Renée Fleming comes to the L.A. Opera stage with romantic melodies and a message for ‘Dreamers’

Photo: Lawrence K. Ho

By Catherine Womack, Los Angeles Times

Just a year ago, a somewhat misleading headline in the New York Times gave opera fans a scare. “The Diva Departs: Renée Fleming’s Farewell to Opera” seemed to suggest that one of this world’s most beloved stars was retiring.

But as the meat of the article (and Fleming’s schedule) made clear, the singer, 59, is far from the end of her illustrious career. Though she may not be singing big roles onstage at the Met this year, Fleming is in the middle of a busy season of touring, traveling almost weekly for concerts and recitals around the world.

This spring she also will appear on a stage not far from the Met, headlining a Broadway revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel.”

Between performances, Fleming is exploring the intersection of music and medicine. On Monday she helped Los Angeles Opera launch a local chapter of her Music and the Mind program, with a public presentation alongside neuroscientist Antonio Damasio at USC.

If that weren’t enough, moviegoers can hear Fleming prominently on the soundtracks of “The Shape of Water” and “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” both of which have earned Oscar nominations for their scores.

But on Tuesday night, at least, her focus shifted back to the stage.

On what may have been a mundane weeknight elsewhere, the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion was full of glitz. Fleming fans dressed up and showed up, sipping Champagne and packing the house for the soprano’s L.A. Opera recital.

Accompanied by pianist Hartmut Höll and wearing a marble-patterned Carolina Herrera dress with a long, voluminous steely gray wrap, Fleming opened the concert with a delicate classical crescendo, spinning the opening line from Handel’s “Ombra mai fu” like silk. From there she moved on to German art songs by Brahms, chatting up the audience between selections with her characteristic down-to-earth charm.

“I really like gown applause,” she said when the audience roared as she entered after intermission in a fresh look (a sparkling midnight blue dress with accompanying gossamer kimono by Carmen Marc Valvo). “It makes carting all these dresses around the world worth it!”

In addition to classical selections by Brahms and Fauré, Fleming sang two relatively new works by the young Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw, championing her as a talented female composer in her remarks. In Shaw’s “Aurora Borealis,” her voice floated across the hall in an iridescent display of vocal color.

There were Broadway songs too. “Till There Was You” from “The Music Man” and “I Whistle a Happy Tune” from “The King and I” were presented as a tribute to soprano Barbara Cook, who died in August.

By the end of the evening, which was full of tender, romantic melodies made for early Valentine’s dates, Fleming held her audience in the palm of her hand. She sang one big operatic aria to conclude her program: Dvorák’s “Song to the Moon” from “Rusalka” –– a reminder that the opera stage is still hers for the taking.

Fleming knows her fan base well, and so she gave the many aspiring singers in the room a chance to release their own vocal flourishes during her encore performance of “I Could’ve Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady.” The sound that launched back at her from the rafters was more well-rehearsed chorus than audience singalong.

“Now you can tell everyone tomorrow that you sang with me,” she said.

Fleming chose to make her final statement of the night a compassionate, political one. “This one is for the ‘Dreamers,’ ” she said before singing Leonard Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from “West Side Story,” with the openings lyrics, “There’s a place for us …”

She left to roaring applause. Fleming clearly has more to say. And her fans are eager to hear it.