Opera Star Renée Fleming, the Super Bowl diva, tours Australia

By Rosemary Neill, The Australian

When Renée Fleming performed at the Super Bowl last year, the logistics were so complex she felt as though she were part of a high-octane race meeting. “The Super Bowl was crazy,’’ says America’s leading soprano. “It felt a little bit like preparing a horse for a race, where they have to repeat the whole getting to the gate so they can be calm and focused on what they have to do.’’

The prelude to the 2014 American football final was as much a spectacle as the game itself. There were fireworks, a mass flyover of military aircraft, the unfurling of a US flag the size of a tennis court, an armed forces chorus and colour guard, and Black Hawk helicopters. In the middle of this choreographed commotion stood Fleming — the first opera singer to perform at the Super Bowl — in a sober but elegant black evening gown and spike heels that had sunk into the turf, tackling TheStar-Spangled Banner and a stiff evening breeze.

Even for an opera superstar who has won four Grammy Awards, made the world’s leading opera houses her second home and performed for Barack Obama and the Queen, the Super Bowl was a nerve-jangling job: imagine fluffing a line of your national anthem in front of a live television audience of 100 million. Then again, Fleming is known for doing her homework. “There was so much work in advance,’’ she says in a phone interview, “all of my nerves really went into the preparation, making sure that I really had everything in hand, that it was organised and produced in a way that would make me feel comfortable. I practised a lot and we had very good rehearsals. We even had rehearsals with Black Hawk helicopters.’’

America’s reigning diva received a standing ovation and notes that this gig “introduced me to a much larger audience of people, you know, unfathomably larger’’. She jokes in her low-toned, beautifully modulated voice: “Now when I go into a sports arena to watch a game, I have a little bit of extra credibility.’’

Review is talking to Fleming ahead of a less daunting but highly anticipated project — her forthcoming concerts in Melbourne, Brisbane and Sydney. Celebrated for her interpretative flair and warmth and consistency of tone, the lyric soprano will perform several of her signature works, including Ravel’s song cycle Sheherazade and excerpts from Canteloube’s Songs of the Auvergne. She regards the former as “a couple of really iconic song cycles for soprano’’ and the latter as “cinematic and very loved by people who love the soprano voice’’. Her concerts will also feature works by Gounod, Strauss, Puccini — and Rodgers & Hammerstein. A crowd-pleasing detour around TheKing and I’s highlights is typical of the woman christened “the people’s diva’’. She may be renowned for her shimmering top notes and sensual middle register and for her dramatically compelling interpretations of the Countess Almaviva (Le nozze di Figaro), Desdemona (Otello), and the title roles in Rusalka and Manon, but her repertoire extends far beyond the opera stage.

She has flirted on and off with jazz — her latest recording is a jazz-influenced album called Christmas in New York. More radically, in 2010 she experimented with indie rock on the album Dark Hope, which included covers of Death Cab for Cutie, Muse and Leonard Cohen songs. She crossed over into this unbuttoned world — discarding the perfect diction she uses in opera — because “it just seemed interesting to me to try and learn how to sing in another style altogether, and it was. I’m intellectually curious and I’ve always been a musical adventurer. That’s why my repertoire’s so vast. I mean I’ve sung 55 (opera) roles and I’ve recorded a lot of repertoire that’s not standard. ” (Not all of her experiments work, however; critics were lukewarm about Dark Hope.)

Fleming, 56, has worked with the likes of Placido Domingo, Cecilia Bartoli, Bryn Terfel, Andre Previn and the great conductor Georg Solti, who christened her voice “double creme’’. For more than a decade, she has been the go-to diva for high-profile international events — she performed at the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony, the Beijing Olympics and at Queen Elizabeth’s Diamond Jubilee concert in 2012: in a first, she sang from the balcony of Buckingham Palace. Six years ago, she lent her star power to a concert for the just-elected Barack Obama, and in 2003 she was the only non-Russian to perform for 50 heads of state at St Petersburg’s 300th anniversary celebrations.

