Her musical talents and passion were so exceptional that Beebe Freitas played with the likes of cellist Yo-Yo Ma and conductor Leonard Bernstein.
But rather than seeking the spotlight, she channeled her gifts as a pianist, organist and accompanist into lifting up other people in the world of music.
“She chose being an accompanist, rather than a concert pianist, because she felt in this role she could help other people realize their true potential,” said her son, John. “She truly was more focused on making other people shine rather than being the star herself. She was so selfless and genuine.”
Freitas died Saturday at age 79 at her home in Aina Haina, after being hospitalized off and on over the last year for conditions including congestive heart failure.
For decades, she had juggled three musical roles. She was head of music for Hawaii Opera Theatre as well as lead organist for First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu and for Punahou School. She handled daily chapel at Punahou and Sunday services at church, as well as lengthy opera rehearsals, where she coached soloists and the chorus.
“Beebe was really a power of nature,” Simon Crookall, general director of Hawaii Opera Theatre, said in an interview. “She was literally the core of the company for many, many years. She was the go-to person for all things musical.”
Freitas loved coaching young singers and helped launch careers including that of baritone Quinn Kelsey. He began singing as a teenager in the HOT chorus and went on to become an international star, performing at New York’s Metropolitan Opera and in Paris and Berlin.
“That was her real passion and vocation in life, to help young singers and to coach them and to make them better singers,” Crookall said. “She combined that passion for teaching and coaching with this extraordinary musicianship.
“It really was unparalleled. She could interpret the score and bring it to life like nobody else, in a whole variety of different musical works.”
FREITAS BEGAN playing with HOT as a rehearsal pianist in 1972 and helped build the company.
“Until a year ago, she was still playing daily for rehearsal, six hours a day, making sure the shows were the best they could possibly be — all that with the most cheerful and sparkly personality,” Crookall said. “She always had a twinkle in her eye and was really dedicated to the muse of music, which was the center of her life.”
Nola Nahulu, chorus director for HOT, said Freitas served as a one-woman orchestra during opera rehearsals.
“There are many pianists, but not everyone can actually play the role of the orchestra on the piano,” Nahulu said. “She was terribly gifted. As a musician, she was fabulous.”
Nahulu added: “Everybody loved her. But that’s not because she was nice. She was nice, but she was a drill master and her expectations were very high musically, and because of that people rose to it. She always expected excellence.”
Born Aug. 28, 1938, in Youngstown, Ohio, Beatrice Pauline Botty played piano from the age of 3. By age 6, she was performing at memorial services. Her father was pastor of the Hungarian United Presbyterian Church and her mother, attorney Pauline Botty, was head of the Sociology Department at Youngstown State University.
“She really was a prodigy,” said Freitas’ daughter, Roslyn Freitas Catracchia. “It was easier to take my mom out of school to play for the memorial services than it was to get grandma out of teaching.”
She went on to graduate from Oberlin College and earn a master’s in music from Boston University. In 1959 she performed as a soloist with the Boston Pops Orchestra with the legendary Arthur Fiedler conducting. She studied at Juilliard and was a rehearsal pianist for conductors including Bernstein.
In 1963, she married Lewis P. Freitas. Three years later, they moved from New York City to Honolulu so he could become a business and economics professor at the University of Hawaii at Manoa.
Highlights of her career included recording with clarinetist David Shifrin and performing with cellist Ma.
“Whoever she was accompanying or making music with at that moment was equally important — whether playing for Leonard Bernstein in New York or accompanying barefoot third-graders in a May Day program at Aina Haina Elementary School,” Catracchia said. “She made us all feel like we could do anything.”
IN A 2014 interview with Punahou students that aired on PBS Hawaii’s Hiki No, Freitas called music simply “my life.”
“I think music is an expression of the inside feelings that we have without having to use words all the time,” she said. “I’m lucky enough to play — I work at something that’s called ‘playing’ the organ, playing the piano, playing music. So I play while I’m working. I just — I love it.”
She urged everyone to follow their passions, as she had hers. Son John landed a job in the medical field after graduating from college but told his mom he wanted to be a golfer. She said “go for it,” daughter Roslyn recalled. Soon after, he won the Maui Open. Today he is the general manager at Aldarra Golf Club in Sammamish, Wash.
“She would always want us to be doing what filled our souls,” said Catracchia, director of worship and performing arts at First Presbyterian, and a composer and lyricist herself.
Along with her son and daughter, Freitas is survived by grandsons Bodie and Jackson.
Services are set for 10 a.m. March 10 at First Presbyterian Church of Honolulu at Ko‘olau, 45-550 Kionaole Road, Kaneohe, with visitation at 9 a.m.
To see the Punahou video of Freitas online, visit 808ne.ws/Beebe.