Last week, Art Attack was fortunate enough to see Houston Grand Opera's final performance of Dead Man Walking. The opera, which debuted in 2000, is based on the book by Nobel Laureate Sister Helen Prejean and tells the story of a nun who develops a pen-pal relationship with a man on death row. It begins with Joseph de Rocher's killing of two teenagers and ends with his admission of guilt in the final scenes. Art Attack reported on the critical acclaim HGO has received for the work.
Our video today features Frederica von Stade, the mezzo-soprano who sang the role of Mrs. De Rocher, the murderer's mother. The role was written for von Stade, and she originated it for the world-premiere San Francisco production. The role also became von Stade's final operatic performance when she performed it in Houston on Sunday, February 6.
In a recent Houston Chronicle interview, she spoke about choosing the role to cap an illustrious career:
"Playing Mrs. De Rocher lets me explore the fears that things you've done or not done have brought sorrow to your child. It's something every mother goes through in different ways, because you can't do everything right. She's not a stupid woman, but she adores her son, and she has to believe him. It's an opera that really tears you apart. Yet to leave with Sister Helen's words ringing in my ears - a woman of such wisdom and kindness - is a fantastic experience to carry with me."
In recognition of her stellar career and long association with the company, HGO named her an Honorary Board Member and created the The Silver Rose Award. After the performance, "Flicka," as she is know to her fans, graciously accepted the award and joked she wished she had worn another dress!
As HGO director Anthony Freud said at the ceremony, von Stade's career is definitely "one for the memoirs." She has won almost every award possible for her music, and she holds the distinction of simultaneously holding the first and second spots on national sales charts. She's been nominated for six Grammys, won two Grand Prix du Disc awards, and in 1998 was awarded France's highest honor in the Arts when she was appointed an officer of L'Ordre des Arts et des Lettres. Von Stade was given a special award at The White House by President Reagan in recognition of her significant contribution to the arts, and she's constantly asked to sing at global opening ceremonies, most recently the 2002 Winter Olympics. Elegies, an opera by Richard Danielpour (co-writer of Dead Man Walking with Jake Heggie), was written specifically for von Stade.
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She remembers most fondly playing Cherubino in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, a role she portrayed thousands of times during her life on stage. But Art Attack readers may know her name from another role. In the TV series Northern Exposure, the character of Maggie often referenced her idol, Frederica von Stade. It's not hard to see why even fictional characters adored von Stade--try not to be moved by her angelic rendition of "Bailero."