Renée Fleming

Opera Singer and 2012 National Medal of Arts Recipient
Portrait of woman.

Photo by Andrew Eccles

Music Credit: “Haunted Heart,” from the cd Haunted Heart, music by Arthur Schwartz, lyrics by Howard Dietz, performed by Renee Fleming

Renée Fleming: You know I did the Memorial Day concert on Sunday. And it was a segment actually on the power of music and the power of music therapy because Captain Luis Avila had such horrendous injuries that he’s been in multiple surgeries, 70, I think, he said, for 6 years.

Jo Reed: Seven zero.

Renée Fleming: Yeah. And he only regained speech in the last year. And it was through music therapy. So once you see this occur and the gift that it gives to people whether they’ve had stroke or whether they’re in Parkinson’s they’re having difficulty moving and rhythm and dance helps them reconnect again with the parts of the brain that then begin to function better and coordinate better. Pain relief and certainly Alzheimer’s and autism. Music sometimes is the only thing that can reach those patients.

Jo Reed: That’s singer Renée Fleming and this is Art Works the weekly podcast produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed.

Renée Fleming is a supremely talented classical singer. A four-time Grammy winner, Fleming is a lyric soprano whose purity of voice soars, as well as a compelling and accessible performer. She’s one of the few classical singers who’s crossed over into the popular imagination, singing David Letterman’s top ten list, recording both jazz and popular music CDs, and performing the National Anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl.

  1. while Fleming stepping away from some the roles that she owns—like The Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, she’s adding to an already strenuous off-stage workload: she’s a long-time champion for literacy, she’s been creative consultant to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and more recently, Artistic Advisor-at-Large for the Kennedy Center. In fact, it was through Renée Fleming that the Kennedy Center joined with the National Institutes of Health, to explore the connections of music, health, and science. to that end, those two organizations, in association with the National Endowment for the Arts, launched the Sound Health partnership.

Last weekend, Renée Fleming joined musicians and scientists at the Kennedy Center for Sound Health’s first public initiative, Music and the Mind. Music and the Mind was a two day program that explored music’s ability to heal, to actually change neural circuitry in the brain and expand our creative potential. I spoke with Renée Fleming, here at arts endowment the day before Music and the Mind premiered. And as we heard at the top of the show, it is work Renée Fleming is passionately committed to.

Renée Fleming: I’ve been interested in the subject for a long time really just by, you know, being an armchair news reader. And- and piquing my interest at seeing, about once a month there would be some sort of research that would be in the paper about music and the brain. And I met Francis Collins, Dr. Collins who runs the NIH at a party, at a dinner party. And we ended up performing for a very illustrious group of justices, Scalia and Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Justice Kennedy. This was a couple of years ago at the end of the-- I was going to say season. After very contentious decisions. And we broke the ice by music making. Francis Collins brought his guitar and we sort of co-opted the little band that was there and we kind of staged an impromptu sing-along. And it was really fun. And I said to him do you think there’s any chance that these two institutions, the NIH and the Kennedy Center could collaborate in order to amplify this extraordinary work that’s being done in music in the brain.

Jo Reed: And he said, “Indeed we can.”

Renée Fleming: I was sort of amazed, actually. I think the timing was right. He’s a lifelong music lover and participator. He not only plays but he composes. He sings. And we were at an event eighteen months ago or so in which he wrote a song for Yo-Yo Ma and performed it. So, you know, he’s an extraordinary guy in any case. And so I think he just felt there was enough-- they have a major brain initiative, anyway a study of the brain. And so music is very much a part of that which is terrific.

Jo Reed: It’s interesting because we think of the arts and science as being somehow antithetical when…

Renée Fleming: No, they’re so related. It’s extraordinary. And there’s a reason why all of us are pushing STEAM…

Jo Reed: And STEAM is science, technology, art, and math

Renée Fleming: Yes, and it’s because it’s not just human creativity but the way the brain functions. For instance, basic science has now pretty much proven that music predates speech in the evolution of human beings. And so there are so many things that they’re discovering about how we process music that make the whole subject more interesting than I think one would have guessed, far beyond just enjoyment. But he said that we are hardwired for music in a way that wasn’t previously understood because music lives in its own distinct place in the brain.

