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MARCH 2005

Renee Fleming: Lyric Soprano Expands to Jazz

By Joan Baum, Ph.D.

The Inner Voice” is the name Renée Fleming gave to her recently published autobiography The Making of a Singer, but of course it is the outer voice, that gorgeous lyric soprano, that opera lovers and classical music critics have called one of the beautiful sounds ever heard. This May, Fleming fans will have still another reason to marvel at her inner prompts and outer effects - they may even be “scandalized” she laughs – when they hear the queen of Mozart and Handel bopping out jazz on a Decca CD. In fact, as she was performing Handel’s Rodelinda to sensational reviews at the Met this past fall, she was also starting to record the jazz album with guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist and composer Fred Hersch. Though basically jazz, it will also contain some classical and a bit of pop – a surprising mix that will include Mahler, Villa-Lobos, Stephen Foster, Joni Mitchell, and Lionel Hampton, whose “Midnight Sun,” she recalls, came from a “crazy idea” she had one night listening to Alban Berg’s “Wozzeck.” The opera’s blood red moon passage put her in mind of Hampton’s fabulous and difficult riff and she asked Hersch if he could “marry this music to “Midnight Sun.” Jazz even more than opera has had a hard time in this country, she points out, and what a shame that is, considering that jazz is America’s unique art form. Ironically, the CD is scheduled for release right around the time when Ms. Fleming will be performing commissioned “art songs” (poems set to classical music) at Zankel Hall. The pieces, composed by jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, will all be contemporary classical. Opera traditionalists are not to worry, however, for the CD sultry songstress will morph back again that same month into Desdemona when she performs in “Otello” at the Royal Opera in London.

For those who know only Renée Fleming, diva, it may come as a surprise to learn that jazz has always been her love. She used to perform with a trio in her early college days at Potsdam State University (she was a music ed major), but the forthcoming CD, whose working title is “Haunted Heart,” will be a first for her in this genre. She’s going for “an intimate sound,” a whispering, “quiet mellow quality,” and she’s getting there by singing an octave lower. Her crossover expertise is indicative of something unusual about this gifted artist. Renée Fleming is an impassioned student of music, with the emphasis on “student.” With a reputation for gracious accessibility and easy affability – both of which prove true–she works extremely hard to link talent and discipline. She uses the word “pedantic” to describe her need to educate herself about an opera she’s preparing for, including listening to as many different interpretations by those who have gone before–an unusual and risky undertaking–but she believes that only by studying others she will avoid copying them, a danger in singing opera.

As for other perils of a professional life in singing, she has candidly written about them in The Inner Voice–a no-frills account of trials and challenges, private and professional. She wrote the book, she has said, because such caveats and guidance were not available when she was a Juilliard student. Few singers realize, for example, how much a career in singing is business as much as, maybe more than, pleasure, and how much professionalism may owe not only to formal study but to trusting intuition and in being mature enough to deal with pressures. To her advantage, she believes, was the fact that she got a relatively late start (she was 29 or 30) and had wonderful mentors–conductors, especially Solti, other singers, great teachers such as Beverly Johnson and of course her parents, both of whom taught voice. In an interview given to OperaNet last month, she was quoted as having said that when she was young, she was never really interested in opera, but “it was something I had to do, like cleaning my room.” She had to take piano, voice, violin, and dance lessons.  Love set in later.

Because March is Women’s History Month, Education Update of course asked about the word “female” that appears in some of her many accolades. Though she was given an honorary doctorate from The Juilliard School a couple of years ago, it was Renée Fleming “American Beauty” that splashed across the cover in Opera News that same year. She laughs, she has two daughters, she hopes she is a role model for them, as they pursue their dreams, but she points out that opera is “the least sexist profession in the world.”  What is the genre without a soprano? Or a tenor? Though women composers have been slow to enter the classical field, she takes heart that in conducting the stereotype has already turned around. She is also optimistic about music education for youngsters, noting that exposure is crucial and that two decades of decline in the public schools now is being redressed. Her daughter’s fourth-grade class recently came to a production of Rodelinda and was “thrilled.” That’s a tough four hours for many adults but the kids adored it and there’s where love of music begins.#



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