The Fabulous Miss Fleming

By Mary Kunz Goldman, The Buffalo News

When Renée Fleming comes to Buffalo to sing at the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra’s season-opening gala Saturday, your first question might well be: What is she going to sing?

And your second question, right behind that, will likely be: What is she going to wear?

There is no shame in that. Fleming is recognized all over the world as not just a diva, but a fashionista.

Her style is exquisite but imaginative. She is an ambassador for Rolex watches and her gowns have earned her a place on Mr. Blackwell’s best dressed list.

What tops off the look is that Fleming, on or off stage, is a woman of casual charm.

“Renée is the most beautiful woman I know, but she is also the most natural, caring and down-to-earth person,” BPO Music Director JoAnn Falletta said in an email from Sweden, where she was recently conducting.

“I remember a ‘snapshot’ from her last visit – she was backstage eating sponge candy and laughing with me and our stage crew, and then turned right around and sailed out on the stage with the greatest presence, grace and artistry – a true diva in the purest sense of the word.”

Fleming’s style reflects her unique nature.

Rich colors are a trademark of hers, she admitted in a phone interview. They include deep greens and blues, scarlets and bright magentas.

“I would say color is very important in a photograph,” she reflected. “It talks. A rich jewel tone is sort of a diva color. But I’ve been wearing a lot of gold, whatever is in fashion, silver and gold. A lot of black. Black travels well.”

Fleming has shone in those jewel tones on past visits to Kleinhans Music Hall. In 2006, she sang Mozart’s “Exsultate, Jubilate” and the folk song “Shenandoah” in a billowing violet gown. Four years before that, she dressed in deep crimson to soar through Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs.”

Last month, appearing at Boston’s Tanglewood Festival to sing Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” she wore what the Berkshire Edge described as a teal-blue gown with a long tulle stole.

“On stage, I think color’s important,” Fleming explained. “If you’re standing in front of an orchestra all dressed in black tie, you want to give the audience something else.”

Practical considerations, she added, also come into play.

Like the first lady or the Duchess of Cambridge, Fleming has to keep track of what she wears in one city and another. Her gowns are noted, studied and reported upon.

She also has to keep her own needs in mind. One would think a singer would need a dress that allowed her to move and breathe. “Actually the opposite is true,” Fleming said.

“I need more structure than someone going to a party. I’m touring with this gown. It takes a beating. I also want to make sure I have the support that I need – I’m on stage, doing something that’s a little more athletic than people know. It can’t be super high maintenance. It can’t be organza, or taffeta or any fabric that wrinkles when you look at it. It goes into a suitcase. People don’t believe it.”

She recalled the slate-blue finery from Oscar de la Renta that she wore to Buckingham Palace to perform for the Queen’s Jubilee. It was so voluminous, she confided, that it posed a challenge.

“It was a confection – a costume,” she laughed. “I had to beg a place for it on a friend’s private plane.”

Vera Wang is a friend of Fleming and designed the gown the diva wore for her 2011 wedding reception, as well as the elegant black-and-white outfit she wore earlier this year when she sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Other designers who are favorites of Fleming include Angel Sanchez, the late Gianfranco Ferre, Karl Lagerfeld, Christian Lacroix, Oscar de la Renta and Douglas Hannant. All of them have designed gowns she has worn on stage.

“Some of them are just so spectacular in their own right,” she said. “The thing I loved about Ferre is all of your gowns are quite different. I never had a fitting. They’d just arrive. Vivienne Westwood, she’s a fashion icon, a real icon among designers. Her gowns are really stunning.”

Off stage, when she is going out to dinner or to a casual social event, Fleming keeps it simple.

“I dress, I would say most of the time, in black with color over it,” she said. “A colored jacket, a colored blouse. But the staple is a skirt or pants in black, and a shell. That’s how I travel, and it’s just so much easier.”

And now, back to our two original questions.

The repertoire Fleming is singing is as personal as her style. Many of the selections will be music from her CD “Guilty Pleasures,” a disc of songs and arias that Fleming simply loves to sing.

“They’re little jewels,” the singer said. “I really enjoy singing this music. I painstakingly chose everything I am going to sing. I wanted to make sure to have absolutely a wide variety of things that the audience would enjoy as much as I do.”

Among the many “guilty pleasures” Fleming has chosen will be several beautiful songs of nostalgia, including Dvorak’s “Songs My Mother Taught Me” and a few of the atmospheric “Songs of the Auvergne” by Joseph Canteloube. A set of Italian songs and arias will include “O Mio Babbino Caro.” She also plans on singing one of Wagner’s passionate “Wesendonck” songs as well as Mozart’s “Nehmt meinen Dank,” or “Accept my thanks,” a song of appreciation to the audience.

It’s a generous program, and one that Falletta is looking forward to.

“For Renée, it is always about the art, the music. She is never self-centered, but always completely generous and filled with passion for everything she sings,” she wrote.

“Her voice is extraordinary – creamy, radiant, able to astonish us with brilliant coloratura and then bring us to tears with a mournful Broadway ballad. I am very glad that she is bringing us a full spectrum of her operatic favorites along with cinema classics and other surprises.”

Fleming, describing her repertoire, is more low key.

“There’s something for everyone,” she said. “I love hearing what people think,” she added. “I love when someone says, ‘Wow, that’s so beautiful.’ ”

Beauty brings us back to that other, lingering question. Miss Fleming, what are you going to wear?

There was the briefest pause, and then Fleming laughed, a happy laugh.

“The truth is,” she said, “I don’t know yet.”