(National Medal of) Art Talk with Renee Fleming
“On a civic level, especially in areas needing revitalization, art works to give citizens a sense of pride and shared investment in their community.” — Renée Fleming
Did you know that Renée Fleming had planned to be a jazz singer? Lucky for us “The People’s Diva” fell in love with classical music and the rest, as they say, is history. A history that includes four Grammy awards, Sweden’s Polar Music Prize, and as of this past July, the 2012 National Medal of Arts, not to mention performances at all of the world’s great opera houses, and special occasions such as the Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee, the 2oo8 Olympics in Beijing, and the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize Ceremony. We spoke with Fleming via e-mail about the nuts and bolts of an opera singer’s life, her diverse inspirations, and her belief that opera singers are the “Olympic athletes of singing.”
NEA: Opera has a very glamorous air about it but I suspect that, as with many artist’s lives, it’s not all glamour. What’s an opera singer’s life really like?
RENÉE FLEMING: A couple of specific things make an opera singer’s life unique. First and foremost, we are engaged for opera four or five years in advance by the major international houses, with concerts and recitals coming in two or three years later, and recordings, press, and other events filling in even later. This makes scheduling challenging in terms of trying to sort out one’s wishes along with the appropriateness of repertoire, so far in advance. I have had to juggle all of this while raising two daughters; the greatest balancing issue of all. Someone said to me years ago that we aren’t paid to sing; most of us would sing for free for the joy of it. We are paid to leave our families. It’s the constant travel that may contribute to the impression of glamor; but, as anyone who travels for work knows, the fun of suitcases, airports, customs lines, and hotels wears off pretty quickly.
Then, a singer’s instrument is herself. I can’t put it in a box and go off and do what I like. Without wanting to sound like a stereotypical diva, I have to live moderately because fatigue shows in the voice first. It’s important to avoid loud, crowded social settings like parties and noisy restaurants. The vocal athleticism required of a classically trained singer, who performs unamplified, needs constant attention. I sing in nine languages, and I’m constantly learning new music covering centuries of musical creation. This takes time, study and self-discipline. I consider it a privilege, however, and I hope the end result is a performance in which the audience and I share an experience that possesses moments of wonder regarding human creation; poetry, music, and what the human body is capable of expressing through that most natural of instruments—the voice.
NEA: What do you remember as your earliest engagement with or experience of the arts?
FLEMING: Both of my parents were high school vocal music teachers, so music and singing were like air in our household. I can’t remember a time I was without it, since I spent my earliest years in a playpen next to my mother as she taught voice in our home. We performed together as a family, sang on road trips in the car, and shared our school concerts, and church choir performances. In my early teen years, music became an absolute necessity for me, because I composed songs when I was too shy to express myself easily in any other way. Later, as a young adult while on a Fulbright scholarship, I fell in love with painting, at a Chagall show in London at the National Gallery, and theater in London during my first engagement. Alone for five weeks, I went to the theater with half-price tickets almost every night. These passions have remained with me ever since. I refer to myself as a “culture nut.”
What was your path to becoming an opera singer?
FLEMING: I actually wanted to be the first lady president when I was in high school, a job that is sadly still open. But I followed the path of least resistance, not having any further exposure or knowledge of other avenues, and studied music education, following in my parent’s footsteps. I had hoped to sing jazz given the success it had given me during my undergraduate education at SUNY Potsdam, but while at the Eastman School afterwards, the opportunities didn’t present themselves, and I fell in love with the study and pursuit of classical music. I desperately wanted to master the art and technique of singing the greatest music composed over 300-plus years. Further study took me to Juilliard and Germany for my Fulbright. It was only in my late 20s that my career began.
NEA: It seems that part of your music career is also serving as a type of ambassador for U.S. culture. Can you please talk about that part of your work?
FLEMING: I’ve had the privilege of singing around the world, for royalty and governmental officials, for Nobel laureates, the Olympics, and even the Queen of England’s Jubilee. These experiences have enriched my life tenfold, and I hope, in turn, to spread a positive example as a global musician.
I just returned from a recital tour of China, where I was thrilled to see that interest in classical music is growing in a very young, enthusiastic audience, and terrific voices are also being developed there. In Hong Kong, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Taipei, I worked with young singers in a master class setting. By sharing my experience and knowledge, I also hope I am helping to expand the boundaries, ever so slightly, of what it means to be an opera singer. Performing in what began as a western European art form, when I sing in capitals all over the world, my very American identity, and my love of investigating music of all kinds, may challenge some older notions of what a soprano has to be.
NEA: You are also a literacy advocate—can you talk about the work you do in that area, and why it’s so important?
