Sunday, June 7, 2009

The beauty known as "Flicka"

Frederica von Stade. One hardly knows where to begin.

There is this:



Or 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.


So in the end, no words will suffice to sum up the influence Flicka has had on the opera family, and on the world around her. She is an inspiration, a shining light, and a JOY to call "friend".

12 comments:

Alixkovich said...

Frederica Von Stade is certainly a really great artist! plus, she's so beautiful!
I have a question: Do you have any plans with Natalie Dessay? And by plans I don't mean a CD like Lamenti, but are you going to sing together in an opera? Because Natalie is my favourite soprano, and you're my favourite mezzo, and it would be so great to see you both together!

Papageiena said...

My parents had the pleasure of seeing her as Cherubino at the Met. I'm told the audience exploded after "Non so piu", which was followed by a second explosion after "Voi che sapete". I can only imagine. :) Flicka is divine. I love her.

Smorg said...

I'll definitely drink to that... Flicka Von Stadt. Even bigger as a person than she is an artist!

Martina said...

When i was young i thought opera was all about fat ladies shrieking like banshees (i said i was YOUNG) and then i heard Frederica von Stade. I can`t say my opinion about opera in general improved on the spot but i know i fell in love with her voice immediately.Ages have passed since then and lots of things have changed, I`ve even come to like opera, but she still is my favourite singer (sorry Joyce ;-)) With a voice like that she could be Cruella de Vil as far as I am concerned, although knowing that she`s such a nice person is the icing on the cake.

marcillac said...

Not to ruin the mood or anything but this post gives us reason to once again rue the demise of opera recordings and the selection of made for DVDs.

I never heard Flicka's Cherubino (I'm pretty certain she never sang it after I would have been interested in it) but at least her performances are well preserved and available for us to enjoy. Query whether the same will be the case for Joyce DiDonato (who is not among the more unfortunate contemporary artists in this respect). Moreover, even allowing for various extenuating circumstances, the things that are recorded for DVD are hardly the best available. To wit, I've seen, easily, more than a half a dozen Figaro's over the past 15 years that are better than anything available on DVD from this period (I obviously have not seen much more than I have - I am told your Munich Figaro was particularly spectacular - I've seen some magnificent one's there). Obviously its impossible to record more than a small fraction of live performances but one can't help shaking one's head looking at what's available in the catalogs and in light of what might have been captured.

YouTube is certainly helpful and your post illustrates this in a very compelling way. Still, in light of the inherent compromises, it is hardly an optimal stand alone solution.

The great thing is that we do have Ficka's best work available for our enjoyment, and those of us who have the great fortune to see a great deal of live opera can take great pleasure from the fact that she has, artistically at least, so many wonderful successors (the author of the present post not least among them).

Sibyl said...

She's one of my idols. A friend and I waited outside the San Diego Civic after her recital; when she came out about an hour and a half after the recital (carrying her own gown, I might add), she asked with absolute humility if we had waited outside all that time for *her*, seemingly surprised by the notion. That became my benchmark for graciousness.

steve49w said...

Thank you so much for sharing these videos. She is so amazing. And if you look up "class act" in the dictionary you will find her picture.

Steve

Mei said...

The DECCA's album conducted by Solti and Von Stade as Cherubino was one of my favorites...

Brian said...

What a wonderful post/tribute to your friend Joycee, Thank you for the memories!! She really is an inspiration! Did I ever show you you the video we captured of you two from the Ranch?

marcillac said...

@Mei

For combination quality of cast, recording and conducting - unbeatable. (As I mention above I have heard live performances of comprable or even superior quality none of which have been preserved.)

Mei said...

@marcillac

I agree with you, recordings can be beaten by some live performances...

It's a pity, great performances should be preserved and enjoyed by everybody...

I think opera theaters should preserve these live performances and made them accessible to the public like the Metropolitan Opera is doing now...

rhcb1 said...

Classy, generous, great American mezzo. Takes one to know one, it seems.

"Flicka"'s Cherubino was one of the chief things that lit my opera flame, about 25 years. There hasn't been anyone quite her in that role since; but now there's another wonderful American mezzo carrying the flame in an only slightly different way.

Enough said!