By Lou Fancher, San Francisco Classical Voice
Mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade has performed in the world’s grandest concert halls with internationally acclaimed artists and estimable organizations. Appearances on television, Grammy-nominated and award-winning recordings, and original compositions written for her by contemporary composers establish the significance of von Stade’s contributions to vocal and performing arts.
And yet, one of the most profound moments she has experienced as a performer was singing with a man who had no formal voice training, no awards lining the walls or mantle in his home. In fact, he had no home at all.
“We sang with The Dallas Street Choir,” she says, recalling the 2015 U.S. premiere of Street Requiem, a 50-minute choral work she will perform Feb. 15 (San José) and 18 (Santa Cruz) with the Silicon Valley-based choir, The Choral Project. “There was a marvelous gentleman who through circumstance had ended up on the street. He was meeting his daughter for the first time in 12 years. He wanted to do one thing in his life that made her proud. It was a happy reunion.”
Street Requiem was co-composed by Andy Payne, Jonathon Welch, and Kathleen McGuire, former director of the San Francisco Gay Men’s Chorus. The work memorializes homeless people who have died while living on the street and has been performed throughout the world since its 2014 premiere in Melbourne, Australia. Aiming at a universal message of peace and healing, European, Celtic, and African instruments and music traditions are part of the work and the text references many of those languages. The Bay Area performances of the non-religious work also feature jazz vocalist Juanita Harris.
“It’s accessible, not super demanding,” says von Stade. “I’m able to concentrate on the words, on why (the composers) picked an Irish melody here, an African type of music for another part. It’s about pure intention, rather than vocalism. There’s a marriage of the words and the melody, but it’s not to show off the vocal element.”
Even so, von Stade prepares for the role with special care. “I warm up my lower register more. With age, that’s the part that needs more attention. It’s strange, but the higher parts get easier to sing. I have to make sure I’m using air, not voice, to propel the vowels in the middle and low register.”
Clarity and genuineness are top priorities, which leaves her grateful for the Catholic-school upbringing that makes the sections sung in Latin comfortable. Her mother lived in Ireland for 25 years; from that, von Stade says she’s familiar with the rolled chord treatment that causes the lyrics in the Lacrimosa to sound like an Irish instrument. The text’s meaning she says, “slays me,” and the melodies “get into your heart,” as do the moments when the choir takes over. “It’s then that it’s not a faraway concept. It’s very possible to be homeless. It could be your brother, it could be you.”
Choral Project Artistic Director Daniel Hughes says that during preparations for the project his greatest realization has been how similar he is to the “regular people who got behind in their lives” and are now homeless. “I wanted to perform this work because I found it to be extremely moving when I first experienced it. Purely from a musical standpoint, the piece strikes a tone of universality to remind us how global an issue homelessness is. If we can change the attitude towards homelessness in one mind and heart, we have succeeded.”
Awareness is key to changing attitudes when it comes to social stigmas. Although Hughes says the audiences his choir encounters are knowledgeable about the subject, von Stade has encountered more varied reactions. “People don’t really know this issue. They ask why they don’t clean up, why the city doesn’t get rid of them. They find it frightening. People aren’t heartless, they just don’t want to know about it, to look at it. We do not want to know about the prison population either, which I learned from singing [Jake Heggie’s opera] Dead Man Walking.”
The concert opens with von Stade performing the song “Primary Colors,” from Jake Heggie’s cycle The Deepest Desire, and another song, Finding Home, by Ricky Ian Gordon.
“Finding Home is what everything is about. It says you can take homelessness, if you have the courage,” she says. “I think if I lived on the street, I would become an addict. I would hate not having warmth, food, safety. But the song says that if you can keep some courage of belief, faith, and survive, that’s the strongest meaning of home that doesn’t depend on physical comfort.”
Returning to her home in Alameda, or to a warm hotel room after singing with the Dallas Street Choir or other choral groups, von Stade can no longer ignore homeless encampments and people. “You get to know them. Street Requiem opened my eyes to what their life is. I’m still an observer, but it changes the idea that they are just mentally ill drug addicts. They’re people. We have the same disappointments. Yet they have 2,000 times the difficulty in their lives than I do. I go back to my home and they go back to the street. I am more aware.”
Hughes says the work’s overall tone includes a Dies Irae in which he hopes the choir will capture a “sense of dread and judgment” and the heart-wrenching Lacrimosa that is von Stade’s favorite section. These darker moments, he suggests, serve to set up “a potent contrast to the light-driven aspects of the work that follow.”
As for von Stade, the work’s poignant words and beautiful melodies are in some ways an amalgamation of all the repertoire she has sung during her career. Street Requiem is infinitely transportable, she insists, and can be sung with an expanded orchestra on a large stage like Carnegie Hall, where she performed Street Requiem in 2016, or with a string quartet in a small church. “People always love beautiful melodies with meaning,” she says.