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Interview: Soprano Renée Fleming

January, 2007

Jason Victor Serinus

 

Renée Fleming needs no introduction to Secrets readers. Now at the height of her powers, she has been considered our most gifted and versatile American soprano for well over a decade. From performances and recordings of operas by Handel, Janacek, Strauss, Verdi, Mozart, and Rossini, to discs of jazz and Broadway, Fleming has held a unique place in the international vocal lexicon. 

A few months back, I had the opportunity to spend close to a half hour chatting with the Diva by phone. Our talk began a bit later than planned, given that Fleming was running late and had to battle New York traffic, but it was immensely productive.

While the ostensible subject was her forthcoming holiday recital in Hartford, Connecticut, very little of our time was spent talking about Christmas. Instead, we covered a wide range of subjects that I trust will prove of interest to vocal aficionados.

 


Renée Fleming
: I was doing an edit of the Traviata DVD, and it went over. I'm sorry. I didn't have my phone with me. It's just been one of those days. 

Jason Victor Serinus: Have you had enough time to breathe before we start? 

RF: Absolutely. 

JVS: Let's start by discussing your forthcoming holiday concert in Hartford. 

RF: I'll be singing an all-holiday program. It's a mixture of half sacred music, some carols, some music that's sort of in between but that we know and love, and some terrific orchestral selections. It's going to be a really fun program. 

JVS: Is this a standard program that you've done other places? 

RF: No. It's a new program, because it incorporates some new arrangements that were done for me for the Mormon Tabernacle Choir telecast [available on DVD]. They have enormous resources there, and their in-house arranger is phenomenal. 

Some of it is form my Sacred Songs recording [Decca], and some of it is new.  

JVS: What do Xmas and the holiday season mean to you? 

RF: This music comes from a tradition. It's both European and English and American. I've got a huge variety of music, from Leonard Bernstein's "Simple Song" from his Mass to Schubert's "Ave Maria." It's the kind of music that has really become part of mainstream culture, and appeals to more than just people who love classical music. 

Mark O'Connor, the bluegrass violinist, arranged "Away in the Manger" for me. It's absolutely beautiful. He's fabulous, and a great musician. There's an enormous amount of variety. And then, of course, "O Holy Night," which is the great warhorse of all time for the soprano.  

JVS: I review a big pile of holiday discs every year… 

RF: …so your eyes probably glaze over. 

JVS: Exactly. But then I put some of it, and I realize anew how lovely it can be. 

Have you sung with the Hartford Symphony before?  

RF: No. I really look forward to it. What's interesting about Hartford too is that all the great operatic singers sang there when they were working with the Hartford Opera. So there must be a really cultivated audience there. 

JVS: Cumming is doing a lot of work with the symphony to try to break down the walls and open classical music to people of color. He does a concert once a year in an African-American church. 

RF: Good. Excellent.  

JVS: In terms of the operatic cloister, what are you able to address the graying of the audience and its whiteness? 

RF: One of the things I've noticed as I've toured the country in the last few years and sing, particularly in concert, I have a very young audience. So many students come to hear me sing. That really amazes me. They're not just singing students, but also students from other disciplines. I think there's a real desire among young people to have a broad and eclectic appreciation of music.  

People don't specialize anymore when it comes to music listening. I see this in my own children. They're both iTunes fanatics, and have all kinds of alternative pop and rock, as well as classical on their iPods. And it's without any real influence from me. They just like to explore. I'm actually feeling very hopeful right now about the state of music. 

JVS: Gramophone recently published the results of a reader survey. With 80% of the respondees from the UK, where classical music on the radio is still strong, they were astounded to discover an astounding number of people who are listening on the net, downloading to iPods, ripping CDs to their hard drives. This is happening a lot among people 50 and older. The older listeners, however, are more likely to download contemporary composers such as Peter Maxwell Davies. 

How old are your kids? 

RF: Eleven and fourteen.  

JVS: So they're right there… 

RF: Yeah. One of my children is really into this young English guy who has an audience three generations long – the name escapes me.  

The good thing about the internet is that people are free to explore. I certainly do. 

JVS: We're going to have to do it with Tower going bankrupt. That's where I first discovered Elisabeth Schwarzkopf and Lotte Lehmann. I put on "Dich, teure halle" from her Seraphim album and said, oh my God, I've never heard anything like this in my life! And now that's gone. 

