Everyone’s Friend Flicka

April 22, 2010

Tonight brought an extraordinary event in Carnegie Hall as Frederica von Stade gave what was billed as her New York Farewell Concert.

Many people say that they have trouble separating an artist’s art from his or her character. I ordinarily seem not to be one of them. My response to Wagner’s music, to take an extreme case, seems completely separate from my view of his beliefs and moral character. To mention Frederica von Stade is to cite an equally extreme case, though assuredly in the opposite direction. It’s difficult not to feel that her generosity, both of spirit and of practical action, makes her art all the more potent. I can’t really say, since I’m such a total fan of both the woman and her art.

But they certainly can be separated in some ways, for she manages to do it herself. She does nothing in her musical performances to capitalize on the inescapable reputation she has for what Evelyn Lear publicly proclaimed the other day as saintliness of a Mother Theresa caliber. In fact, as she sang William Bolcolm’s and Arnold Weinstein’s brilliant song “Amor” tonight, she made the indelible performances of it by Bolcolm’s wife and muse, Joan Morris, seem utterly chaste by comparison. When she sang Offenbach’s hilarious “Ah, Quel Dîner,” she wasn’t just a little tipsy, she seemed in danger of sliding under the piano — and even staggered as she walked onto the stage. She can convey these different atmospheres and characters with such complete conviction (while dressed in an enormous ball gown and hung with jewels) that we forget for the moment her own sterling personal reputation. This conclusively testifies to her integrity as an artist. Many other things testify to her integrity as a woman: a recurring late-night activity among some of my friends is to trade stories of her often extravagant but discrete kindness.

Wagner believed in the possiblity of a Gesamtkunstwerk. Frederica von Stade has shown us that a life, too, can be a complete work of art.

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