Guardian Angel

by Jennifer Blot

Flicka von Stade shares a group embrace at Opera at the Ballpark on September 10, surrounded by YMCO students, graduates, instructors, parents and friends. | Photo courtesy of Stefan Cohen.

Opera star Frederica von Stade lends her voice — and a hand — to a young generation of musicians.

It’s the Friday evening after Labor Day and Frederica “Flicka” von Stade is reveling in San Francisco Opera’s “The Homecoming” concert. But she is neither onstage nor sipping Champagne with patrons at the War Memorial Opera House. The mezzo-soprano, who’s long been a household name in the world of opera, has journeyed to Oracle Park from the East Bay via BART with young friends in tow to take in the simulcast performance on the ballpark’s big screen. Dressed casually in khaki pants and a lightweight jacket, with a blue requisite face mask that makes her expressive eyes even more pronounced, von Stade nestles into a box suite stocked with hot dogs, popcorn and cans of soda for the gleeful group of middle schoolers, college kids, parents and music instructors who have joined her for the festivities. Most of them have come to realize she’s a pretty big deal — outside the volunteer work she does for the Young Musicians Choral Orchestra, the East Bay nonprofit that unites them.

The outing at the ballpark has capped a week for von Stade that included, among other things, a remote board meeting to go over long-range plans for an opera house at the Naval Air Station Alameda; phone calls to discuss performance logistics for the People’s Choir of Oakland, a budding chorus whose members are homeless, patterned after the Dallas Street Choir; a trip to the City to join a master class at the San Francisco Conservatory of Music; and a standing mid-week commitment packing bag lunches for seniors and individuals in homeless encampments around Oakland.

Between her frequent volunteer commitments and spending time with her two daughters and grandchildren, von Stade, who is in her 70s, tends to the gift that made her famous, doing vocal exercises on her own and sessions at the home of her longtime friend and vocal coach Jim Meredith. In many ways, von Stade’s schedule would be a lot lighter today if Meredith hadn’t introduced her more than a decade ago to the late Daisy Newman, who was a trained soprano and the founder of YMCO, which serves kids ages 8 to 18 from low-income parts of the East Bay, offering music education as part of a college-preparatory program anchored by the tenets of musicianship, academics and citizenship.

“I mean it wholeheartedly when I say Flicka is our guardian angel,” shares professional trumpeter Geechi Taylor, a longtime YMCO instructor who took the helm of the organization upon Newman’s death earlier this year. “She puts her whole heart as well as her physical body into doing things. I had to tell her to not sweep the office. She sees the need and she’ll definitely try and fix and fill that need.”

Picking up a broom is no problem for von Stade, who doesn’t appear to be joking when she says, “I shouldn’t have been an opera singer. I should have been a cleaning lady or washer woman.” She adds: “If you see it and it needs to be done, just go do it. … Anything that I do is returned to me one billion times in the joy I get from the kids and the program.” Officially, she’s YMCO’s secretary (her husband, Michael Gorman, is its treasurer). She’s also the de facto PR person, mellifluously complimenting and sharing anecdotes about current students, program graduates and instructors like Taylor and Meredith. But really, she does a bit of everything — from piling pizzas into a Costco cart for lunch for hungry students and driving a YMCO graduate to his COVID vaccination appointment to phoning a college administrator to plead for a scholarship for a promising student and, recently, hosting a boat party with Gorman as a thank you to YMCO’s summer interns. Notably, during some of the darkest days of the pandemic, which coincided with the final months of Newman’s life, von Stade was at her side.

“Over the years, I have seen Flicka go from the star on stage to the person who is trying to bring in and recruit kids to the program,” says Taylor. “If there’s an opportunity for a young person to thrive, she’s going to do everything she can to get them into the position.”

Portrait by Robert Hunt

YMCO graduate Elena Pinderhughes, a flutist and singer who is currently on tour with Herbie Hancock, met von Stade as a teen when she and her brother were immersed in the program. “What was really special about her relationship and continues to be special about her relationship with YMCO is that she didn’t just come in once and give a master class and leave,” says Pinderhughes. “Flicka was a constant. She has continued to come in and work with students, mentor students, be present to see and help them grow — and that’s how you develop real mentorship with young artists, by being present for their journey.”

Pinderhughes stays in touch with von Stade, an enduring role model. “It’s important to us to see someone who’s had years and years of a career,” the young musician continues. “And also, someone who is a wonderful, wonderful person — that spirit and the joy and the beauty inside and out that she brings into every room that she walks into is really important for young people to see, as well as her humility. She’s a star, but she comes in and she really takes the time to have one-on-one conversations with students.”

When asked if the students grasp von Stade’s fame, Taylor acknowledges, “They do not know until we tell them. I’ll say, ‘We want you to google and understand who it is that you’re working with.’ And then there’s these huge smiles on their faces and their eyes get big.”

The fact that von Stade is a self-described “old softie” isn’t exactly news to those who know her, but the fact that she continuously strives to improve her craft may be. “I’m still working on my voice,” she shares. “I’m still fascinated by the voice and what you can do.” Right now, she’s focused on seeing “what kind of shape I can get my voice into” for upcoming performances, including some smaller local performances this fall and a concert in Florida in January. Last month, she performed with students from YMCO in a private home concert in Berkeley. In the spring, she sang at “Life. Changing. An Evening with Frederica von Stade & Jake Heggie,” an intimate streamed concert at the home of San Francisco Opera Guild President Maryam Muduroglu. And while von Stade, who lives in Alameda, spends most of her free time with YMCO’s East Bay kids, she continuously supports the guild’s Opera Scouts training program, for students ages 7 to 18, by participating in master classes, dropping by rehearsals or simply sharing words of wisdom.

“There are no absences on the days when Flicka is giving a master class,” notes Caroline Altman, Opera Scouts’ director of education. “The art form can be intimidating. Having someone like Flicka explain what’s going on helps the students understand what they’re heading into. They all love her. Who doesn’t love her? She’s just such a giving, thoughtful, heart-based person.”

And there’s never a shortage of questions from the students, whether Opera Scouts or YMCO musicians: “What do you have to wear?” “Have you ever met Pavarotti?” “What do you do for fun?”

Perhaps the most surprising response is when von Stade answers, “This is for fun.”

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