Jo Reed: How interesting. I always think we’re hardwired for stories. If I think about what makes us human we’re the ones who tell the stories.

Renée Fleming: That’s true. No, it’s true. I mean that’s a little bit part of that. But because music is often preverbal in a way it has another powerful function. And it uses more parts of the brain than speech does certainly. And the other thing, I think, that’s been interesting to me is the power of improvisation to give us increased brain health, to utilize and challenge way more parts of the brain than other types of engagement with music.

Jo Reed: Yeah, I saw studies done where they wired-- and I know there’s a technical term that I don’t know what it is-- to jazz musicians as they were jamming, just so they could study their brain. And it was fascinating.

Renée Fleming: Yes. I asked Charles Limb yesterday, Dr. Limb who is coming in to give this presentation on improv. I said, please explain the difference between FMRI, EEG and MIR because I didn't know it. I hardly knew what any of that was. So you’re right it is-- I actually participated in a two-hour long experiment at the NIH where-- this was an FMRI. So I was in…

Jo Reed: Can you explain to that to me? What is an FMRI?

Renée Fleming: So an FMRI measures blood flow. And I was in the machine for two hours singing, imagining singing, and speaking a couple of phrases from a song that I will perform tomorrow night. And they will show the results and share them with the audience. So it’s really a fabulous way of kind of showing exactly on the brain itself what happens when we really are either listening or performing music.

Jo Reed: That’s amazing. Back in January there was a two-day planning workshop at NIH. And it included a lot of scientific presentations.

Renée Fleming: Right.

Jo Reed: And you were there for the whole thing. And I was wondering did anything surprise you?

Renée Fleming: Oh yeah. I learned so much. First of all, one of the goals of this whole collaboration is to further music therapy as a field, as a profession and it has to do with the science. And what I learned, for instance, one of the things I learned is that actually building up a kind of foundation of scientific research puts you really in the weeds. I mean it’s the tiniest tiny grain of information that’s proven that’s- that has controls that’s really rigorously planned that sets up this foundation for us understanding why, for instance, on YouTube videos go viral of people who are unreachable until somebody puts an iPod and headphones on their head and they’re reconnected with music that they loved and suddenly they come alive. Dan Cohen’s film Alive Inside really illustrates that. So it’s going to be a while before science connects those two dots in a meaningful way. But in the meantime, we see that it works.

Jo Reed: Exactly. And we can keep on keeping on and then they can fill out the data as they get it.

Renée Fleming: Yeah. That’s it. I think of it as a music and they have to build those little blocks.

Jo Reed: Is there a way musicians can help in this research, do you think?

Renée Fleming: I think we are. I mean, you know, for me to just be part of that experiment and also you know, again, it gets a message out that this is happening. It also encourages organizations to fund the research, to support the research at various universities and hospitals. And it’s a sharing in a sense. And a connecting also of these different disciplines because you have researchers and scientists. You have people who work in education. Childhood development, we found in the research, really is effected by the arts and by especially music instruction. We’ll have Dr. Nina Kraus here who will give a demonstration hopefully talk about the fact that children who engage with learning instruments, for instance, or learning how to play an instrument are better at comprehension, speech comprehension. And we know they have to be disciplined and there’s a certain amount of focus required and there are other skills that they gain but I thought that one was really interesting.

Jo Reed: That is interesting. And, you know, on a much more mundane level we all know the easiest way to teach a child anything is to put it into a song.

Renée Fleming: That’s right.

Jo Reed: And they remember.

Renée Fleming: That’s right. I still remember the songs that my children sang to learn the alphabet and learn the fifty states and it’s ingrained for life.

