Frederica von Stade. One hardly knows where to begin.
There is this:
Those seem like obvious places to start, but they paint anything but the whole picture. As I was starting out (way back at the infamous Wichita State University!), the opera bug bit me hard, and I didn’t quite know what I was getting myself into. To me, singing was MUCH EASIER than the Beethoven sonatas I was slugging my way through on the piano – after all, you just open up and sing the pitches, right? Well, my naive declaration that vocal scales were simpler than Czerny exercises soon crumbled to pieces as I tried to warble my way without cracking through Cherubino’s arias. They didn’t LOOK that hard on paper – so what was the problem?
As every good vocal student does, I waded my way through countless interpretations of the arias, but in the end, there was only one that I ever wanted to listen to – and dammit, she made it sound so EASY! My anger was short lived, because I learned so much from watching her – and in the end it wasn’t the lovely legato, or easy transition through those damned registers – it was her sheer JOY of singing this music. It was her honesty of every single moment. When she was singing, I wasn’t watching Frederica von Stade – I was living and breathing with her Cherubino. She simply stood there. She trusted the music. She let it move through her and go out into the world, asking for nothing in return. I was hooked.
Fast forward about 6 or 7 years, and she and Sir Thomas Allen are starring together at Houston Grand Opera in “A little night music.” After her devastating interpretation of “Send in the clowns” – where flowing tears were in attendance for every performance, I simply didn’t have the courage to speak to her. But destiny stepped in as I was barging my way out the door for a quick lunch break, and nearly knocked her down a flight of stairs – of course, she wasn’t alone: she had a huge grocery bag full of bagels and cream cheese for her cast and crew. Of COURSE she did!!!
Well, in GRAND style, I chose that exact moment, as she’s precariously balancing her groceries, to blurt out at the speed of light in the most incomprehensible “english” how much I loved her and adored everything she’s ever sung and that I think she’s amazing and that she’s my hero, and “Would you mind signing my Barber score???” Yeah. I played it verrrry cool. And naturally, because she’s Flicka, “She said, ‘oh sure, honey!” And she did. (I can’t remember, but I PRAY I had the presence of mind to hold her groceries for her while she signed.)
Well, here comes the “pinch me” part: since then, I’ve sung the Squirrel to her Enfant in San Francisco, shared drinks with her and my father after a concert in Kansas City (after which my father promptly declared he was in love. He’s not the first man – nor will be the last – to fall for her, I’m sure!), sang Sister Helen to her achingly beautiful Mother in scenes from Dead Man Walking – one of my most treasured memories, and recorded some Mother-Daughter duets (also by Jake!) that should be on the shelves within the year. I recorded them with her just after my Mother had passed away, and I still can’t listen to them without falling apart.
So when the San Francisco Opera Guild called to ask me to come pay tribute to Flicka, I didn’t care what I would have had to do to get there – it was an event I wasn’t going to miss. I sang for her, and can’t think of any greater honor for me, getting to thank her personally for her influence on me, and countless others.
As I blew her a kiss at the end, I was terribly moved. For the thing that is never publicized about Flicka, is the VAST amount of Charity work that she does. One of her big causes is the Sophia Project which helps single mothers with children battle homelessness. She tirelessly helps young singers, does benefit concerts and lends her name to so many worthy projects. She also is one of the classiest, most generous people I have ever met. In her speech to the Guild that evening, she thanked by name, all the planners and participants and then spent a large part of her thank you asking for prayers for a young mezzo who is in the fight of her life against cancer. She has a beautiful way of putting all of this into perspective.