Renée Fleming – America’s Diva is bringing Opera to the next generation

Renee Fleming photo by Timothy White
Renee Fleming photo by Timothy White

Renée Fleming has sung for Kings, Queens, Presidents, Tsars, and many dignitaries. She is a world-renowned lyric soprano, and has won pretty much every award you can think of including several Grammy’s, multiple honorary degrees, and the National Medal of Arts in 2012.

Over the span of her career millions have heard this woman affectionately called “The People’s Diva” perform. I spoke with her the night before her Parisian recital performance. I found her to be easy to talk to, open and full of joie de vivre!

Renee Fleming photo by Timothy White
Renee Fleming photo by Timothy White

She is a powerhouse performer and yields that power with grace and conviction. What surprised me is how much she’s doing outside of singing. Her performance schedule is just the tip of the iceberg for this busy woman, who is doing everything she can to bring opera and the arts to the next generation in new and exciting ways.

Alyx Reinhardt: I know you are in Paris right now, and just got in from Armenia, and then you’re off to DC and then Philadelphia. How do you manage to care for your instrument though all of this travel? Are there any rituals that you do?

Renée Fleming: I have to stay hydrated, that’s important. I have to be careful about talking I can’t go to restaurants and talk over noise. So there are certain things, I can’t be as social as I like to be. I have to rest my voice. It’s boring. It’s life’s little trade off. I’m not real neurotic about health. I learned at some point that it’s a lot of mind over matter. If you travel easy, and try not to be obsessive about needing to have things a certain way then you tend to be more relaxed. I have enough stress doing what I do on stage, so let’s leave it there.

I hear you’re doing the same recital tomorrow night that you’ll be doing in Philadelphia…

RF: No it’s not the same, it’s similar, but the one major difference is I’ll be premiering André Previns “Lyrical Yeats,” – six of those songs. So that is a World Premier in Philadelphia. They’re really wonderful, sort of an earworm that I can’t get out of my head.

Do you find that there is a difference in the expectations of the audiences in Europe vs. The United States?

Renee Fleming photo by Timothy White
Renee Fleming photo by Timothy White

RF: I used to think so, but I don’t anymore. I think it’s very consistent across the board; I will, in the US, sometimes do a lighter program. In Europe, I can’t do some of the repertoire that I do in the US, that’s really seriously American, whether it’s new music or Broadway. I would probably never program that here (Paris) it’s really only because it’s not the expectation, not because they wouldn’t enjoy it.

Are there any particular selections in this recital that may not seem to go together?

RF: No this concert is actually quite a serious program, and for that reason everything really goes together. The Brahms group is well seasoned, and strong and there’s a lot of really famous songs, like the Brahms lullaby that people sometimes don’t even know it’s Brahms, but they all sigh when they hear it. The Kornauth is not known at all. It’s a short group, but I think they’re wonderful. He’s one of the composers that sort of just never came into our consciousness after World War II and I think they are really interesting.

The French group is just fabulous music. The thing I am doing that is quite courageous is the Strauss, the two big Arias from Ariadne Auf Naxos. I just thought because this opera is typically cast with a dramatic soprano now, you know I wouldn’t sing this in a big house, but to do it with piano, and I did record it in Baden-Baden. It’s really a fabulous way to showcase this great music. I think that’s kind of special.

And well, it’s not really plugged in when you’re performing in an opera, but it feels almost like the stripped down version.

RF: It is kind of unplugged without the orchestra; it’s quite different, more intimate.

I understand that you are kind of a control freak when it comes to your repertoire.

RF: Oh no. Yes! It’s so much work. It’s torturous.

Who do you like to listen to when you need to relax?

When I want to relax, I mostly listen to jazz. Right now, Dan Tepfer. I listen to all his music because he’s playing for me at the Kennedy Center on Friday; I’m just bowled over by his gift. He’s a pianist. I love Brad Mehldau, Kurt Elling. Otherwise I’m working and I’m listening to music for work. Researching or right now I’m listening to a lot of Broadway music. I’m doing all these research projects all the time. Learning music.

What do you like to do when you’re in Philadelphia?

RF: I am an arts fanatic. A culture freak. I really love museums. Philadelphia is a beautiful city.