It’s a heady trajectory for a girl from the lower-middle-class suburbs of New York State, who started her training at a little-known university because her music teacher parents could not afford the hefty tuition fees for the prestigious, private arts academy Oberlin College. (She later attended New York’s Julliard School as a postgraduate student.) Her former agent Merle Hubbard has said she is the most ambitious singer he knows, yet she is known for her non-diva-like behaviour — not for Fleming the serial cancellations minutes before curtain up, or a refusal to make eye contact with underlings. And the notion she is ambitious does not sit easily with her. “If I have come to realise that I am ambitious, I still occasionally feel uncomfortable acknowledging it,’’ she has admitted.

Fleming tells Reviewshe has opera engagements booked until 2018, but she also points out that “my opera calendar was reduced many, many years ago when I had children’’. In the late 1990s her first marriage ended and she found herself a single mother with two preschool children and a punishing touring schedule that kept her on the road for up to 10 months a year. She took her girls on tour with her, but once they started school, she scaled back the offshore opera productions in favour of shorter concert tours. Somehow, she managed to run a single-parent household and stay at the top of her game. These days, she does more concerts than opera productions, reflecting: “I love touring and I love singing with the great orchestras. It’s more interesting to me than spending six weeks at a time in a very few places.’’

For the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra concerts, she will work closely with chief conductor Andrew Davis. She has often teamed with Davis, who is also principal conductor of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where she is a consultant. She feels he has an innate understanding of the needs of singers — a quality that can be surprisingly rare in conductors. Fleming met the British maestro at Glyndebourne and “I’ve worked with him a lot ever since. We have done many, many productions. So we’ve had a long, fruitful collaboration. He is really one of the greatest opera conductors in the world. He can conduct anything and he has a facility with music that is very rare.’’

Like Davis, the lyric soprano has a rare facility with music, yet in the late 1990s she feared she would have to retire prematurely, because of the waves of stage fright and anxiety that overwhelmed her.

Those anxiety attacks followed the break-up of her first marriage and one of the most traumatic incidents of her performing career — in 1998, she was booed while performing Lucrezia Borgia at La Scala in Italy. Conductor Gianluigi Gelmetti fainted during the same performance, but “all havoc broke loose and the serious booing began’’, she has written, when she added decorations and cadenzas to a particular passage in the opera. Although devastated, she later realised that being booed is something of a rite of passage for top-drawer singers, including Pavarotti, at the famous Milan venue. At their most severe, her bouts of stage fright involved the shakes and teeth chattering. She went from being a can-do international star and single parent to finding it “nearly impossible’’ to dress herself. She writes in her memoir, The Inner Voice, published in 2005: “I felt as if I was in some sort of vice and the whole world was squeezing in. It was affecting me physically to the extent that I never knew if I was going to be able to sing from day to day.’’ All the while, the American CBS network’s 60 Minutes was shadowing her and filming a story about her supposedly glamorous, high-powered existence.

In the end, she was saved by a psychiatrist and by forcing herself to keep working. As her psychological crisis played out, she took on the role of Blanche DuBois that composer Previn had created for her in his operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire (Fleming has a keen interest in contemporary classical music and Blanche remains one of her defining roles). She tells Reviewshe confessed to having stage fright in her memoir “because I wanted people to know what it’s like, how you come through it, what the strategies are. A lot of people will have it and they never can perform again … Yeah, it’s a challenge. I had to have work. I never stopped performing, which was very important. And I had the right people around me to help me get through it.’’

Fleming’s daughters are now adults, but she volunteers that she was encouraged to combine motherhood and singing by fellow soprano Joan Sutherland. “I got to meet her in Switzerland and spend an afternoon with her and she said, ‘My grandchildren are the joy of my life and it’s hard but you must do it. Don’t worry about what engagements you are losing. Do it.’ ’’ The younger singer took this advice — she made her debut at La Scala (minus any booing or fainting episodes) just weeks after her first daughter, Amelia, was born in 1992.

Having combined a high-flying international career with life as a single mum, does Fleming (who remarried in 2011) have any advice for women still caught up in the juggle? “It’s just that — it’s a juggle. It’s enormously challenging,’’ she says. “Your children have to always feel that they come first, even if your work requires you to travel or to not be home every hour of the day, they still have to know that emotionally, you are there for them.’’

