NEA Art Blog
21 August 2013
(National Medal of) Art Talk with Renee Fleming
by Paulette Beete
“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
O, the Oprah Magazine, November 2012
6 November 2012
5 things I know for sure: Renée Fleming
As her new album, The Art of Renée Fleming, hits stores, the celebrated soprano talks about the City of Light, the secret to weight loss, and what comes after her final bow.
1. You have to make time for joy. You can't just focus on shoulds. You have to also do whatever makes your heart feel full. Maybe it's cooking for your friends, being with your children. For me, it's a sunset walk around Paris– where I keep an apartment– listening to jazz and Joni Mitchell on my iPod. It's like having my own soundtrack.
2. And you have to make other things, too. It enriches you to enjoy music and art and writing, but creating something yourself is even more important. Ask yourself what it can add to your existence to write, to paint, to sing. It's so easy to leave creativity out of your life because you don't have time. But I know I wouldn't feel fully alive if I couldn't put forth some expression of myself.
3. Success is nine-tenths elbow grease. I once said to the photographer Annie Leibovitz, "You've met so many incredible people. What have you learned from them?" She answered, "Everybody works really hard." That's the key.
4. Changing your body means changing your thinking. My whole life, I've struggled with my weight. Many people in my profession do-"lt's not over till the fat lady sings;' as they say. But I've learned that weight loss, like a lot of things, starts with your mind. If you don't look inside and examine how food is protecting you from dealing with something difficult, and why some inner voice is undermining your resolve, no diet in the world will help.
5. Nothing lasts forever. A singer's career is like an athlete's-short. It would be easy to view this negatively, but instead I try to think about what my legacy will be, how I'll give back, and all the new things I' ll get to try. Like spending less time in airports, for example.
-As told to Katie Arnold-Ratliff
12 April 2012
Renée Fleming: the thinking man’s diva
The opera isn’t over till the smart lady thinks.
Fans of Renée Fleming, the legendary soprano who’s appearing in concert at Roy Thomson Hall on April 20, will know what I mean.
She’s not just an elegant woman with a voice that possesses the complex sweetness of wildflower honey, but an artist who truly understands and loves the medium she’s given her life to.
A simple question about what the repertoire for her upcoming Toronto appearance might consist of turns immediately into a learned discussion of “the music from the turn of the last century, the lieder of Schoenberg, Korngold and Strauss. I was initially drawn to the evocative nature of the music, very rich, very complex.
“That led me further into the repertoire and into their history. I was fascinated by how all these composers knew each other, how their lives intersected at various points, how some of them spent time in Hollywood. It’s all such a complex sociological and political mix, and it finds its way into their music.”
She laughs, rich and throaty. “It’s a serious program. I know the Toronto audiences and it’s what they’d expect from me.”
That raises an interesting question. What does the world expect from Renée Fleming?
At the age of 53, she is still adding demanding roles to her repertoire (Ariadne at Baden-Baden earlier this year), continuing an exhausting series of concert appearances and spending much of her time in Chicago, where she was appointed the first-ever creative consultant of the Lyric Opera in 2010.
“What can I do to make (opera) better and relevant and sustainable?” she asked when appointed. “Maybe nothing, but I’d love to try.”
And she’s practising what she preaches, working intensively with Chicago students, creating a spreadsheet of 110 contemporary composers to aid her in the commissioning process and, well, being there when people need her to sing or speak or just support the art form.
“I have to admit that the position at the Lyric was the farthest thing from my mind when it was first offered to me,” she says, from her New York office. “But it was such a compelling idea. I thought about it more. What do I care about? Opera. And where do I see the state of opera today? I’m not sure.
“I want very much for opera to be relevant to our times. But how do we do it? A hundred years ago, most of what we now call ‘grand opera’ was the contemporary music of its day. But 100 years later, we’re still singing it and it’s now considered the most establishment and old-fashioned of all art forms.”