Jo Reed: Yes, exactly. You began as a creative consultant to the lyric opera five years ago. And I read you had asked yourself, okay, what can I do to make opera more relevant and sustainable?

Renée Fleming: Mm-Hm.

Jo Reed: Five years later, do you feel like you’re closer to having some answers to that?

Renée Fleming: Well, a passion of mine was audience development. And my theory is that putting on great opera does not necessarily draw new people. You’re preaching to the converted. You’re preaching to the people already coming. And sure the odd straggler will come in and say I love this. The quality has to be good. But I feel that it’s what you do outside and offstage in terms of whether it’s community outreach, or whether it’s presenting new things in other places. Or what we did is we now present music theater, classic music theater every year. We developed a second city guide to the opera. And also to Wagner’s Ring Cycle. And I curated a world premiere of an opera called Bel Canto base on my friend Ann Patchett’s book of the same name. So it’s these tapes of projects, I think, create buzz around the opera house and make it sort of more inviting, more interesting and hopefully that is helpful.

Jo Reed: Because also I think there’s an intimidation process that happens, I think, with new people which in a way is kind of paradoxical because people have the sense opera is elitist and they need to know so much in order to get it. But people who love opera they’re not reacting intellectually. It’s a real emotional response.

Renée Fleming: That’s correct.

Jo Reed: I don’t know any art lovers more passionate than opera lovers.

Renée Fleming: Well, and the current barriers are-- some of it is a little bit of intimidation, as you said. And people have the sense they know it’s, typically, in a foreign language so they assume they’re not going to understand it. And, of course, we say there are titles now. Everybody has them. And people sometimes still ask what they should wear. But I also think it's a little bit of an excuse. I don’t need to do that. That’s a niche. Other people do that. And so people don’t give it a chance. And another barrier is length. So I’m all for actually creating abridged works alongside the full length works and allowing audiences to choose and let’s see what happens. There’s a tremendous amount of resistance to that because I think everyone is afraid that they’ll be sort of criticized by the purist or the so-called opera police. And I think we have to be a little more aggressive about trying new things. It’s important because as audience diminishes and, of course, education is a huge part of that. Certainly, the fact that now all opera companies have very aggressive ways of inviting young people in with price reductions and all kinds of ways. And I always say make it social somehow. And all of these things are really working.

Jo Reed: Yeah. There’s something about music you hear when you’re young that you hear and you listen in a way that no matter what else you might learn about music, you just hear it in your bones somehow.

Renée Fleming: Yeah. And it’s like learning anything, it’s much easier when you’re a young person. And it sticks better. I mean that’s why I learned foreign languages when I was in my early twenties. And there was this notion that people had the exposure at a young age called planting the seed and that they would come back to it once they’re-- because when their families are young it’s hard. It's very hard to get out at night. But I would say, no, no, no, great, let’s create a lot more programming for families, for children and make it accessible, make it possible for them to come all through their-- you know, all through the period of time that they’re-- that they have young families. That’s what I mean by being a little bit more assertive about change.

Jo Reed: Right. Because 100 years ago opera music was popular music.

Renée Fleming: Right. Exactly.

Jo Reed: That’s what people were singing in the street.

Renée Fleming: Yes. It was-- it’s what people did. I mean 100 years ago we had Caruso and Nellie Melba and these people were world stars in the same way they sold products and they were known everywhere. And this was pre-media. So it’s really extraordinary to think how did that message get out?

Jo Reed: Yeah, it is interesting isn’t it?

Renée Fleming: Yeah.

Jo Reed: All singers share the same challenge in that they are their instrument and their instrument is them. I think with opera in some ways that’s magnified perhaps.

Renée Fleming: Yeah.

Jo Reed: It’s unique.

