Frederica von Stade says farewell

Albert ImperatoFri 23rd April 2010
Frederica von Stade takes a bow (photo: Eric Melear)Frederica von Stade takes a bow (photo: Eric Melear)

Singer waves goodbye to the concert stage

Frederica von Stade – known as Flicka since childhood, when her father nicknamed her after the famous horse in the popular Hollywood film – owned New York City this week, with two incredibly memorable events celebrating her farewell from the concert stage after a remarkable 40-year career.  

Two days ago she was the honoree at the Metropolitan Opera Guild’s 75th anniversary luncheon, held at the Waldorf Astoria hotel (the Guild is a client of our company, 21C Media Group), where she was praised for being nothing short of a saint (soprano Evelyn Lear, one of the special guests, went as far as to call her the Mother Theresa of opera). Howard Kissel gives an affectionate account of the event at his “Cultural Tourist” blog at the New York Daily News website.  And tonight she gave her farewell recital on the main stage at Carnegie Hall with long-time collaborator, pianist Martin Katz.

I can’t think of another singer of our time as deeply beloved as Flicka, and her performance tonight showcased all of the qualities that have made her justly adored: the humor, the elegance, the radiant warmth, the ever-youthful exuberance.   And there are, of course, the singular qualities of the voice itself: the rich color, the honeyed tone, the distinctive vibrato. All of these come together in a singer with a natural expressiveness and a gift for storytelling – all in all, a winning combination.

Flicka told Zachary Woolfe of the New York Observer that her Carnegie program  “bordered on tacky” in that it was “a little musical autobiography.” (Here’s a link to his lovely interview with her). But in performance, it came across as nothing but sincere, illuminating and very moving. 

Ned Rorem’s I Am a Rose, which opened the concert, reflected that she was born the runt of the litter, but as her mother told her, “with a rosebud mouth.” It was followed immediately by La Vie en rose, which was one of several songs that showed her special way with the French language. Virgil Thomson’s A Prayer to Saint Catherine and Copland’s Why Do They Shut Me Out of Heaven conveyed some of her feelings about attending Catholic school, and songs by Poulenc (his gorgeous Hôtel, from Banalités cast a nocturnal spell in her hushed performance), Rorem and Berthomieu conjured up memories of her days in Paris, where she lived after high school. A surprise came at the end of the first half, when two of her favorite singers, bass Sam Ramey and baritone Richard Stilwell, joined her on stage for Some Other Time from Bernstein’s On The Town.

I was hoping for a Mahler song, and got one in her delightful performance of one of Mahler’s rare humorous works, Lob des hohen Verstands from Des Knaben Wunderhorn. The song Jenny Rebecca, by Carol Hall, made it on the program to pay tribute to one of her two beloved daughters: Flicka was recording this song, popularized by Barbra Streisand, on the day she gave birth and named the daughter after the song (visibly pregnant, she joined her mother for one of the encores). The final song on the program was Sondheim’s Send in the Clowns, which she sang with more intensity than I had anticipated (avoiding the cloying quality it can have when some singers stretch it like taffy). Speaking to the audience, as she had done all night, she explained, “When things go wrong at the circus, they send in the clowns.”

Before singing another one of her encores, Voi che sapate, Flicka made the sign of the cross, as if she were saying “Lord, don’t let my voice fail me when I sing my signature aria at my farewell recital!” She needn’t have worried: it would be hard to imagine any young singer today performing it with more freshness and feeling than she did tonight.

We’ll miss you, Flicka, but thank God we have your recordings. For me the one that I treasure most – along with her Cherubino in the great Soliti Figaro – is her classic recording of Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvernge. For me, a definition of perfect happiness is hearing her sing the opening song, Baïlèro. A local art house cinema here in New York’s Lincoln Center area played that track (over and over again on a loop, no less!) before the featured film was shown for at least two decades. I never got tired of it then, and I know I never will.

Albert Imperato

Albert Imperato is co-founder of 21C Media Group, a classical music and performing arts PR, marketing and consulting firm. His on-line journal gives a window into the New York music world, as seen through the eyes of a leading PR guru.

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