Docs at the Met cultivate opera and captivate audience

By Carol Lawson-Swezey, Reporter

Whether fighting windmills or battling cancer, initiating medical miracles or performing theater, three local physicians have found they can have the best of both worlds.

Showing muscle in more than their medical degrees, these doctors are finding the time and the passion to pursue their musical dreams.

In a recent fundraiser for the St. Agnes Medical Center medical library, Dr. Harvey Edmonds, Dr. Marshall Flam and Dr. Don Gaede showed their musical prowess by performing opera and show tunes in “Doctors at the Met” at the Mercedes Edwards Theater in Clovis on August 8. The event was part of the California Opera Association’s 2015 Summer Opera Arts and Education Festival. The festival highlights the diverse cultural traditions of opera from the East to the West.

The series of free events began in July and feature international guest performers from throughout the world. The festival is intended to promote a greater interest in, exposure to and attendance of opera, said Edna Garabedian, the COA’s director. Garabedian, an internationally acclaimed performer, founded both the Fresno Grand Opera and the COA. As a coach and master teacher, she also provides private consultations and masterclass tours. Her students have progressed to grand prize competitions and performances at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and Teatro alla Scala. She has been revered for her therapeutic work with challenging and rehabilitating voices and emphasis on role and repertoire development, stage deportment, dramatic presentation and command of the Italian, German, Russian, Czech, Armenian, Spanish and English languages.

This is the second year that the COA has sponsored a fundraiser for the St. Agnes library. All three performing doctors are current or former practitioners at St. Agnes.

The doctors were accompanied by professional and internationally renowned performers Miwako Isano, Alix Jerinic, Yuxi Liu and George Skipworth.

The first half of the program was the presentation of the opera Don Carlos by Giuseppe Verdi. Although the lyrics were in Italian, it became clear that music is truly the universal dialect, transcending language and culture in an emotionally rich presentation.

The second half of the concert, which carried the theme was “We Believe,” was a presentation of inspirational compositions including several renditions of the song “I Believe” as well as “If I ruled the world” and “God Bless America,” in which the audience joined in. Comic relief was provided by Dr. Gaede, who appeared as a rather clumsy Don Quixote, complete with staff made of broom sticks and a plunger and an aluminum foil hat. Startling in contrast and emotion was Gaede’s follow-up with a stirring rendition of “The Impossible Dream.”

Dr. Edmonds is a Fresno neurologist and established the California Opera Guild as president and presents neuro-musicology lectures for festival artists. He developed an early passion for the arts and has performed in previous festival performances including “Amahl and the Night Visitors,” “Hansel and Gretel,” “Carmen” and “La Traviata.” This year he was elected a Fellow in the American Academy of Neurology and continues to pursue an active practice in Neurology as well as his passion for opera.

“My father went to Juilliard and sang in the opera chorus at the Metropolitan Opera, so I guess I come to my love of music genetically,” Edmonds said. “I started performing at Bullard High School and was student director of the chorus my senior year and was a member of the Men’s Glee Club and the University Choir at UC Berkeley. After medical school and neurology residency I returned to Fresno where I sang with the professional High Holiday Choir at Temple Beth Israel under Cantor Michael Loring. After a long hiatus I began operatic studies with Edna Garabedian 14 years ago as a lyric Baritone.  Four years ago I completed my transition to the tenor repertoire. Over the past 14 years, I have sung roles in eight operas.  Last year I gave a recital of 14 arias and duets at Erna’s Elderberry house, as a benefit for the St. Agnes Library.”

Dr. Flam, a well-known local hematologist and oncologist for 40 years, retired from medical practice in January 2014. He also served in teaching capacities with the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine as an Associate Clinical Professor and has contributed many significant research studies, manuscripts and publications in his field. This summer marks his debut with the COA as he continues his ongoing support of the local arts community and promotion of wellness through nourishment of mind, body and spirit. Although Flam said he loved to sing, his last public performance (prior to Docs at the Met) was in college in 1962 prior to medical school.

“Once I entered medical school followed by training and finally practice in 1974, as well as raising five daughters, my singing became limited to the shower and at rare times, piano bars,” Flam said. “I knew Edna Garabedian because I took care of some of her family members over the years. Once I retired, with the encouragement of Dr. Edmonds, I began to study voice with Edna in December 2014. I am just now learning to read music. My retirement has allowed me to do the things I never had time for, working as a very dedicated cancer physician.  Singing was at the top of my ‘wish I could do’ list.”

Dr. Gaede, an internal and vascular medicine specialist, has been singing opera in Fresno for over 30 years, beginning with the Fresno Opera Association. Recently, he has soloed in several productions and events produced by the Fresno Grand Opera and COA. He said he was born with a “magnetic attraction to music” and was encouraged as a child to sing and play an instrument.

“Before long, my two brothers and I were playing together in a trumpet trio.  My mother’s hearing has never been the same,” Gaede said. “It also helped that I grew up in a Mennonite church where everyone was pretty much expected to be able to sing in four-part harmony by the age of seven.”

Gaede sang in the Gilbert and Sullivan opera, “Trial by Jury” at Roosevelt High School and continued to sing even while managing his busy medical practice.

“I continue to enjoy my work as an internist and vascular medicine specialist,” Gaede said. “But I make sure my schedule allows enough time for that wonderful art that has the power to move our very souls.”

In an introduction to their performances, Dr. Gaede described the three doctors as amateurs, translating in meaning to “lover of music.” It was obvious that the three docs could hold their own against the professionals they performed alongside. It was also notable that several of the scenes and songs performed came from the renowned musical “Man Of La Mancha,” a comic tragedy of mankind’s struggle to better both himself and the world in which he lives.

In sharing their vision and their music, in addition to their many decades of serving the local medical community, it was true that these docs, much like Don Quixote, were bettering both themselves and the world around them.