By Alan Prendergast
By Michael Roberts
By Michael Roberts
By Amber Taufen
By Patricia Calhoun
By William Breathes
By Michael Roberts
By Melanie Asmar
"She'd run your life for you if you let her," says Shirley White, who became the unofficial personnel manager for Brico's opera concerts, rounding up other singers and smoothing over tiffs with the conductor. "I was kept away from her a long time by other musicians in town. She was seen as too pushy, while a man in her position wouldn't have been looked at that way at all."
Donna Ellis recalls how Brico would offer gifted students a "scholarship"--which, in Ellis's case, involved enlisting the student's parents for cooking, cleaning, banking and chauffeur duties. When Donna remarried after the death of her first husband, Brico insisted on an invitation to the wedding. The bride and groom wound up driving her to the ceremony, then rushing her to an orchestra rehearsal, delaying the reception. "She was quite a backseat driver, too," Ellis sighs.
Pianist Magdalena Boratgis, Brico's assistant with the symphony for ten years and a frequent traveling companion, says that people stayed with Brico not only for the music but for the intangibles--her vibrancy, her sense of adventure, her unexpected bursts of generosity. She doted on her favorite students, lobbied on behalf of refugee musicians seeking citizenship and even took in the destitute relative of a former benefactor. "People don't know how giving she was," Boratgis says. "She sponsored not only people in music, but engineers, actors, architects. And she never talked about it."
"She was a little like Wagner--he thought the world owed him a living, and it did," says Bob Dallenbach. "Brico was very consumed with her own career, no question. But she was also a great person. There were casualties along her path, but that's not unusual."
Among the casualties were a procession of housekeepers and cooks, some of whom ran from Brico after only slight exposure. Elizabeth Jans was the last in a long line. Dutch-born and levelheaded, Jans came into Brico's life in 1966 and wound up staying longer than either of them expected.
"I wanted to walk out the first day," Jans recalls. "You have to realize, I was an office girl. I'd never done this before. I was supposed to cook and clean, and she had so many demands. She probably wanted to see how much she could get out of me. I just decided I wasn't going to do all that. I did things my own way, and she never questioned me after that."
In time Jans became much more than a housekeeper. She advised Brico on business deals and her wardrobe, managed her finances, attended rehearsals, took lessons herself. It was Jans who offered cookies and comfort to young piano students terrorized by The Gaze; it was Jans who took Brico to the International House of Pancakes after every Brico Symphony concert to discuss the performance, spending long hours away from her husband, Gilly, and her daughter.
"If I said I didn't feel like coming to rehearsal, she'd say, `Elizabeth, you have to be there,'" Jans says. "She didn't have a husband, she didn't have a daughter. She had nobody else. It was kind of sad."
Thanks to the miraculous intercession of her most famous student, the world beat a path to Brico's door, belatedly, in the early 1970s.
Brico had been greatly distressed when Judy Collins broke from her in the 1950s to pursue a career in folk music. Collins was her standout pupil, and Brico thought she should have become a concert pianist. To make amends, Collins returned to Denver with a film crew.
Antonia: A Portrait of the Woman caught Brico with her guard down. Having little notion of the scope of the project, she allowed Collins and Jill Godmilow access to her scrapbooks, her memories and her daily routine. In the film's key scene, Collins managed to goad Brico into an uncharacteristic outburst about how prejudice had warped her career. Conducting only five times a year, she raged, "is like giving a starving person a piece of bread after days of hunger...It's a perpetual heartbreak."
After the filming was over, Brico regretted the angry scene in her kitchen. "She was very upset that she had let go like that," says Jans. "I don't think she realized the impact it would have. Suddenly the phone started ringing, and she went to all these places and got keys to the cities, and she was conducting again in New York and at the Hollywood Bowl."
Antonia was nominated for an Academy Award and catapulted Brico to a level of celebrity she'd never known before. Robert Redford and Gloria Steinem paid her homage; so did Johnny Carson. At 71, the maestro had a chance to show her detractors that she still had the juice.
Dozens of universities and orchestras wanted to book the tough-minded "woman conductor," but Brico wore her new feminist mantle uneasily. When a women's orchestra in San Francisco invited her to guest-conduct a program of female composers, she insisted on adding Beethoven to the program. "This isn't about men and women," she said. "This is about Beethoven."
"She said she'd forgo anything she'd gained as a woman conductor to be a conductor of a professional orchestra," recalls Dan Frantz. "It wasn't the way she wanted to come by her fame."