America’s Diva Comes to Philadelphia: An interview with Renée Fleming

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Renée Fleming. Photo by Decca/Andrew Eccles.

Renée Fleming needs no introduction. The American soprano has been at the forefront of classical music for three decades, performing at leading opera houses and concert halls across the globe. Her recording career encompasses a vast repertoire that spans from Samuel Barber to Bjork, Dvořák to Death Cab for Cutie. In 2014, she became the first opera singer to perform the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. A year later, she made her Broadway debut in Joe DiPietro’s Living on Love; she returns to Broadway in March, playing Nettie Fowler in a revival of Carousel. Fans have dubbed her “The Beautiful Voice” and “The People’s Diva.”

Fleming comes to Philadelphia this week for a solo recital at Verizon Hall. The wide-ranging program includes the world premiere of “Lyrical Yeats,” a new song cycle composed by André Previn, as well as selections from Brahms, Massenet, Fauré, Saint-Saëns, Kornauth, Delibes, and Richard Strauss. Her accompanist will be Inon Barnatan, known to local audiences from several recitals with Philadelphia Chamber Music Society.

I recently spoke with Fleming by phone from Paris, where she’s wrapping up the European leg of her recital tour. This interview has been edited and condensed.

[Verizon Hall, 300 S. Broad Street, Philadelphia]; October 15, 2017; https://www.kimmelcenter.org/events-and-tickets/201718/kcp/renee-fleming/.


Cameron Kelsall: Your Philadelphia recital program is fairly eclectic. How do you go about selecting material for these concerts?

Renée Fleming: That’s a really good question. It depends a little on what’s going on around the concerts. The tour I’m on now in Europe has included a concert in Armenia, which was amazing; a concert in Brussels; and now I’m in Paris. Then I’m doing the concert in Philadelphia and a concert at Carnegie Hall, so that’s kind of the group here. Because of New York and Paris, I had to try and absorb a lot of new music. This is a quite serious program — it’s substantive in terms of the selections, but I think it’s really pleasurable, too. The group of Brahms songs I’m doing has had some time to season, and it’s been really successful. There are a lot of really famous songs in the group, and to sing them together has been satisfying. The world premiere by André Previn — I’m just addicted to these songs. They’re like an earworm. I was saying to him today on the phone, because some of the accompaniment is so spare, that I think he’s like Matisse with the cut-outs. Great visual artists continue to refine and get to the most absolutely necessary elements, and that’s what André has done with this cycle. I’m fascinated by how artists develop throughout their lives, and what’s important to them.

The Kornauth songs are interesting. It’s a very short group, and he’s completely unknown in terms of song literature. Some of his piano music is coming out, but he’s just somebody whose career was lost between the two world wars. For many people, if they didn’t perish, they were forgotten. French is my favorite language to sing in, and the group of French songs isn’t a cycle; it’s a mix of different pieces. But I think it makes for an entertaining group. And then to do the two big arias from [Strauss’s] Ariadne auf Naxos is a bit of a courageous act, because they are two real scenes. Ariadne is typically cast now with a dramatic soprano, but she would have been often cast around the time it was written with more of a lyric voice. It’s an opera that was written for a chamber orchestra. I thought that if I did this with piano in my concerts, there’s all the joy with less risk.

CK: And you’ve sung the role of Ariadne on stage, correct?

RF: I did one time in Dresden. I was supposed to do it in London, and I just got nervous. I felt this expectation of having a more dramatic voice, but I should have done it. Having just sung in London and remembering that the house isn’t as large, it would have been fine.

CK: How do you adjust to singing the full role, even in a smaller house, to doing the songs with only the piano accompaniment?

RF: Because I did it and there’s some muscle memory there, I don’t think I do it really differently. In the opera, the really big singing comes at the end, and it’s mostly for the tenor. These two scenes are more lyric. “Ein Schönes war” (There was something beautiful) is just exquisitely beautiful, and it’s the kind of Strauss that is more mature. For Strauss lovers, it’s kind of perfect. And it gives some insight into how I put these programs together, because I want them to be satisfying for the audience. It’s really like creating a meal. I feel like a chef when I’m doing this.

CK: And obviously you have more control when you’re doing a recital than when you’re singing a role. Does that influence how you perform?

RF: In the opera, there’s no choice. You have to sing those pitches, in that order. For a recital, it’s my show. It’s arduous and time-consuming, because nothing is worse than the thought that people will go home unhappy. And I understand that the audience is not one person. The people in the audience have different tastes and different sensibilities; some people know a lot about music, and some are new to it. I work hard to make sure that everybody leaves with something they really enjoy.

CK: You have a wide range of fans, from classical music lovers to people with little experience in the opera house or the concert hall. It seems like you keep that in mind when you’re preparing. Would you say that’s accurate?

RF: I do keep that in mind. And the takeaway for some people are just the encores, which are typically really popular pieces. But I have no doubt that if I did a program of just my encores, there are other people in the audience who would be dissatisfied. It’s even more than that, though — it wouldn’t be as satisfying of an experience.

CK: Why is French your favorite language to sing in?

RF: There’s a fluidity to the language, and I think the nasals really help me with the consonants. I sing with a little less weight when I’m singing in French. And I love the sound of the language. It’s so beautiful.

CK: How did “Lyrical Yeats” come about?

RF: André and I have been good friends since I did the premiere of his opera A Streetcar Named Desire. Every once in a while, he’ll say “I’ve just written something, come on over.” And he’s continued to write — first it was seven songs, then eight songs, and I just found out that now it’s ten songs. I’m doing five of them in Philadelphia. He’s facile, he’s quick, and his music typically fits my voice very well.

CK: I’d like to jump away from the classical music world for a second and ask you about Carousel. How are you preparing to play an iconic role in an iconic show?

RF: Oh, gosh. It’s so new. I go into a workshop period in a couple weeks, and I really don’t know what it’s going to be like. It’s a brand new experience. The cast is incredible, and so is the entire team. I think it’s going to be fantastic and I’m going to love it. But the discipline of doing eight shows a week, no question, is not what I’m used to. And “You’ll Never Walk Alone” is sort of the heart of the show. So even if my role is more secondary, I realize it’s an important one.

CK: Is musical theater something you’ve always had an eye toward in your career?

RF: No, this came out of the blue. Scott Rudin was in touch with me, and it just kind of made sense. The timing was right. But it’s a big commitment — I’ll be in the show through Christmas of next year.

CK: Do you have a favorite piece of music or opera role?

RF: I really can’t answer that question, because what I love the most is the variety of what I do. That’s what I really love.

CK: And if you could sing any piece of music written for a voice type other than your own, what would it be?

RF: “Nessun Dorma” [from Puccini’s Turandot], of course…but Aretha already beat me to it!

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About the author

Cameron Kelsall

Cameron Kelsall has been writing about theater, classical music and the arts for more than ten years. He currently contributes to several Philadelphia-based publications, including Phindie, Broad Street Review and Talkin' Broadway, and reviews Broadway and Off-Broadway productions for Exeunt Magazine. Cameron also serves as a judge for the Barrymore Awards. You can follow him on Twitter @CameronPKelsall.