I’m sure you heard about Philadelphia’s O17 Opera Festival that just finished last month.

RF: The Opera Philadelphia is a company we all look to for innovation. Opera Philadelphia really stands out for innovation, particularly, and it’s incredibly impressive what they do!

Did you see Kevin Puts, Elizabeth Cree?

Yes I did and I loved it, absolutely loved it.

RF: Oh I’m so glad, he’s a dear friend of mine, I just premiered his song, Letters of Georgia O’ Keefe, and I think he is wonderful.

I don’t know if you know it, but the next day, I’m going to be at Temple University the morning of the 16th doing a discussion of neuroscience and music and this has been something that I have been touring around and I loved it. It’s been really interesting.

Someone asked me to ask you if you are really retiring. I know this came from that article in the New York Times. I’m curious, when that hit the wire; did you get a lot of phone calls from people asking what are they talking about?

RF: Unfortunately, it was just a headline, the article never said anything like that, and the sad thing is that saying goodbye to all that repertoire is already a big enough step, but to suggest that I am completely leaving the stage is sort of not fair. You know, we all in life go through a transition and it’s tough when the press needs to make it bigger than it is because everyone is competing for audience. I still get people saying I’m so sorry you’re retiring.

Over time the human voice can tend to change, lower, yet yours has stayed very consistent.

RF: My voice hasn’t changed that much, I’m still a lyric soprano and the roles for lyric soprano are pretty much ingénue. I don’t want to sing the same thing forever, so I felt like with the (Rosenkavalier) Marschallin, I really said everything I had to say with the role. It was time to allow the next generation to work on it.

And that (final performance) was a thrilling experience! It was just perfect in every way; being at the Met, with Robert Carsen, and such great casts. It gave me incredible joy. I thought I would be sad but I wasn’t. It was wonderful. It was perfect!

You are constantly looking at new approaches and trying different ways to help other opera companies reach new audiences.

RF: Yes, the creative consulting for Lyric Opera Chicago and the Kennedy Center has been truly satisfying work. It’s a way of giving back. It’s a way of being creative because my real passion is audience development. I’ve enjoyed that a lot.

Working with the National Institute of Health and really trying to amplify this message of neuroscience and music, music therapy and all these disciplines that combine music with our health and wellness has been so important. It’s very powerful, the connection between human beings and music and it makes the work that we do very relevant.

Perhaps a new angle for funding? Federal funding for the arts has been slashed drastically and funding to public schools for the arts has been dwindling down forever.

RF: The research that’s out there is, frankly, so compelling that I think everyone would think twice about not having or allowing music programs in schools because of what it does for the brain and development. Case in point, it’s been proven that children that study music are better learners because their auditory comprehension is greater. And then of course there’s the discipline and the concentration. Eye/hand coordination. There are just so many ways in which it’s helpful to kids.

The whole left-brain / right-brain growth….

RF: Yes, and a lot of us grew up with it, it’s so important.

You have a new album that came out earlier this year – Distant Light. When I was looking at the tracks on it I was surprised to see Björk on there. What drew you to her music?

RF: Well I was in Scandinavia, we needed to add more time to the other two pieces, and it needed something else, a bridge in a way. I’ve always thought she was incredibly creative and very artistic in terms of the way she uses language and her ideas both musically and in terms of text. I’ve been touring with it and people love it because it sounds so fresh with orchestra.

You will be doing Carousel next year on Broadway.

RF: Yes, we open in April. I’m looking forward to it. It’s a phenomenal team, a great cast. Scott Rudin is producing it and you really couldn’t ask for more.

If you speak to anyone in history who would it be and what would you say?

RF: I’d really like to get to know Richard Strauss; you know his music has been such an important part of my life. I didn’t realize it until I visited his house in Garmisch, which is unchanged since he died, how powerful that is. When your work is so connected to somebody who’s not there. That’s the strange thing about classical music and it’s another reason why I love new music because you are really collaborating with a living composer.

Ms. Fleming will be performing at the Kimmel Center at 8pm on Sunday, October 15th and will be doing a lecture about neuroscience and music with her sister, Rachel at Temple University on the 16th at 10:30am.