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Diva retires from opera stage

Not a dry eye in the house as HGO honors Frederica von Stade after final performance

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Frederica von Stade and Patrick Summers Photo by Kim Coffman
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Frederica von Stade: Talk about a great role model, both onstage and off.

And they did, very eloquently – as well all opera lovers might – when Houston Grand Opera officials paid tribute to this globally acclaimed mezzo-soprano as she bade a fond farewell to the operatic stage.

It was an unexpected delight to be among those fortunate to be present for this special Houston tribute to von Stade, which culminated in the presentation of an elegant silver rose award. The silver rose symbolized an opera role for which von Stade is especially beloved by opera-goers.

After spending decades setting new standards in various operatic roles, this  wonderfully accomplished singer  decided this was the time and place to bow out from the stage. Von Stade made her opera debut in 1970 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, where she regularly appeared in leading roles in ensuing years, among her myriad performances at all the world’s great opera houses.

The time was Sunday afternoon. The place was Houston’s Wortham Theater. And the occasion was HGO’s final performance of Jake Heggie and Terrence McNally’s Dead Man Walking, in which von Stade had appeared as the gentle mother of the convicted killer who had just been executed on stage. Heggie and McNally created the role for von Stade at the opera’s premiere a decade ago in San Francisco.

As if many in the audience weren’t already in tears at the ending, we were further tested, as was von Stade, when HGO general director and CEO Anthony Freud, composer Jake Heggie, and HGO music director Patrick Summers came forward to laud her career. Freud noted that two years ago, von Stade had decided that her performances in Dead Man would be her final operatic appearances.

 “All of us are truly honored that Flicka should choose Houston Grand Opera for her final farewell," Freud said, referring to von Stade by her nickname. "Over her 40-year career, Frederica von Stade has become one of the world’s most distinguished and beloved artists. All of us who have had the privilege of working with Flicka regard her as the epitome of a great artist and the personification of integrity.“

Freud noted that von Stade had made her HGO debut in 1973 as Cherubino in Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and returned in some of her greatest roles, including Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier, Charlotte in Werther  and Ottavia in The Coronation of Poppea. Her last HGO performance before Dead Man was in the role of Madeleine Mitchell in the world premiere of Heggie’s Three Decembers.

Freud then announced that, in recognition of the extraordinary artist’s wonderful career and long and close association with HGO, for the first time in its history, the company’s board of directors had invited von Stade to become an honorary member.

Summers teased von Stade by observing how “we have all heard so many times and for so many years about your exceptional qualities: How nice you are, how talented, your impeccable personal integrity and generosity. Since you’re retiring today, it’s a relief to be able to finally tell everyone about the real you.”  

He paused for dramatic effect, and then emphatically told the audience, “Everything you’ve heard all of these years is true.”

Summers told von Stade that he spoke for all of her colleagues in saying that, “for several generations now, you have been a true star. What does that mean and what does a true star do?  A star is always there and always true, whether or not light is shining on it. It illuminates and reflects. You are generous and selfless. As Joyce DiDonato has noted in recent weeks, no one has ever known you to ask for anything back.”

“There is a potent symbol at the heart of the Richard Strauss opera, Der Rosenkavalier, an opera that I know is particularly close to your heart," he continued. "In the complicated plot the presentation of the silver rose is a formal act of introduction, but also one of transformation, of discovery, a symbol of love regenerating, and the blessing of an older generation upon the future.”

“To commemorate your long and distinguished operatic career, and for exemplifying everything this company represents and strives to be, Houston Grand Opera presents you with its first Silver Rose Award, an honor which will, in the future, be given rarely, solely to commemorate long associations and artistic achievement."

She spoke briefly, warmly expressing her appreciation for the tribute and for her wonderful experiences with the opera here over the years.

The sight of the silver rose reminded me of the pivotal scene in Rosenkavalier in which Octavian, as the designated Cavalier of the Rose – a role for which von Stade is justly famous -- presents a silver rose to Sophie as a symbol of courtship on behalf of another man, Baron Ochs.  Counter to plan, Octavian and Sophie fall in love almost immediately, gazing at one another long and rapturously.

 It was one role and one very special occasion among many upon which opera lovers like me, all over the world, have appreciated von Stade’s lyrical voice and convincing role portrayal. The spry, high-energy mezzo with the winning smile endeared herself to countless onlookers during her outstanding performances in the trouser roles of Octavian in Der Rosenkavalier and Cherubino in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Over the years, Von Stade won critical acclaim for a broad spectrum of roles in both traditional and groundbreaking modern operas, like Dead Man.

The presentation of the silver rose set off a stream of remembered images in my mind.

Suddenly I saw the timeline of the relationships, the connections that went far beyond the joined hands that tied the performers together in the cast line Sunday on stage. I felt a strong sense of empathy as I watched HGO Studio alumna DiDonato, the world-acclaimed mezzo-soprano who had just sung the leading role of Sister Helen Prejean, quickly wipe the backs of both hands across her cheeks as she looked at Frederica during the tribute. I thought of how much I have enjoyed seeing and hearing this brilliant young diva in her HGO appearances in different roles, including that of Octavia in Rosenkavalier.

I looked at another mezzo and HGO Studio alumna in the cast line, Susanne Mentzer, who had just sung the role of Jade Boucher, mother of the murdered boy. Mentzer now stood quietly smiling at von Stade.  I remembered Mentzer, an opera and concert singer who is also a professor of voice at Rice University’s  Shepherd School of Music, as a charming Cherubino in HGO’s Marriage of Figaro in the late ‘80s, and an equally appealing Octavian in Rosenkavalier here in the mid’90s.

In both those roles, one has to have a certain piquant charm and special charisma that shine out beyond the stage lights to capture audience hearts.  I thought of how fortunate I’ve been to witness so much good work, to be uplifted and immeasurably enriched by so many beautiful vocal performances over the years.

When I got home, I read an article in HGO’s Opera Cues program book in which Summers pointed out the fact that there were, indeed, “three incredible generations of America’s leading mezzo sopranos” in the production, led by von Stade and followed by Mentzer and DiDonato, whom Summers described as “easily the leading mezzo of her generation.”

The theme of  Dead Man Walking is that of the journey a human being may take through pain from a terrible experience, no matter which role one may have in that experience.  Ultimately, the lesson is forgiveness, leading to a sense of – if not peace, at least a better sense of balance on ground that has been badly shaken.

After I went along for the ride Sunday, I was surprised to find that I was so moved and impressed by this opera, especially as a longtime aficionado of traditional opera. I generally prefer well-seasoned opera and classical music. I had even, briefly, considered not attending.

Then I was struck by the thought that I might be missing something. I remembered the words of a wonderful lecturer at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, and a brilliant Rice music professor, who have both emphasized the importance of keeping an open mind, in welcoming the opportunity to investigate modern artistic contributions. So I went to see Dead Man Walking  in its final performance Sunday afternoon.

As a result, thank heaven, I didn’t “miss something” -- something that was far more rewarding than I’d ever imagined.  It was a great lesson that I hope to carry forward, and share.

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