Renée Fleming: Well, it’s because were not amplified, I think. It really is the body that creates the sound. We’re all unique. We sound differently. I just did the voice for Julianne Moore’s Roxanne Coss in “Bel Canto” the film which will come out next season. And she and her husband came to a rehearsal for a gala, an opera gala. And they had never heard singers live. They had only head them in a recording or on television. And she said it was really a revelation to them. She just kept saying, “Oh my gosh, you’re all so different,” you know, and that gets equalized on the microphone to some degree. It’s not as rich the variation. Some voices are piercing. Some voices are incredibly warm. Some are huge. Some are refined and small. And they all reflect the human being that embodies that voice.

Jo Reed: And the voice also changes over years.

Renée Fleming: Yes.

Jo Reed: So there’s a constant rethinking, can I still sing this?

Renée Fleming: Well, I think opera singers actually we get more time than other singers because we have such rigorous training. So for the most part what I see is we’re allowed a type of longevity that popular singers rarely have. And it’s because also the audience stays with us. They want to see what we’re going to develop. Remember, we’re choosing from 300 years of music. So it’s kind of endless what we can perform. It’s really remarkable. I mean to have careers, consistently that are over 30 years, that’s a luxury.

Jo Reed: You’ve done any number of operas but I’m thinking of two classic roles in two great American operas, Susannah in Carlisle Floyd’s opera Susannah. And you created the role of Blanche in André Previn’s adaption of A Street Car Named Desire. If you’re thinking about those twentieth century American, works as a singer, did it-- was it different for you from eighteenth or nineteenth century roles?

Renée Fleming: Well, I’ve done a ton of new music. I mean also Ghosts of Versailles and Danger Liaisons. And I just premiered a piece by Kevin Puts that was a setting of Georgia O’Keefe’s letters. So I love new music and I do a lot of it. I mean, obviously, the primary difference is that you’re singing in your own language as opposed to eighteenth, nineteenth century music. You know, pretty consistently it’s going to be a European based musical language and speech language. So that I find really wonderful. But other than that it really entirely depends on the composer, you know. But I really love new music. I’ve always loved it.

Jo Reed: As well as being one of the great stars of opera, you’ve always done concerts, recitals, recordings, have you always combined all of these? And I’m wondering how performing an opera is different for you from performing in a concert?

Renée Fleming: Well, this has kind of been my schedule for I’d say about fifteen years. Since my children went into school I had to be very careful about opera. I could be in New York where I was home but I didn’t want to be elsewhere much, maybe once or twice. And, typically, I have concertized for a long time and that’s how I spend most of my time. I’m going to China next. And I was just in Europe with the Dresden Staatskapelle and also in with the Vienna Philharmonic. And this is incredible. I love this work and I’ll hopefully continue to do this for a little bit.

Jo Reed: One of your great, great roles is the Marschallin in Rosenkavalier, and you’ve just done that at the Met. What goes in to preparing a role like that?

Renée Fleming: Well, the first time is, of course, arduous because learning the role is a lot. Act One is challenging. It’s a tremendous amount of text. It’s very grammatic. And it’s very fast moving. It's-- It’s declamatory. It’s a ton of speech on pitch. But once you’ve done that, you know, the staging is not hard. I mean it comes together. In a new production, of course, you’re working with a director one on one. This was Robert Carsen is a director I really loved and is a friend of mine and we’ve done a lot together. So it was a joy. It was all a joy.

Jo Reed: You were a jazz singer in college.

Renée Fleming: Well, I mean I sang jazz in college for a couple of years with a trio but I was majoring classical music as one does. Only now recently are there jazz programs as there are music theater programs. But then there was only-- you only ever studied classical singing. But I loved it. I still love it. I’m an avid listener and enjoyer of jazz.

Jo Reed: Well, I heard your CD Haunted Heart. And I was really stunned by your voice because you’re a lyric soprano. And in this CD your register in some of those songs were so much lower.

<music plays>

Renée Fleming: Well, in order not to sound like a classically trained singer…

Jo Reed: And you didn’t.

Renée Fleming: … I have to keep it in my speech register because I don’t have the skill-- I mean I never learned how to mix a pie. And I don’t want to even attempt to do that now for how hard it would be on my voice. So what I discovered is as long as I stay in this particular range I can sound idiomatically and a little bit stylistically more correct.

