A fond farewell and deservedly big celebration for Flicka

Courtesy photoCelebration of music: The life and career of Frederica von Stade – pictured with composer Jake Heggie – is the subject of a gala concert Saturday at Herbst Theatre in The City.

While few are mentioning retirement, most music lovers know that this weekend’s gala for singing great Frederica von Stade, presented by major local organizations, is part of her farewell tour — following similar events in New York, Chicago and Houston.

Co-sponsored by San Francisco Opera, San Francisco Performances, San Francisco Conservatory of Music, Cal Performances and Philharmonia Baroque (each a beneficiary of the singer’s participation and support), the event’s organizers call it “a celebration of the incredible career of beloved Bay Area mezzo-soprano and international superstar Frederica von Stade, known affectionately as Flicka.”

One good reason for the emphasis on celebration, rather than farewell, is that von Stade is still at the height of her other career: helping young people, especially those most in need of assistance.

At 66, the mezzo who has reigned in the world’s great opera houses for more than three decades has stopped singing opera. She continues to perform recitals, however, and is expected to sing at Saturday’s gala at Herbst Theatre.

Also slated to perform are Sir Thomas Allen (baritone), Dame Kiri Te Kanawa (soprano), Merola/Adler alumnae including major stars Joyce DiDonato and Susan Graham (mezzo-sopranos), Samuel Ramey (bass) and Richard Stilwell (baritone).

Known for her non-diva personality, von Stade, an Alameda resident, says she is grateful for “amazing colleagues and friends who are giving of their time to come and sing and play, and the amazing presenters who have worked so hard to put it all together. I feel so blessed and fortunate just to have been a part of this wonderful world of song.”

The program also features mezzo Zheng Cao, who has prevailed in a dramatic struggle with advanced cancer with her friend Flicka at her side. Soon after Cao sang the title role in the 2008 San Francisco world premiere of “The Bonesetter’s Daughter,” she was diagnosed with stage-four lung cancer and two dozen tumors in the brain.

When Cao told von Stade the diagnosis was terminal, the response was, “That is not acceptable.” Von Stade helped engage leading oncologists who eventually saved Cao’s life and voice.

At the forefront of charitable and educational efforts — even before the world became aware of José Antonio Abreu’s miraculous work with children in Venezuelan slums, using music to transform their lives — von Stade through the years has performed myriad benefit concerts and raised funds to support music programs in East Bay schools. She has been instrumental in creating and maintaining the Bay Area equivalent of Abreu’s El Sistema.

Among major beneficiaries of her support are UC Berkeley’s Young Musicians Program and the St. Martin de Porres Catholic School in Oakland, which will receive proceeds from Saturday’s performance.

Reflecting highlights of von Stade’s career, the program includes arias by Mozart, Strauss, Rossini and Monteverdi and songs by Ravel, Mahler, Poulenc and Berlioz, as well as works by American composers including Jake Heggie, who is among the hundreds of artists von Stade has nurtured.

IF YOU GO

Celebrating Frederica von Stade

Where: Herbst Theatre, 401 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 7:30 p.m. Saturday
Tickets: $50 to $100 general; $500 tickets include a reception with the artists
Contact: (415) 864-3330, www.sfopera.org

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