Fleming is certainly entitled to her opinion. While working on an impressive classical repertoire, she also has put her mark on numerous major contemporary operas like Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah and André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire, in which her Blanche DuBois was one of her greatest triumphs.
Over the years, her supporters have called her bravely eclectic, while her detractors find her career unfocused. The truth is that Fleming has lived the life and chosen the path she was destined for.
She was born in Indiana, a small town northeast of Pittsburgh on Feb. 14, 1959 and raised in Rochester, N.Y. As the child of two music teachers, she felt a certain inevitability about a career in the profession, saying, with a rueful sigh, “I always performed. You couldn’t be in my family and not perform.”
Picking up on the reluctance in her voice, I question her feelings about being a singer.
“I didn’t want to do it. I never did. I was always shy, a bookworm by nature. I didn’t embrace performing then and I never really have.”
Fleming will get into the reasons for her diffidence later in the conversation, but she wants to make it clear that she always loved music and its power.
“I’d been surrounded by music all my life, but it wasn’t until I was in high school that I had the kind of mind and heart-opening experience that an artist needs.
“We heard Penderecki’s ‘To the Victims of Hiroshima’ and it had a huge effect on me. Even today, talking about it, I feel the same rush of emotion that I did then. I truly felt the power of music and what it could convey. I’ve never forgotten that.”
Fans who were surprised by Fleming’s 2010 contemporary crossover album, Dark Hope, obviously weren’t around at the State University of New York at Potsdam in the early ’80s when she divided her time between daily voice classes at the Crane School of Music and nightly gigs singing with a jazz trio at an off-campus bar.
The jazz world offered her professional work first, interestingly enough, but she had already decided that opera would be her life and went on to Juilliard in Manhattan but, amusingly enough, she often paid her tuition by continuing with freelance jazz assignments on the side.
After finishing her studies, she began building up her reputation with a series of recitals and concert appearances, finally making her professional operatic debut at Salzburg in 1986.
Only two years later, she won the Metropolitan Opera auditions, began a series of roles at major American opera houses and finally had her Met debut in 1991.
For the next seven years, her career kept climbing upward, and she became one of the most respected and popular names in the opera world.
But Fleming doesn’t want to dwell on any of that. “Success can be a wonderful thing, but the major thing it’s good for is to make you more successful.”
She prefers instead to zero in on what many singers would consider the low point of their careers: the night in July 1998 when she was booed at La Scala during her opening night performance of the title role in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia.
“I now realize it was a combination of things. Four new roles back to back, my last real bout of stage fright and something foolishly simple that happens on the night to trigger it.”
She sighs. “I have perspective on it now, but it’s hard to recuperate from something like that. Some singers who’ve been booed there have never returned.
“And how many other professions have their results judged in the newspapers the next morning? Politicians and athletes, I suppose.”
A bit of the steel necessary to maintain a lifelong career as a superstar comes through in Fleming’s voice.
“Whatever causes it, you must overcome it. You have to walk onstage and trust that your voice is going to do what you’re going to tell it to do.”
Fleming grows philosophical, thinking about this side of the life she’s chosen.
“The success complex. It hasn’t really been discussed and it hasn’t really been defined. What drives people to become successful? And then what makes some of them sabotage their careers, right and left, in all professions?
“We see it every day. Drugs, alcohol, inappropriate behaviour. They climb so high and then they bring themselves down.”
But one gets the sense that Fleming is too busy for anything like that. She’s raised two daughters while earning the worldwide respect of the arts world. So what does she still want to do?
“I want to see more young people listen to opera, love opera, want to make their lives in it. That would make me happy.”
FIVE FAVE SIGNIFICANT ROLES
She’s a hero and a mother. I like that combination.
I love being able to play a complex woman and sing a contemporary score at the same time.
It took me a long time to come to that role, but I loved it, despite its difficulties.
It’s always a challenge, but I need to take the challenges.
As Nietzsche said, “That which does not kill us, makes us stronger.”