Jo Reed: I thought it was great. I really did think it was gorgeous.

Renée Fleming: Oh super. Thank you.

Jo Reed: I mean your voice was like honey.

Renée Fleming: Oh, thank you.

Jo Reed: It was really gorgeous.

Renée Fleming: It was fun.

Jo Reed: And in the fall you’re playing Nettie in Carousel. And this is going to be your Broadway musical debut.

Renée Fleming: Yeah.

Jo Reed: Well what lead you there?

Renée Fleming: Well, actually it starts in the spring. And I think it will be fun. It will be a fun experience, something new something a little bit different. And it’s-- I’ve had to commit to a certain amount of time and still carve out periods where I can tour because I want to make sure I maintain my voice. And I’m looking forward to it. I think it’s going to be really a wonderful experience.

Jo Reed: Opera books so far in advance.

Renée Fleming: Yeah. Yes. Yeah. There were periods when I had operas five years from now which is hard because you have to sort of envision as you said, the body changes. And, also, the kind of music that you're loving to sing changes and you have to kind of try and project what it is you’ll want to be doing. And it’s impossible to really know. So I always was conservative about those choices because I didn't really want to get there and disappoint people and have to cancel or be singing something that I wish I hadn’t-- that I wish I was doing something else. But on the other hand, it was just the necessities, how things were scheduled.

Jo Reed: How do you decide what projects to take on?

Renée Fleming: You know, I basically go by does it fit? Is it a fit? And do I love it? So, you know, and is it a fit is not range. It’s also weight, the vocal weight of something, how dramatic is the orchestra. And the other major issue is tessitura, where is the mean register? And is that comfortable? Is that a fit?

Jo Reed: Why do you think music and art, in general, is important in the everyday lives of people?

Renée Fleming: Oh, I think it’s-- you know, first of all its-- it represents the creative spark. It represents a sort of way of making us feel alive. I find that when I’m engaged in art-- and I’m a culture fanatic. I love theater. I love museums. I love the visual arts. I love poetry. That is how I know who I am and it’s not just because I’m relating to this because I’m a musician. It’s because I have a sensibility that helps me to engage with life through a cultural lens. And I find that certainly when I see, for instance, turnaround arts when I saw that, here in Washington D.C. in an elementary school when I saw it at work, I’ve never seen children so engaged, so quiet because they were engrossed in what they were doing because it really combined their learning with some sort of artistic element and it works.

Jo Reed: Yeah, it does because it enables to learn focus and discipline in a way that is associated with enjoyment and pleasure which is not half bad.

Renée Fleming: Right. Right. The combination, I think, is very important. I mean I was lucky in high school, for instance, that English and social studies and history were taught in a humanities course. And we read novels and I remember so much more of what I got from those two years than what I learned when the subjects were separate.

Jo Reed: And your parents were both music teachers. Were you destined to become a singer?

Renée Fleming: Yeah. I’m an indentured servant I must say. Yes. And my mother is still teaching privately. She’s still teaching voice. My father he’s doing something right now having to do with teaching choral conducting to somebody else in my family. And we’re very much engaged, still in the arts.

Jo Reed: If, if-- you had to choose a profession other than your own what do you think you’d like to attempt?

Renée Fleming: Oh, I definitely would have wanted to be in business. I think business is another form of creation especially as an entrepreneur. I think I would have loved that. Just the idea of putting that all together always fascinated me. And, plus, I get to meet extraordinary people who have succeeded in their lives. And I just find it really interesting.

Jo Reed: That’s very lucky because how many singers really do have to be entrepreneurs. You have to pretty much manage your career and make decisions.

Renée Fleming: Yes. I tell young singers all of the time and also for young artist programs which I also advise a little bit I say, you know, “Are you covering the website? Are you covering social media? Are you explaining finance?” They need all of these skills. And they need to promote themselves. They really need to be promoters in a sense. It is quite demanding. And people would be shocked to know how much time I spend really working on these types of the planning side of things, the business side of things, much more than the artistic, I would say.

