Renée Fleming | Renee Fleming, John Prine and friends gear up to celebrate 'Chicago Voices'

Renee Fleming, John Prine and friends gear up to celebrate 'Chicago Voices'

31 January 2017

Renee Fleming, John Prine and friends gear up to celebrate 'Chicago Voices'

January 31, 2017 By Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune

In December 2015, operatic soprano Renee Fleming collaborated with Chicago jazz singer-pianist Patricia Barber in a genre-defying performance at the Harris Theater.

Jazz and classical languages intertwined as Fleming and Barber performed a world-premiere program of Barber's art songs and other repertoire, two singular artists elegantly blurring distinctions between their musical realms (and subsequently taking the show on the road).

Come Saturday evening, Fleming will venture still further out stylistically in "Chicago Voices," a musically far-reaching, multimedia program at the Civic Opera House modeled after the "American Voices" project Fleming brought to the Kennedy Center in Washington in 2013.

This time, Fleming serves as artistic director for a concert designed to reflect Chicago's enormous contribution to the world of song.

Singers who live in Chicago or hold deep ties to the city's cultural identity will perform solos and collaborate with one another, the marquee featuring blues diva Shemekia Copeland, folk bard John Prine, Broadway star Jessie Mueller, gospel singer Michelle Williams, classical tenor Matthew Polenzani, jazz vocalist Kurt Elling, alternative/indie artists The Handsome Family, Voices of Trinity Mass Choir and, of course, Fleming.

The concert will stand as the most high-profile event in the ongoing Chicago Voices initiative, which Fleming has championed as Lyric Opera's creative consultant, in tandem with the company's Lyric Unlimited outreach unit.

And though the "Chicago Voices" concert will unfold in the majestic Civic Opera House, Fleming sees the performance and related activities — including panels and master classes at Columbia College Chicago on Friday and Saturday — as a way of reaching out to the entire city.

"We live in this period of this passion that the general audience has for singing, through these TV reality shows," says Fleming, referring to series such as "American Idol" and "The Voice."

"And I always thought: Why aren't we part of this dialogue?" she adds, meaning the world of classical singing.

"So this is a gesture that speaks to how great the voice has always been in Chicago. When you look at other cities in America, even big cities, you don't see the history, the legacy, even the current day" of voices coming out of Chicago.

Indeed, how many urban centers can lay claim to having launched such globally revered figures as jazz visionaries Louis Armstrong and Jelly Roll Morton (both of whom sang compellingly), gospel queen Mahalia Jackson, blues revolutionaries Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, folk troubadours Steve Goodman and John Prine and scores more?

"It's not accidental," adds Fleming, citing first "the Great Migration, which brought all of these blues artists up North. Even big band music and country-western" loom large. "Music has been a huge part of the history of the city forever."

No single concert, of course, could encompass the entirety of this narrative, but "Chicago Voices" seeks to address it in a way that welcomes all comers.

Conductor-pianist Doug Peck, who has led musically wide-ranging programs at the Chicago Humanities Festival and elsewhere, worked closely with Fleming, Lyric Unlimited director Cayenne Harris and others to build a program that not only would capture the sounds of Chicago but help bring its communities together.

"We're hoping to (position) the Lyric Opera as a place where jazz and gospel and folk fans will get in the same room sharing music," says Peck, who will lead a 12-piece ensemble in orchestrations he has penned for the occasion.

The idea, he adds, is to "help our isolated city, where we live in our little pockets."

Fleming, too, sees a social purpose underlying the concert and the related activities of Chicago Voices, which include lectures, discussions, photo exhibitions, community created performances, online video projects and a forthcoming original music theater work created in conjunction with the Chicago Urban League.

"The city has been sort of a touch point for politics, for political dialogue, and not necessarily in a positive way," she says, citing the hot-button issue of the city's violence.

"I think artists coming together in a situation like this that's multigenre in a way sends a message about the nature of the city itself. About the fact that we, as artists, care.

"We want to make sure there's a place for everybody," says Fleming, noting that public school students will be attending the "Chicago Voices" concert.

One of the most enticing aspects of Saturday's concert will be the opportunity to hear familiar artists experimenting with musical idioms in which they've never performed. Fleming, for instance, will be duetting with Prine, who's quick to acknowledge that he never has sung alongside an opera star.

"Of course, I knew of Renee Fleming, and my wife is a big fan," says Prine, who began his career in Chicago, speaking from his home in Tennessee.

"I was really knocked out when I got asked to come up and do it. I've been asked to perform with symphonies before, and I've always turned it down.

"When I was just traveling by myself, playing my guitar, I used to be all over the place rhythm-wise, and I couldn't imagine throwing in an entire symphony. So I'd always decline.

"When I got this offer, and because it was Chicago and coming home and everything, I thought it would be a very special event."

So how has Prine been preparing for his big moment with Fleming?

"I've only got one gear in my vocals — there's nothing really I could do," he says. "I can either sing, or I can't sing."

Fleming's art is "a totally different thing from what I do," he adds. "But I'm sure the two of us will be able to find a common ground."

In the end, that's really what this whole venture is about.

"I would hope for two things," says Fleming.

"One, that it's understood that we (opera singers) are part of the fabric of American culture.

"And, two, that people come and give it a try," she adds of an event that will be filmed for future broadcast on PBS.

"You don't have to wear anything special. Nobody has to be anxious about etiquette. There are supertitles, and you will understand."

And perhaps make a musical discovery or two.

"Chicago Voices" will start at 7:30 p.m. Saturday at the Civic Opera House, 20 N. Wacker Drive; $39-$295; 312-827-5600 or www.chicagovoices.org.

Howard Reich is a Tribune critic.