview. So thanks for this time today, I'm really grateful, and we'll look forward to talking to you very soon.

Frayda Lindemann: Thank you, Marc. And anyone who wants to call me and ask me any question - I have a lot of opinions and I'm happy to give them.

Marc A. Scorca: Fair enough. We'll make sure.