A Songbird in Seclusion

The New York Times

WITH •••

Renee Fleming, Songbird in Seclusion

America’s top soprano will return to the Met stage in 2022, starring in a new opera based on “The Hours,” by Michael Cunningham.

Photo above- Shelf care: Ms. Fleming at home, among books, piano and flowers. Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Times

By Maureen Dowd

July 30, 2020 Updated 12:20 p.m. ET

McLEAN, Va. — Tim Jessell, a lanky divorced Washington corporate attorney and father of three, had given up on love in 2008 when he was set up

on a blind date with a beautiful blond New Yorker who had also given up on love.

They clicked, and many years later began that old sitcom debate about splitting drawers and closets. If she sold her Upper West Side apartment and moved to D.C., would he be able to make enough space in his townhouse?

“She told me she was bringing her piano,” Mr. Jessell said, with a smile. “That was serious.” And, of course, the designer gowns were going to overrun the closets.

Mr. Jessell, a sports fan and Bruce Springsteen fanatic who knew nothing about opera before that first date, ended up in a new place, an airy glass and stone contemporary house beside a creek in McLean, Va., with a hammock and the most famous American soprano since Beverly Sills.

Curled on a white couch in their living room, wearing a silky cream blouse, black pinstriped pants and turquoise jewelry, Renée Fleming said that she was glad Mr. Jessell had never heard of her.

“If they’re not a fan, it gives you a chance to kind of develop something based on who you are,” she said, noting wryly that their love bloomed even though the first performance of hers Mr. Jessell saw was “Lucrezia Borgia.”

“That’s an opera in which I fall in love with my own son and then kill all his friends and him by mistake,” she said. “He embraced the whole thing.”

Moreover, Mr. Jessell was consistently willing to get on a plane to wherever she was. Ms. Fleming had seen plenty of glimmers with men evaporate over her grueling travel schedule. “Someone would introduce me to someone and we’d go out and I’d say ‘Oh, I had so much fun tonight, I’ll be back in three weeks,’” she said. “I could sort of see their eyes glaze over.”

After her divorce from the actor Rick Ross, when she was raising their two daughters, “I was single for a long time,” Ms. Fleming said. “And there was a period in which I just felt really angry about the fact that it’s hard for accomplished, gifted women to be with men of similar talents.”

Her leading man: Tim Jessell and Ms. Fleming at the 2019 Children’s Defense Fund annual benefit in New York City.Credit…Krista Schlueter for The New York Times

‘The All-American Diva’

Now Ms. Fleming, her Steinway and her gowns are happily ensconced in their new house, where she is rehearsing a solo program that includes Handel, “Over the Rainbow” and much more for a Metropolitan Opera concert at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, livestreaming Saturday at 1 p.m. Her audience, the smallest she has ever performed for, will be four cameras, two of them robotic.

The pay-per-view event is designed to help the Met survive during a pandemic that is strangling her profession. The virus can be easily spread by singing and through crowds, which makes opera — which was already struggling — exceedingly vulnerable.

The shimmery, creamy voice of the “undiva,” as she is known, is ingrained in America’s cultural memory, at both sad and happy moments. She sang “Amazing Grace” at a memorial service at ground zero after 9/11 and “Danny Boy” at John McCain’s funeral at the Washington National Cathedral. She sang in Sindarin, the Elvish language for “The Lord of the Rings” soundtrack. She sang a Top 10 list on David Letterman’s show, Verdi with the Muppets, and a goose-bumps-inducing rendition of the national anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl.

Singing “Amazing Grace” with the Orchestra of St. Luke’s during a memorial service honoring those killed in the Sept. 11 terrorist attack on New York City. Credit…Beth A. Keiser/Associated Press

Perfoming the National Anthem before Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014, in East Rutherford, N.J.Credit…Ben Liebenberg/Associated Press

“We even rehearsed with the Black Hawk helicopters so I wouldn’t be thrown off,” she recalled. “Imagine walking across the turf in five-inch platform shoes with your adrenaline pumping. I wasn’t going to compromise on the shoes after Vera Wang did this extraordinary dress for me which is now in the Smithsonian.”

Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, calls Ms. Fleming “the all-American diva.” The daughter of two music teachers from upstate New York, she is known for both her wholesome style and her sensuality, her natural stage presence and her preternatural voice, described by her fellow soprano Susan Graham (a mezzo) as “pure gold.”