FLEMING: Reading was a lifeline to me in childhood. Because I was innately timid, the world of books enabled me to dream and imagine the outside world, and what my life might hold. When I was in third grade, a librarian put C.S. Lewis’ The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe in my hand and changed my young life. I then read in the dark, on long car trips, in class—whenever I could.
A lovely READ poster of me as Dvorak’s Rusalka (The Little Mermaid) sends home the message for those schools that acquire it, and I have applauded the work of Literacy Partners in New York.
NEA: Your beautiful voice seems matched by your beautiful wardrobe, and my guess is that your gowns must not only be aesthetically gorgeous, but also function in a way that supports your instrument. Can you talk about the intersection of fashion and opera?
FLEMING: Opera stars may not be the style setters that they were in an earlier era, but our audiences have high expectations for glamour, and tend to be very sophisticated. I have been so lucky to work with many brilliant designers over the years. There is so much that goes into the selection of my performance wardrobe, and a considerable amount of time and energy accompany the need for seven to 10 new performance “costumes” annually. Of course, a gown has to be beautiful, but it also has to travel well. I have to be able to pack it into a suitcase, and rely on it to be relatively maintenance free for up to 20 performances. Corsets are helpful for breath support, and comfort is important as well. And of course, we haven’t even talked about shoes…
NEA: Are there specific performances by other opera singers—or singers of any genre—that have inspired/informed the way you approach your own work?
FLEMING: I am constantly listening to singing, in pretty much any genre. I love research, and I tend to listen to everything I can when preparing a role or new piece of music. YouTube has become a fantastic resource for this—it’s truly amazing what you can find there. Classical music has a long, treasured legacy, and I like to come to terms with the history of a piece before recording it myself. When I did my first recording of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, a cornerstone of the soprano concert repertoire, I listened to 24 different interpretations, in the process of forging my own. Naturally, different singers will be more influential to me depending on the piece. A favorite performer is Leontyne Price, who mentored me in the most generous way, and it was she who pointed out to me that the versatility we shared as American sopranos who sing equally comfortably in opera, orchestra concerts, and piano recitals is unusual.
NEA: Do you have a favorite performance of your own—in terms of repertoire, venue, personal significance, etc.?
FLEMING: Honestly, I’m not one for favorites, where performances or repertoire are concerned. My favorite performance really tends to be (and needs to be) the one I’m engaged in at the moment. The great thing about an art like music-making is that there is something to challenge me, something to convey, and something to love in every piece I undertake.
NEA: If you had to give an elevator pitch to someone who thought opera was “not for them” what would you say?
FLEMING: There are so many intellectually curious people out there who simply haven’t given opera a try. Sometimes, they’re intimidated by etiquette: what to wear, and when to applaud, [and] isn’t it in a foreign language? Wear whatever you want, applaud with the majority of the audience—and super-titles have made opera immediately accessible for the past 20 years. And why not hear the Olympic athletes of singing? The opera house is one of the last places you can hear the human voice, in its most trained and powerful state, unadulterated, without amplification, reverb, or auto-tuning. I would go on to add that opera can be one of the most moving of art forms. At any good performance of an opera love story or tragedy, you will see people crying. Most of those people already know the story—who gets the girl, who lives, and who dies (usually the soprano). But an opera’s rare combination of great music, beautiful voices, and vivid story-telling has the power to bypass your intellectual defenses and go straight to your heart.
NEA: What’s on your listening playlist right now?
FLEMING: New scenes and arias from Bel Canto, the opera of Ann Patchett’s book, with music by Jimmy Lopez and a libretto by Nilo Cruz that I’ve helped to curate for a world premiere at Lyric Opera of Chicago in 2015
I’ve been listening to singers from pretty much every genre for American Voices, a major festival of American singing that I’m planning with the Kennedy Center for November 22-24.
I’m always researching new repertoire for concerts and recordings, and I listen copiously to singers from all walks of life. I’m still a jazz fan, and the music of Kurt Elling, Brad Mehldau, and Bill Carrothers are recent constants, and Joni Mitchell will remain a touchstone.
NEA: At the NEA, we say “Art works,” referring to works of art, the way the arts work on people, and also the fact that artists are workers who contribute to our economy. What does the phrase “Art Works” mean to you?
FLEMING: For me right now, as I’ve been working with Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Chicago Public Schools, I’m particularly conscious of the effect that the arts and arts education have on our children and our community. “Art works” to raise children who will be creative thinkers, collaborative problem-solvers, and possessed of the confidence that comes from being encouraged to express themselves. On a very practical level, we know that art works to keep children engaged in school. On a civic level, especially in areas needing revitalization, art works to give citizens a sense of pride and shared investment in their community.