RF: Yeah. I love the ability to explore on the internet. I do it all the time. If I want to find something, I go to iTunes or amazon.com. Or I just Google. It's such a tremendous resource, and it ahs opened doors for everyone. 

JVS: I've listened to much of a pre-release of your new CD, Homage [Decca]. I got very excited when I discovered that you were singing the same Korngold aria that Lehmann recorded. 

RF: I love that piece. 

JVS: It makes me wonder. You're 47 now. Does this suggest any kind of shift in the voice or repertoire focus? 

RF: No. Really, no. The record itself led me in the direction of warmer, richer repertoire, but I'm not changing my repertoire at all. You have to pay attention to what the voice tells you, and I'm pretty much where I've been for the last 10 years or so.  

JVS: I remember reading an interview with you years ago when you said you wanted to record some Mozart coloratura arias now, while you could still hit the high notes. But as far as I can tell, you haven't lost the ability to hit the high notes at all. I mean, many soprano voices go lower as singers mature. Lucia Popp and Arleen Auger may have debuted as the Queen of the Night, but they weren't singing her when they reached their 40s. But you have retained the upper extension. 

RF: Well, that came late to me. It started with Manon in 1997. I remember when I was the in rehearsal period for it in Paris, and thinking, 'I don't know if I can sing this." I had never done anything that high, and was sort of hoping for the best. Then I discovered that the role actually lay perfectly for me. So I haven't looked back. I've continued to sing high repertoire. 

It's not that my voice changed. It's that my technique improved enough so that I could do it and get out of my own way. And that's where I've been ever since, while still keeping the fuller, lyric roles and not losing any of that ability. 

This record is an example of the fuller repertoire. But I'm still able to sing way up there. I sing a sustained high E flat on this record. I never would have done that 10 years ago. I just didn't sing well enough. 

JVS: Interesting. I haven't heard your Opera Rara recordings, or your early recording of Armida [Sony]. So you weren't hitting sustained E flats on that? 

RF: I don't know. Not in the same way. It was different. First of all, the tessitura of that role is much lower, which is why I've programmed it at the Met in 2010. It's a Colibran role, so it's quite low. It's very florid, but there's very little in the way of sustained high singing. 

JVS: On the disc you do the Korngold aria, which Lehmann could never have recorded five years later. By her own admission, she peaked in 1930 at the age of 42. And your high notes are certainly more secure than hers. 

RF: My favorite phrase is that there will only seven good days in a year, and you won't be engaged on those days. The voice is definitely a living organism, and it's a little bit different every day. 

JVS: Are you tackling new roles? 

RF: Let's see. I'm going back to Onegin this season, which I haven't done in a very long time, so that's going to require quite a bit of preparation. After that… I've just done so much new repertoire in the last period –Traviata, Daphne, Rodelinda, and I'm forgetting something else – so for the next couple of years at least, I'm doing a lot of repeats. I'm singing quite a bit of opera, in Europe mostly, and mostly Strauss. I'm going back to Arabella, Capriccio, and Rosenkavalier in the next few years in Europe. 

JVS: How many years out of the year do you sing, and how do you balance career with family? 

RF: I don't have a number. I just try to make sure that I have holes in my calendar, with plenty of time to be at home. I never leave for more than 2 ½ weeks at a time. 

JVS: Do your kids come with you on tour? 

RF: Oh sure. Definitely. They were with me on tour all the time when they were younger. Now they're with me in the summer. I'm taking my daughter with me to Rome next weekend. I've planned a whole China tour, including Bangkok, Taiwan, Shanghai, Beijing, and other cities, in the spring. It's planned around my children's spring break, so we can all go together. I can't wait to share that with them. I've never been, so I'm thrilled to go myself.  

They were in Japan with me this summer, and my youngest daughter went with me to Russia also. 

JVS: Do they like going to the opera? 

RF: They love it, and they love the traveling. I'm very fortunate, because I've been expecting them to reel for a number of years. So far, they still really love it. It helps that my oldest daughter is in a very cultured school, and her friends are excellent musicians themselves. There's no peer pressure for them not to like opera, which there might be in another place.  

JVS: Although we're focusing a lot on opera, one of your recordings that absolutely blew me away was your jazz recording with Fred Hersch [Decca], whom I've interviewed a number of times. 

RF: Oh great. I love Fred. 

