In playwright Terrence McNally’s “Master Class,” an imperious opera diva schools a small group of gifted voice students in both technical training and reminiscences from her fabled career.
If you substitute beloved for imperious you have the perfect description for “An Evening with Frederica von Stade” at San Francisco Conservatory of Music on Tuesday.
The New Jersey native — “Flicka” to her friends — will share technique tips with a select group of conservatory voice students on stage, interspersed with personal stories told to the audience at this free event.
The singer knows the play and smiles at the analogy. “I love ‘Master Class’” says von Stade, “and saw Zoe Caldwell do it, and wonderful Rita Moreno. Terrence is one of the great playwrights of all time and I know how much he adores opera.”
A mezzo soprano who made her debut with San Francisco Opera in 1971, von Stade actually attended two master classes given by Maria Callas, the diva in McNally’s work. “They were quite different from the play,” she remembers. “Callas was humble and committed and devoted with all her might to her art.”
Looking forward to meeting the students chosen for her onstage class, von Stade recalls the teachers who contributed to her long and illustrious career. “Sebastian Engelberg was my first and most beloved teacher,” she recalls. “He said you must sing as though it comes from the bottom of your heart. He was like a father to me and I loved him dearly.”
She also credits conservatory instructor Jane Randolph with adding the last decade to her career. “I had pretty much thought that it was time to stop but she helped me find an ease that makes singing pure joy.”
The longtime Alameda resident is also generous in her praise of the current generation of classical vocalists. “Anna Netrebko is out of this world and actually started as a Merola and Adler Fellow at San Franciso Opera.”
She also singles out Joyce DiDonato as “a complete and magnificent artist who always astounds with her abilities and her presence.”
Whatever the genre, for von Stade singing is a key part of the human experience. “It is essentially a joyful process. I think everyone deserves the right to sing and needs more than ever to express themselves in a natural, often profound way. I volunteer at a school in Oakland that really tries to bring the arts into the community. I have seen how much just plain singing adds to kids’ lives.”
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