29 February 2012
Renée Fleming, la mélodie du bonheur en France
Par Thierry Hillériteau, publié le 29/02/2012
Sous ses traits séducteurs et son élégance travaillée se cache l'antidiva par excellence.
Après son passage aux Victoires de la musique classique, la soprano chantera Arabella en juin, à l'Opéra de Paris. Entre-temps, elle sort un album consacré à Ravel, Messiaen et… Dutilleux! Rencontre avec une antidiva, plus frenchy que yankee.
Si ce n'est pas une déclaration d'amour, cela y ressemble. «Paris est ma deuxième maison, la France ma deuxième maison artistique », a confié Renée Fleming à son public français, le 20 février, en recevant sa victoire d'honneur lors des 19es Victoires de la musique classique. La soprano avait fait le déplacement exprès, entre deux représentations d'Ariane à Naxos, de Richard Strauss, à Baden-Baden. À 53 ans, elle y endossait le rôle-titre pour la première fois de sa carrière. «Malgré tout, dit-elle, je n'aurais manqué ces Victoires pour rien au monde. J'ai pour Paris une véritable adoration. Cette ville m'a offert quelques-uns de mes plus beaux rôles, dont ma première Manon, en 1997.» La cantatrice possède à Paris un appartement, à deux pas du Châtelet. Elle le prête à ses confrères de passage. Y séjourne en famille, pour le seul loisir de déambuler dans la capitale ou de visiter une exposition.
Quand elle déclame par plaisir quelques vers du Dernier poème, de Desnos, c'est toute cette passion de la France qui s'exprime. Une autre belle preuve de cet attachement est l'album de mélodies françaises qu'elle publie ce mois-ci. Et quelles mélodies! Shéhérazade, de Ravel, qu'elle porte en elle depuis l'adolescence mais dont la prosodie lascive a mis à mal plus d'une francophone. Les redoutablesPoèmes pour Mide Messiaen, auxquels peu de sopranos légers ou dramatiques osent se frotter. Et, surtout, Le Temps l'horloge, qu'Henri Dutilleux a écrit pour elle.
Surfer sur Internet
«Le français est la langue dans laquelle je me sens le mieux, explique Renée Fleming. Ses sonorités et son manque d'accentuation me permettent de tirer le meilleur de ma voix et de ses résonances.» L'équilibre entre richesse de son et compréhension du texte n'en demeure pas moins précaire. «Je suis une Yankee!J'ai tendance à vouloir mettre de la ponctuation là où il n'en faut pas, et à manger des syllabes», concède-t-elle modestement. Et de se rappeler ses séances de travail avec la chef de chant de l'Opéra de Paris, Janine Reiss: «Elle me répétait inlassablement: du texte, du texte. Pense à tes consonnes!»
Renée Fleming réfléchit déjà au programme de son prochain disque. Il sera consacré à des mélodies de Debussy, réorchestrées par Michael Tilson Thomas. Elle travaille au choix des œuvres en surfant sur Internet. «J'ai plus de vingt heures de mélodies sur iTunes, dit-elle. Il me faut ramasser tout cela en cinquante-cinq minutes.» La cantatrice peut bien avoir cinquante-deux rôles à son actif, s'être faite l'ambassadrice de quatre siècles d'opéra (de Rameau à Menotti), elle n'en reste pas moins femme de son temps. «Internet est la plus fabuleuse découverte de notre temps. Un moteur de recherche et d'explorations infinis en termes de répertoire.»
Sous ses traits séducteurs et son élégance travaillée se cache l'antidiva par excellence. Soucieuse des préoccupations de son siècle. «On peut critiquer les lois françaises sur le piratage, elles ont au moins le mérite d'exister; aux États-Unis, c'est encore le maelström.»