JVS: I was just in Chicago doing a story, and had the chance to listen to one of the recordings from that album on a sound system with $36,000 speakers and $10,000 interconnects. It was fabulous, just fabulous. 

RF:.  I'm so glad. 

JVS: Are you going anywhere with your gifts as a jazz vocalist? 

RF: Well, I did the one date a Joe's Pub. The way the record was released, and the time it was released, really didn't offer me much of an opportunity to expand on it. There was so much resistance to me doing it at all that I thought, if I just get the thing out, it will be an incredible accomplishment. 

People were very worried about the whole thing, and thought there would be a terrible backlash. It was actually okay. The thing I said to Brad Mehldau recently was that, when you take a risk like that, even if people don't like it, it expands your profile in a way that is interesting at least. And maybe five years down the road, people will say, 'You know, that was interesting what that person did, and very risky.' I've always felt we have to take risks to stay interesting. 

I would love to come back to jazz eventually. I often joke around that Barbara Cook is my idol, and maybe I'll be doing what she does when I can't sing opera anymore. She still sings so beautifully; she's unbelievable. Or maybe I won't want to perform anymore. I don't know. But I'm so pleased that you enjoyed it. That's wonderful. 

JVS: It's a very different era than when Rudolf Bing fired Helen Traubel for singing in a nightclub. 

RF: Eileen Farrell I think it was. I read that. It's in her book that she got fired, and that he said, "No artist of mine will sing in a club." Helen Traubel as well? My gosh, I didn't know that. He may have made a policy of that all along. 

JVS: Have you encountered blocks? Did General Managers of opera companies greet you with raised eyebrows after the disc came out? 

RF: No, not at all. Not at all. I think if anything, people are impressed with the courage… No, because it had its own integrity. If the disc were some sort of cheesy pop disc, and was clearly made for one reason alone, which was to sell records and be commercial, then, Yeah, I think I would insult some people. But because it has more integrity than that, and also because it's very clearly a very personal intimate expression that's never intended to be a commercial record, that's helpful. 

JVS: I loved the parts of your interview I caught on NPR. Fred is just brilliant. 

RF: I know. I know it. He really is. He really is. 

Do you have another question? My secretary is waving to me. I've got to wrap up and go to another meeting. 

JVS: In terms of singers of the past or of the present, I'd be interested in knowing who touches your heart or soul the most? 

RF: I can't really answer that question, because there really isn't one person. I have a very broad taste. It depends entirely on what I'm singing, the repertoire, and what I'm doing at the moment.  

On this record, in the Italian repertoire for instance, I discovered Magda Olivero, and fell absolutely in love with her recordings. But I like to think that Lotte Lehmann was a kind of role model for me, because of how broad her artistic leanings were: she wrote books, she painted, she became a great teacher… But there's no one person, because I'm listening for so many variables. I'm listening for language, for sound… To put together that person, I'd have to take from so many different people. 

JVS: Olivero was new to you this time around? 

RF: New in the sense that I really, really listened and got what was special about her. I'd listened to her before, but this time was different. 

JVS: Did you focus on one part of her career, because she was singing in 1940, then retired, then… 

RF: …then later. I don't even know. I didn't get into it to the degree of comparing a recording from 1939 with one from 1970. I mean, I know she sang with Domingo as well as Gigli. It was an unbelievable career. 

JVS: And an incredible vital force. There's a video that has her doing "O Holy Night" when she's in her '80s. 

RF: Really? 

JVS: Somewhere in the interview, she says something like, "I've always had this very strong vital force in me." You can truly see, as she's preparing to ascend above the stave at that age, that her body aligns and the energy comes down.  

RF: Really! 

JVS: Yes. You get that the woman understands energy. She's drawing on these energies outside her, and she knows how to pull them through her body. I saw her Tosca here in '75 or '76… 

RF: Really.

JVS: … and I don't believe there were any flowers left in San Francisco. My hands burned for two days from clapping so hard.  

RF: Well, listen, I'm going to Milan next week, and I'm hoping very much to meet her. 

JVS: Oh, what a thrill! 

RF: It will be a thrill for me. Yeah. 

JVS: I shall let you go. Thank you so much. 

RF: Thank you. It was a pleasure talking with you. You're so knowledgeable. I really appreciate that. 

JVS: Thank you dear.
 

- Jason Victor Serinus -

© Copyright 2007 Secrets of Home Theater & High Fidelity

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