Renée Fleming | American diva who knows how to rock

American diva who knows how to rock

29 May 2010

Times | Nina Myskow

The opera superstar Renée Fleming has three Grammys and Obama as a fan. She talks about her new album 

Turning 50 last year was like crossing some sort of invisible line for the American soprano Renée Fleming. The opera superstar, who is known as “the people’s diva” and sang at President Obama’s inauguration — he is a huge fan — says: “It was an amazing shift, somehow, and I didn’t expect that to happen. It’s such a relief. Now I feel very young for my age! I think it’s much better to be a young old person than to be an old young person.”

A rare beauty, either way she looks stunning. On stage at the New York Met, starring in the title role of Rossini’s bewitching Armida, she is dazzlingly glamorous. Today, in her penthouse apartment on the Upper West Side of New York, she is gorgeously pretty, with fashionable tousled hair and cheekbones to die for, a woman in her prime.

“I’m in a great place right now and very easy about the whole thing. I’m so much less neurotic,” she says, laughing. “Before, I’d be worried about everything, worried about my new album; and now I don’t mind. I’m a positive, resilient go-getter.”

We are meeting to talk about her latest release, Dark Hope, an album of contemporary rock songs, and a departure from the soaring soprano voice that has made her the darling of opera audiences around the world and won her three Grammys. It has also brought her honours as diverse as a dessert created in her honour, La Diva Renée; her own fragrance; and a flower named after her (an iris). Witnessing Fleming’s power on stage and the splendour of her voice, you would understand if she behaved like a diva. But the woman I meet is warm and down-to-earth.

“Nobody believes me, but I used to be very shy and easily intimidated in lots of situations. It’s only in the past ten years that I’ve been able to move through the world freely and relatively comfortably, and there are still times where I think, ‘What am I doing here? Somebody’s made a mistake.’ When I sang at the Obama gala, I met Tom Hanks, and I was really an idiot, I almost couldn’t speak. I was so pathetic he almost rolled his eyes as he turned away. It was that bad.” We both giggle and she adds: “But now, yes, I’m happy in my own skin.”

Her penthouse has a wraparound balcony, and she shows me the view of Manhattan and the plants she tends in her garden, pointing out the doves that wake her in the morning. She is managing, finally, that rare trick of balancing a huge career and a rewarding personal life. The divorced mother of two teenage girls, Amelia, 17, and Sage, 14, she says: “The term multi-tasking is so trite, but it’s an epic skill that we have to have.” Thus although she got to bed at 3am after the gala that followed the previous night’s opera (her performance draws a devoted stellar audience that includes Alexa Chung, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Bette Midler, Spike Lee and Stefano Pilati, the creative director of Yves Saint Laurent), she is up at 7am to get the girls off to school.

“It’s what you do when you’re a mother. Mind you, lately they’ve been wanting eggs and bacon, but this morning I said, ‘Cereal, bar or shake?’ And went back to sleep.” She laughs ruefully.

Since September, when she made a conscious decision to cut out everything except work and the girls, her life has been family-based: “I found they need me more now than when they were toddlers, so I’m happy to do that.” Her dedication has paid off. “We just heard that Amelia has got into Harvard, so we’re on cloud nine. And Sage is blossoming like crazy, very athletic, very tall like my ex-husband.”

She divorced after ten years of marriage to Rick Ross, an actor she met at the Juilliard School. A bookish teenager, she thought she might be a music teacher, like her parents. She has a sister and two brothers who also sing: “My mother was convinced that we should be the next von Trapp family, but fortunately my father declined. However, it did mean that in the car we were probably the only family singing the street signs in harmony.”

Amelia and Sage have inherited the musical gene and sing backing vocals on several tracks on Dark Hope. The music, after all, is more their style: songs from Muse, Arcade Fire, Duffy and Peter Gabriel, Tears for Fears and the Mars Volta: “We didn’t want the cliché of Broadway or Vegas.” Hearing it, you would never know that she was an opera singer — there is none of the gruesome vibrato warbling of the Katherine Jenkins school.

Instead she has discovered a new, deeper voice. The songs, written and originally sung by younger pop artists, take on a different complexion: “The trend nowadays is for childlike, high, girlish voices, but I think it’s nice to be able to say it’s OK to be a mature woman. It’s a positive message.”

She is an excellent role model, a slender womanly shape in grey Armani pinstripe trousers and nipped-in Escada jacket, the antithesis of the notion of the hefty female opera stars of yesterday: “They still exist, and there’s no need for it,” she says. “But I work very hard, I’ve struggled all my life and through two pregnancies. What did it for me was doing a telecast a month after Sage was born, and once you see yourself on camera, it’s undeniable. Ever since then I’ve kept it pretty much under control. The key for me was discovering that I had to let go of carbs as much as possible. For the most part, I’ve cut out white food.”

She and her former husband are “wonderful friends” these days: “It took about three years, a bit of time. You need to recuperate. But he drops by all the time and joins the family, if we’re having a meal. It’s great, great for the kids, and it’s gotten more and more relaxed. You have to make it work because of the children, can’t give them that stress, constantly feeling they’re in the middle of something.

“Divorce is hard enough for them. So we’ve just worked it out, and the girls are really comfortable and happy with the whole thing. He has a wonderful woman who’s been in his life much longer, and they adore her. We all get along. It’s all good.”

Fleming, too, has moved on. “For women like me who find themselves on their own, meeting someone new is almost impossible, like a needle in a haystack. But I have a wonderful man in my life right now. It’s been a year and a half, I’m tremendously fortunate. It’s solid and just great.” Her eyes light up.

They met on a blind date. He is a lawyer who lives in Washington. “When you’re single, you depend on the kindness of your friends, and we were set up by Ann Patchett, the writer. As painful as it is, and somebody said that dating is 99 per cent failure, you have to have the courage to get out there. I wasn’t nervous, because I had no expectations. If you’re introduced to someone you’re dying to meet, that’s different.

“It’s been very easy, and the interesting thing is the difference. He’s not coming from a classical music background, but he’s very well educated and cultured. And there’s a great sense of humour too.” Suddenly she looks like a teenager.

She knows her career won’t last for ever. Like athletes, opera singers have a shelf life: “It will either be a slow decline or happen abruptly, and giving up the opera stage will be tough. If my career was all I had, it would be very sad. But now finally I have a balance in my life. I have my family, my friends and a relationship. So I’m doing really well.” She knocks on wood on the table.

“And, of course, I’m taking a risk with this new venture. But every successful thing I’ve ever done, every turning point that ratcheted my career up another notch involved tremendous risk. People get bored if you don’t surprise them.”

You can bet there are a few more surprises to come.

Dark Hope is released on the Mercury label on Monday.

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