The singer is philosophical about the growing pressure for opera singers to look good. “It’s just a reality of where we are now,’’ she says. “People in my generation grew up watching television, and sooner or later that catches up with the classical arts as well … I guess we are a visual society and with each passing year on Broadway also, people are having to stick to a standard that is television and film-worthy. I do wish there was more room for different kinds of people; that we were more interested in substance than in image, but unfortunately I’m in the minority.’’

Of course, with her perfectly styled blonde hair and cornflower blue eyes, she is a renowned beauty, which hasn’t exactly held back her career — her Strauss HeroinesCD featured her lying across a bed (albeit in a demure evening gown) and she has been a poster girl for Rolex watches. Even so, in The Inner Voice she tells of moments when her appearance was the subject of biting criticism. A former manager told her to lose weight after the birth of her second daughter; and in the 90s her publicist advised her to “streamline the way you dress’’ and “consider giving away the coat you have on’’.

Opera purists also lament how, these days, there is less focus on the voice and more on theatricality, but Fleming sees this as a “mostly a good thing’’. “Singing values remain high,’’ she argues. “I love theatre and I always wanted to go an opera … and believe in the story, believe in the characters. It’s like the Olympics. If we continue to ask singers to improve their skills and be more multidimensional, they will do it; that’s how competitive the world is. If a figure skater has to add a loop into a difficult jump in the next four years in order to win, somehow he will find a way to do it. If you can act and look reasonably like your characters and sing beautifully … there’s always room for an extraordinary voice.’’

Though Fleming is among the world’s most sought-after singers, it took years of arduous study and fruitless auditions to get her career off the ground. She was 29 before she nailed her first big break — in 1988, she won the Metropolitan Opera’s national auditions, and this led to roles at Houston Grand Opera, Covent Garden and New York City Opera. “My voice, unfortunately, wasn’t a bread-and-butter Italian verismo voice, so I had to find my way through singing (Czech opera) Rusalka, which is now standard,’’ she says frankly. “I’m so pleased about that. I had to kind of really search the fringes for pieces that would suit my voice and that I would enjoy singing.’’

The soprano was initially a poor auditioner, partly because she suffered from stage fright, partly because she chose works that were beyond her technique (the then little-performed Rusalka, about a water nymph, proved to be the vocal vehicle she was looking for). “I had no choice but to keep dusting myself off and trying again,’’ she writes of those early, soul-shrinking attempts to win roles that eluded her.

Her career continues to evolve in unexpected ways. She is a creative consultant at the Lyric Opera Chicago, and at a time when school arts funding in that city has been pared to the bone, she works with primary school children.

Three months ago she made her Broadway debut playing a lead character in the comic play Living on Love. Her character, Raquel DeAngelis, is a fading diva who has a rocky relationship with her conductor husband, and the real-life singer says this role “fell into my lap as a fun opportunity to act out my inner diva, and also to make people laugh’’. (Critics didn’t much like the play, while reviews for Fleming’s performance ranged from ecstatic — The Hollywood Reporter said she was “divine’’ — to negative.) Asked if she might take on more stage roles, she says: “I can’t say that I’m looking to expand beyond that, but I’m always open to new experiences, so you never know.’’

It’s intriguing that Fleming inhabited a character who is a 24/7 diva, given she is widely considered to be a driven professional whose success stems from her self-discipline and capacity for hard slog as much as her formidable voice. But it’s precisely because the stage character was so different from her, that she was fun to play, she says.

“That’s also the beauty of operas. I’ve gotten to play sorceresses and very challenging women; difficult women. It’s sometimes really fun to get out of your own skin and inhabit someone else. In this case, the opera diva is someone we know and love and make fun of and celebrate in some way. So it was definitely fun to inhabit, even though it’s not who I am.’’

Renée Fleming performs at the Sydney Opera House on August 30, with the Melbourne Symphony Orchestra on September 3 and 5, and at the Brisbane Festival on September 7.