La chanteuse, qui a grandi à Rochester, dans l'État de New York, loin des scènes d'opéra, n'a jamais fait grand cas des frontières entre les genres. Familière du jazz, elle est aussi passionnée de musique pop: elle a participé à l'album Night Musicde Joe Jackson et enregistré Dark Hope, un disque de reprises de Muse, Peter Gabriel ou Leonard Cohen. En 2002, elle s'est même offert le luxe de participer à la musique du film Le Seigneur des anneaux. «Avec deux adolescents à la maison, difficile de ne pas être à l'écoute des musiques d'aujourd'hui.»
Elle est, surtout, attentive à ce que l'opéra ne manque pas le tournant du XXIe siècle. «Les retransmissions en direct dans les cinémas sont un immense pas en avant, juge-t-elle. Il y aura toujours quelqu'un pour dire que l'on vole des spectateurs à l'Opéra, je pense au contraire que ça va populariser le genre et créer un regain d'intérêt essentiel à sa survie.» «Elle a été parmi les premiers artistes à s'engager en faveur de ces retransmissions », témoigne Peter Gelb, patron du Metropolitan.
Ne pas s'arrêter de sitôt
En 2006, Renée Fleming rendait hommage aux prima donna d'autrefois avec un album best-seller: The Age of the Diva. Mais elle a une idée bien arrêtée sur le mysticisme qui auréole sa corporation. «Jouer les divas inaccessibles, j'y ai songé à mes débuts, reconnaît-elle. Je vous promets que j'ai tout fait pour y arriver! Pas moyen: ça ne me correspond pas.» À 53 ans, elle préfère d'ailleurs être dans l'action que sur un piédestal. Jonglant entre prises de rôle, vie de famille et son titre de consultante à l'Opéra de Chicago, elle n'envisage pas de s'arrêter de sitôt. «Je ne connais pas de meilleur moyen de perdre la flamme que de se fixer une date butoir. C'est comme quand on est jeune chanteur. On se focalise sur la note aiguë de la dernière mesure. Non seulement on est sûr de ne pas l'avoir, mais on passe aussi à côté de tout ce qui précède.»
The New York Times
27 January 2012
People’s Diva Sets Her Course
By ANTHONY TOMMASINI | View PDF
During a stretch of several months in 2010 the soprano Renée Fleming made what looked to be some startling shifts in her lustrous career.
First, that spring, she released an indie-rock recording, “Dark Hope.” This was no mere crossover project, she insisted, but an attempt to visit a “parallel universe” of pop music, as she put it in the album’s booklet notes.
Then, that fall, she parted ways, amicably from all reports, with her longtime publicist, Mary Lou Falcone, a respected veteran in the field. In interviews Ms. Fleming said that she would probably sing fewer staged opera productions in favor of concerts and develop special projects, largely organizing them herself.
Finally, in December, she accepted a five-year appointment as the first creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, telling The New York Times that she wanted to have a deeper impact on opera than just performing. “What can I do to make it better and relevant and sustainable?” she said. “Maybe nothing, but I’d love to try.
San Francisco Opera Profile
25 January 2012
Giving Life to Lucrezia
by Roger Pines | Renée Fleming stars as one of Donizetti’s most formidable heroines at San Francisco Opera.
Although today’s opera-going public instantly thinks of renée Fleming as the strauss and Massenet heroine par excellence, the internationally beloved American soprano has also triumphed repeatedly in the bel canto reper- tory—a style of singing from seventeeth and eighteenth-century Italy stressing ease, purity, and evenness of tone production and a lithe and precise vocal technique. In the course of her career, Fleming has starred in Rossini’s Armida and Il Viaggio a Reims; Bellini’s La Sonnambula, La Straniera, and Il Pirata; and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, Maria Padilla, and, for a recording, Rosmonda d’Inghilterra. Armida (Pesaro Festival production) was her first opera cd, and she won the first of her three Grammys for her album entitled Bel Canto.
Speaking by phone in new York immediately following nearly two months of performances in europe, Fleming discussed her association with San Francisco Opera and the title role of Lucrezia Borgia. This opera, her eighth with the company, will exhibit Fleming’s prowess in bel canto to San Francisco audiences for the first time.
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