Renée Fleming | Renée Fleming: the thinking man’s diva

Toronto Star

12 April 2012

Renée Fleming: the thinking man’s diva

Renée Fleming: the thinking man’s diva

 

The opera isn’t over till the smart lady thinks.

Fans of Renée Fleming, the legendary soprano who’s appearing in concert at Roy Thomson Hall on April 20, will know what I mean.

She’s not just an elegant woman with a voice that possesses the complex sweetness of wildflower honey, but an artist who truly understands and loves the medium she’s given her life to.

A simple question about what the repertoire for her upcoming Toronto appearance might consist of turns immediately into a learned discussion of “the music from the turn of the last century, the lieder of Schoenberg, Korngold and Strauss. I was initially drawn to the evocative nature of the music, very rich, very complex.

“That led me further into the repertoire and into their history. I was fascinated by how all these composers knew each other, how their lives intersected at various points, how some of them spent time in Hollywood. It’s all such a complex sociological and political mix, and it finds its way into their music.”

She laughs, rich and throaty. “It’s a serious program. I know the Toronto audiences and it’s what they’d expect from me.”

That raises an interesting question. What does the world expect from Renée Fleming?

At the age of 53, she is still adding demanding roles to her repertoire (Ariadne at Baden-Baden earlier this year), continuing an exhausting series of concert appearances and spending much of her time in Chicago, where she was appointed the first-ever creative consultant of the Lyric Opera in 2010.

“What can I do to make (opera) better and relevant and sustainable?” she asked when appointed. “Maybe nothing, but I’d love to try.”

And she’s practising what she preaches, working intensively with Chicago students, creating a spreadsheet of 110 contemporary composers to aid her in the commissioning process and, well, being there when people need her to sing or speak or just support the art form.

“I have to admit that the position at the Lyric was the farthest thing from my mind when it was first offered to me,” she says, from her New York office. “But it was such a compelling idea. I thought about it more. What do I care about? Opera. And where do I see the state of opera today? I’m not sure.

“I want very much for opera to be relevant to our times. But how do we do it? A hundred years ago, most of what we now call ‘grand opera’ was the contemporary music of its day. But 100 years later, we’re still singing it and it’s now considered the most establishment and old-fashioned of all art forms.”

Fleming is certainly entitled to her opinion. While working on an impressive classical repertoire, she also has put her mark on numerous major contemporary operas like Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah and André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, in which her Blanche DuBois was one of her greatest triumphs.

Over the years, her supporters have called her bravely eclectic, while her detractors find her career unfocused. The truth is that Fleming has lived the life and chosen the path she was destined for.

She was born in Indiana, a small town northeast of Pittsburgh on Feb. 14, 1959 and raised in Rochester, N.Y. As the child of two music teachers, she felt a certain inevitability about a career in the profession, saying, with a rueful sigh, “I always performed. You couldn’t be in my family and not perform.”

Picking up on the reluctance in her voice, I question her feelings about being a singer.

“I didn’t want to do it. I never did. I was always shy, a bookworm by nature. I didn’t embrace performing then and I never really have.”

Fleming will get into the reasons for her diffidence later in the conversation, but she wants to make it clear that she always loved music and its power.

“I’d been surrounded by music all my life, but it wasn’t until I was in high school that I had the kind of mind and heart-opening experience that an artist needs.

“We heard Penderecki’s ‘To the Victims of Hiroshima’ and it had a huge effect on me. Even today, talking about it, I feel the same rush of emotion that I did then. I truly felt the power of music and what it could convey. I’ve never forgotten that.”

Fans who were surprised by Fleming’s 2010 contemporary crossover album, Dark Hope, obviously weren’t around at the State University of New York at Potsdam in the early ’80s when she divided her time between daily voice classes at the Crane School of Music and nightly gigs singing with a jazz trio at an off-campus bar.

The jazz world offered her professional work first, interestingly enough, but she had already decided that opera would be her life and went on to Juilliard in Manhattan but, amusingly enough, she often paid her tuition by continuing with freelance jazz assignments on the side.

After finishing her studies, she began building up her reputation with a series of recitals and concert appearances, finally making her professional operatic debut at Salzburg in 1986.

Only two years later, she won the Metropolitan Opera auditions, began a series of roles at major American opera houses and finally had her Met debut in 1991.

For the next seven years, her career kept climbing upward, and she became one of the most respected and popular names in the opera world.

But Fleming doesn’t want to dwell on any of that. “Success can be a wonderful thing, but the major thing it’s good for is to make you more successful.”

She prefers instead to zero in on what many singers would consider the low point of their careers: the night in July 1998 when she was booed at La Scala during her opening night performance of the title role in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia.

“I now realize it was a combination of things. Four new roles back to back, my last real bout of stage fright and something foolishly simple that happens on the night to trigger it.”

She sighs. “I have perspective on it now, but it’s hard to recuperate from something like that. Some singers who’ve been booed there have never returned.

“And how many other professions have their results judged in the newspapers the next morning? Politicians and athletes, I suppose.”

A bit of the steel necessary to maintain a lifelong career as a superstar comes through in Fleming’s voice.

“Whatever causes it, you must overcome it. You have to walk onstage and trust that your voice is going to do what you’re going to tell it to do.”

Fleming grows philosophical, thinking about this side of the life she’s chosen.

“The success complex. It hasn’t really been discussed and it hasn’t really been defined. What drives people to become successful? And then what makes some of them sabotage their careers, right and left, in all professions?

“We see it every day. Drugs, alcohol, inappropriate behaviour. They climb so high and then they bring themselves down.”

But one gets the sense that Fleming is too busy for anything like that. She’s raised two daughters while earning the worldwide respect of the arts world. So what does she still want to do?

“I want to see more young people listen to opera, love opera, want to make their lives in it. That would make me happy.”

FIVE FAVE SIGNIFICANT ROLES

RODELINDA

She’s a hero and a mother. I like that combination.

BLANCHE DUBOIS

I love being able to play a complex woman and sing a contemporary score at the same time.

VIOLETTA

It took me a long time to come to that role, but I loved it, despite its difficulties.

ARMIDA

It’s always a challenge, but I need to take the challenges.

LUCREZIA BORGIA

As Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”

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