It is impossible to believe that Frederica von Stade has truly left the opera stage after a 40-year career. Can it be possible that I first saw my then-new friend, Flicka in 1971 at the Metropolitan Opera? She was playing Violetta’s friend, Flora Bervoix in La Traviata. I saw her again a few days ago at the Houston Grand Opera, where she sang the role of the heartbroken mother of a condemned man in Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s searing and achingly painful opera, Dead Man Walking.
The years have flown by, punctuated by glorious performances by Flicka as Hansel, both Rossini and Massenet’s Cinderellas, Debussy’s Melisande, Charlotte in Werther and of course, as Cherubino and Octavian. Flicka has given us so much of her beautiful mezzo-soprano, her nuanced interpretation of roles, her elegance and her warmth and humor. How she will be missed by audiences and by those who know her well. I evesdropped on my neighbors who were voicing my thoughts; this was a historic event that none of us who had had the privilege of hearing and seeing Flicka were going to miss. There were really two performances in Houston that Sunday afternoon: the opera, and the post performance outpouring of adoration and admiration.
Heggie’s opera demands a great deal of its audience – it is raw and brutal. The rape and murder of two appealing innocent young people takes place before our eyes, albeit in a half light. And then we meet Sr. Helen Prejean who has made a pen pal of Joseph de Rocher who is accused of the heinous crime. It is difficult to have any sympathy for this man –until, that is, his mother pleads his case in a hearing before the pardon board. My always beautifully turned out friend appeared in a drab and shapeless dress, a ratty gray cardigan and ungainly sandals and I almost didn’t recognize her.
Flicka’s performance of the aria in defense of her son was transcendent. She turned him into someone we could only pity as the victim of a bad system. She remembered him as “not a bad boy, my Joe.” They were so poor, she tells us, and he got into the wrong crowd. But he was a “good boy, my Joe.” There was hardly a dry eye in the house. We were left to helplessly curse the human condition that can reduce men and women to such depravity.
There were many superb interpretations of the difficult roles. Joyce DiDonato reprised the role of Sr. Prejean. Hers was a stellar performance reflecting the conflict a woman who has chosen to be a nun must face, when accepting to be a pen pal to a criminal who won’t admit his guilt. Her journey with Joe to his redemption is what the opera is all about. Philip Cutlip, winning in the role of Joe de Rocher, managed to do perhaps 50 push-ups while he awaited his execution: It was a brilliant, desperate statement of being alive.
On this day, it was Flicka who took the final bow to thunderous applause. Still, in her sad little outfit, she was called to the front of the stage by Anthony Freud, General Director and CEO of the Houston Grand Opera. Her first statement was “I wish I had a better dress.” We all laughed and when we had quieted down, Freud presented Flicka with a silver rose, emblematic of the love and generosity she has lavished on us so unstintingly in a “long and distinguished career.” The silver rose was also a reminder of Flicka’s many flawless performances as Octavian in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier. Music Director Patrick Summers compared Flicka to a real star — "a star is always there and always true, whether or not light is shining on it. It illuminates and reflects.”
Through tears, the self-effacing Flicka thanked the HGO company which she termed a “beacon of light for all opera lovers” and she complimented the HGO audience for loving its opera company. She said Sr. Helen’s words rang in her ears and Jake’s music in her heart. In the end, she quoted the line sung by her friend Sr. Rose (sung by the superb soprano, Measha Brueggergosman .) “My heart bursts from it.” The company and the audience went wild.
Backstage, Hannah hadn’t a clue what all the fuss was about — she is a very sophisticated white Scottie, used to dressing rooms in only the best opera houses. She quite enjoyed all the visitors backstage but then was left behind while we went to a dandy cast party. There, with Heggie at the piano, and Joyce DiDonato doing the honors, Flicka was serenaded with a song from Cole Porter’s Anything Goes. Sample: “I hate parading my serenading, as I’ll probably miss a bar. And rhymes for Flickie, are pretty tricky, but at least this’ll tell you how great you are.” Then we all came in with familiar lines from “You’re the Top.”
It was a grand exit. How could it be otherwise for Frederica von Stade!
(Right: Jake Heggie and Frederica von Stade backstage at HGO)