“I would say Jackie,” answered Frederica von Stade matter-of-factly, referring to Marilyn Horne by her nickname and glancing in her direction. It was moderator Stephen Rubin’s question—“What female singer influenced you most?”—that brought the response, one he posed to all four of the opera legends sitting onstage with him. Comments like Von Stade’s, along with touches of insight, the paying of respect to one another, and reminiscences of productions past filled out a ninety-minute talk seemed to fly by in an instant.
Such was the atmosphere of Sunday with the Divas, which took place February 25 at the Nourse Theater. This informal chat between four of the world’s most decorated opera singers—Marilyn Horne, Patricia Racette, Deborah Voigt (on faculty at SFCM), and Frederica von Stade—brought opera lovers from around the Bay Area to catch a glimpse of these leading ladies playing a role not normally seen: themselves. Presented by the San Francisco Conservatory of Music, in collaboration with San Francisco Opera, this event gave the singers the opportunity to let loose and discuss their careers in a way rarely seen in a public forum.
Watching these superstars sitting together, chatting back and forth, was almost surreal. Hearing each of them comment on career transitions, what-ifs, and teaching the next generation of singers brought a human element to what some saw as a pantheon seated before them.
As Horne made the case for private lessons as the most important teaching setting (“You can say things in a lesson that you can’t say anywhere else”) and Racette argued the necessary mixture of public and private instruction (the idea behind her seminar series), all of the divas highlighted the importance of learning. And as they had all, in one way or another, learned or had been influenced by each other, Rubin surprised the panel with a listening game where all onstage had to guess who was singing in several audio clips chosen before the event. Four different snippets with each singer represented—the ladies marveled at each other’s artistry. (Rubin followed up with another surprise: a quiz where the divas were to write down each singer they could recognize in a Frankenstein-like mashup of “La donna è mobile" where every measure was a different recording of a different tenor. It was virtually impossible.)
After the event, the audience filtered out of the theater, reflecting on a few of the notable comments made by the Horne, Racette, Voigt, and Von Stade.
“It was so wonderful to see the sense of humor, but also the affection they clearly have for one another,” said SFCM trustee Diane Zack. “It’s so informative to learn more about their careers and what they’ve really experienced.”
Charlie Reed, a pop musician, attended the event because he wanted to get a sense of what opera personalities are like. “It was really neat hearing these gigantic stars of the field talk about their processes and experiences,” he remarked. “It just felt like the old pros being together with a sense of camaraderie.”
The moments that stood out most for Willow Ennen, another attendee, were the musical selections and the reactions from the panel after listening to them. “I liked that they played the performances of the women and had them play a guessing game,” she said. “That was a fun surprise.”
With a captive audience that laughed and nodded with the panel, this event struck a personal tone and brought a closer connection than is typically had between performer and audience. One audience member exited the main orchestra section after the event and said, “Well, that was just wonderful.” Apparently, the divas hit the high notes.