Renee Fleming is the face of opera

Posted: October 16, 2012

YOU CAN'T blame us Pennsylvanians for wanting to count Renee Fleming as one of our own - though she laughs heartily at such home state "recognition."

"I think I spent maybe 15 minutes there as an infant, while my parents were in school" (both music majors, later to become vocal teachers).

"I don't even know where Indiana, Pa., is - but I'm going there soon, for a concert."

And also coming here to Philadelphia on Thursday, as special guest of the Philadelphia Orchestra, to usher in its 2012-13 season and introduce conductor Yannick Nezet-Seguin as our grand band's youthful new musical director.

"I love these gala openings," Fleming shared in a recent chat. "The audience is there to have a great time. We choose repertoire that's fun. I like to dress up. And I'm a very social person. So really, I love it all."

Today, Fleming has succeeded the late great Beverly Sills as America's premier poster woman/popularizer of opera.

She has dozens of definitive recordings under her belt, and is much in demand for concerts and major productions worldwide, including world premieres such as Andre Previn's "very dark" rendering of "Streetcar Named Desire" and the Metropolitan Opera's postmodern rendering of Rossini's "Armida."

For the most part, though, Fleming considers herself "old school" in approach, "especially compared to the young turks running around on the operatic stages in Europe these days, sometimes wearing nothing but their underwear. Opera over there has become quite a youthful pursuit and competitive sport."

Fleming prefers glamorous gowns, with name designers vying to dress her. She even boasts her own signature perfume, La Voce.

And lately with Sills as her role model ("and former mentor," she underscored), Fleming has likewise been broadening her reach, moving to the other side of the footlights. She's commentator for the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts' Vocal Chords series, available as free podcasts. And she's now the curator/instigator of opera productions for the Lyric Opera of Chicago through a program called the Renee Fleming Initiative.

At the moment, Fleming is hot on developing "Bel Canto" - based on the historic novel by her friend Ann Patchett - with libretto by Pulitzer Prize winner Nilo Cruz and score by a "amazing young Peruvian composer, Jimmy Lopez." (The book concerns a terrorist crisis in Lima, Peru. The opera's premiere is targeted for the Lyric Opera's 2015 season.)

At 53, Fleming is looking for "new career challenges." And she's facing up, frankly, to the realities of her taxing vocation, a motif which the singer underscored well in her memoir The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer, written with a little help from Patchett.

Some of the 50-plus operas that Fleming has learned, sung and conquered - ones with especially high vocal trills - are now looking a bit dangerous for this full lyric soprano. "You book these performances five years down the road. So you have to think ahead: 'Will I still be able to do that role in five years?' "

One Sills feat that Fleming will "never" be able to duplicate is getting to guest-host a TV staple like "The Tonight Show" for a week, as "Bubbles" (Sills' nickname) was invited to do by a "most courageous Johnny Carson," said Fleming. "Today, the fierce competition for ratings has pretty much shut out classical artists from TV exposure."

But Fleming has found a detour around that. In the name of accessibility and fun, maybe to impress her two teenage daughters "and because I grew up listening to lots of different kinds of music," Fleming has dabbled some in pop and sung on jazz recordings like Charlie Haden's "Sophisticated Ladies" - an all-star session that also featured Diana Krall, Melody Gardot and Norah Jones.

"I actually worked my way through college singing jazz," Fleming shared. But then when the famous tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet invited her to join his touring band, Fleming "lacked the courage" to go on the road. "I never wanted to go anywhere, then. I was so afraid. When I finally got on a plane to Germany for vocal training, I cried all the way."

Now she's hopping on planes all the time - in November heading south for recitals in Brazil, Argentina, Chile, Ecuador and Colombia.

With the Decca/London international record label always aiming to cross her over, Fleming also has recorded an album of show-tunes ("Under the Stars") with her sometime operatic co-star Bryn Terfel. "I do love that music, though I can't imagine myself ever performing in a Broadway show. Being able to belt out that music night after night, eight shows a week, is a skill I just don't have."

Fleming has likewise etched a pair of pop albums (2010's "Dark Hope" and 2005's a "Haunted Heart") that offer shockingly deep and thoughtful reads of gems like Joni Mitchell's "River," the Jefferson Airplane ballad "Today," Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" and Death Cab for Cutie's "Soul Meets Body."

She's pulled off such missions without suffering the critical drubbings that usually land when a "serious" singer tries to go "street."

"My daughters were quite critical about a couple of the performances, though eventually they came around to liking my interpretation, I think. At least that's what they told me!"


Verizon Hall, Kimmel Center, Broad and Spruce streets, 7 p.m. Thursday, $59-$119, 215-893-1999, www.kimmelcenter.org.


Contact Jonathan Takiff at takiffj@phillynews.com or 215-854-5960. Read his blog at philly.com/GizmoGuy.

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