Jo Reed: Tell me a little bit about the program you put together for Music and the Mind.

Renée Fleming: We’re separating the program into segments. We have segments, for instance, on healing, on the creative mind, on the audience and how the audience really absorbs music, patterns, for instance, in Beethoven. The concert tomorrow night really is fantastic because we have Dan Levitin who wrote This Is Your Brain on Music, hosting and kind of managing the overview. And then Edwin Outwater, who has done a lot of this type of programming. The young conductor is doing a fabulous job with us. And we’ve got an extraordinary lineup of performers with Ben Folds who is very interested in music therapy. Jussie Smollett from the hit show Empire is going to perform. We have Dr. Charles Limb who is really an expert on hearing and on improvisation and this is through studies that he’s done. And I think people are going to learn a lot.

Jo Reed: That’s the first evening and the second day, what’s on the bill?

Renée Fleming: Saturday all day are really scientists and music therapists presenting their work. So we have segments, for instance, on children and music—breakthroughs in terms of music therapy and recovery resiliency, these kinds of issue. Creative aging, and that’s something I know we’re all interested in. And Dr. Charles Limb will come back in the evening and do a segment on improvisation with Esperanza Spaulding and extraordinary Vijay Iyer, pianist. So it's an incredible program, I think. And I’m also hosting a panel with Dr. Francis Collins and Dr. Vivek Murthy who was until recently our surgeon general on the future of all of this. So I think there’s a lot to be certainly gained, and I know I’ve learned a lot in this process and I find that I’m really passionate about this work. You know I did the Memorial Day concert on Sunday. And it was a segment actually on the power of music and the power of music therapy, because Captain Luis Avila had such horrendous injuries that he has been in multiple surgeries, 70, I think, he said, for 6 years.

Jo Reed: Seven zero.

Renée Fleming: Yeah. And he only regained speech in the last year. And it was through music therapy. So once you see this occur and the gift that it gives to people, whether they’ve had stroke or whether they’re in Parkinson’s they’re having difficulty moving and rhythm and dance helps them reconnect again with the parts of the brain that then begin to function better and coordinate better. Pain relief and certainly Alzheimer’s and autism. Music sometimes is the only thing that can reach those patients. It’s really an incredible field. And this is my wish to share this and to amplify the work.

Jo Reed: And at the end of this weekend what would you like? What does success look like?

Renée Fleming: First of all, success would be if we continue. It would definitely be if the NIH can continue also on the path of trying to shore up this field more and learn more about it. And this goes hand in hand with their work on the brain, which is a huge initiative that is, in fact, occurring. And I see this happen actually. There’s a great interest in this work. So I would love to take it around the country as I tour and kind of fold it into my performances somehow.

Jo Reed: That’s exciting and I look forward to that. Renée Fleming thank you so much. I really appreciate you coming here and thank you for this wonderful work truly.

Renée Fleming: Thank you. Thank you. It’s been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you.

And thanks to the NEA for extraordinary work. By the way, I’ve been also really hollering my support for the NEA because I see that this is funding in all of our fragile areas in terms of building up our communities around the country through arts. I see an extraordinary amount of grass roots efforts in putting performances together. And I believe that there’s a shared community and a sense of a shared experience there that we’ve lost as Americans in other parts of life whether through the breaking down of the fabric of schools or of religious circles. But we see it very much in the small performing arts venues. And it’s the NEA that keeps them going.

Jo Reed: Okay. Well, thank you for those words too. I appreciate it.

Renée Fleming: Yay. True.

Jo Reed: That’s soprano and 2012 National Medal of Arts recipient, Renée Fleming. You can find out more about Sound Health at NIH.gov back slash sound hypen health.

You've been listening to Art Works produced at the National Endowment for the Arts. I’m Josephine Reed, thanks for listening.

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The power of music to make us whole.