“The sensuality of her face goes with the sensuality of her sound,” said Christine Baranski, her friend and a fellow Juilliard alum.

Anna Deavere Smith described watching from the audience as Ms. Fleming stood on the side of the stage, preparing to perform at a dinner at the Museum of Modern Art. As the singer paused to gather her focus, Ms. Smith recalled, “She looked to me like a lion going after a kind of prey.”

Ann Patchett, the novelist, got to know the opera superstar when her novel “Bel Canto” came out. Ms. Fleming, like the beautiful soprano in the novel, was known for singing the aria “Song to the Moon” from “Rusalka” by Dvorak. “People thought it was Renée,” Ms. Patchett said about the soprano she conjured. “In retrospect, it probably was.”

The writer said that whenever she goes out with Ms. Fleming, “people come up to the table and say, ‘You were singing at my wedding’ or ‘You were singing when my daughter was born’ or ‘You were singing when my father died.’ And she really takes it in and is so appreciative to make that connection personally, every single time.”

When Ms. Fleming was at the height of her spectacular career, jetting around the world to different opera houses, she sometimes told reporters she fantasized about a quiet life in the suburbs, growing a vegetable garden. Now that the pandemic has mandated that life, how does she like it? It’s as though an exotic bird has perched in the gray, bureaucratic confines of the nation’s capital.

“I had nice terrace gardens in New York, which I really loved, but here I’m able to do it myself,” she said, in a voice that has been described as “jewels floating like butterflies.” “Right now, I have cucumbers and tomatoes and then I’ll have squash.”

Don’t fence her in: The wide-ranging Ms. Fleming’s garden includes cucumbers and tomatoes. Squash is on the horizon.Credit…Justin T. Gellerson for The New York Time

Twists in the Plot

Ms. Fleming, 61, who does not like to be ranked against other sopranos, decided not to compete with her earlier performances and sang one of her signature roles as the Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier” for the last time at the Met in 2017. Headlines mourned, “The Diva Departs.” But reports of the diva’s departure are greatly exaggerated. She’s busier than ever.

“I’m still concertizing like I always was and I have been doing a lot of new work,” she said. “That’s where my heart is.”

She has dipped into other genres, starring in a Broadway revival of “Carousel” and the London premiere of “The Light in the Piazza.” She acted opposite Ben Whishaw in “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy” at the Shed.

And, in a move bound to thrill her fans, she will be returning to the Met in the fall of 2022 to star in a new opera based on Michael Cunningham’s novel “The Hours” — and the movie of the same name — as Clarissa, the role played by Meryl Streep. Kelli O’Hara will play Laura, and Joyce DiDonato will play Virginia Woolf.

The house of Strauss: Elina Garanca, left, as Octavian and Ms. Fleming as the Marschallin in the opera “Der Rosenkavalier” at the Metropolitan Opera in 2017.Credit…Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The idea was first suggested to Ms. Fleming by her man Friday, Paul Batsel, and the work was composed by Kevin Puts, who won the 2012 Pulitzer for his debut opera, “Silent Night.”

They brought the concept to Mr. Gelb. “I thought for sure he would say no and he immediately said, ‘I want this project,’” she recalled. “It’s a triple threat of actresses and fascinating characters.”

Ms. Fleming also hosts a webinar on music and health. “It’s the last memory to go, music memory, so music affects more parts of the brain than anywhere else,” she said.

Her friends say she has gotten more political since she came to Washington, so I ask what she thinks of the president.

“I just think it’s a disaster,” she said. “I mean, please, let’s have people who are entertaining and shocking in entertainment, not at the head of government. I’m on the arts council for Biden. I love the interview recently presenting Biden and Obama together as calm, measured, sane.”

The opera world, which has always been very white and patriarchal and known for backstage drama, was dealing with shocks of sexual harassment even before it was rocked by the pandemic.

Ms. Fleming was a favorite of James Levine, the Met conductor who was fired in 2018 over sexual misconduct charges involving young men. (Mr. Levine has denied the accusations.) And she played Desdemona to Plácido Domingo’s “Otello” at the Met in 1995. After he was accused of sexual misconduct by a slew of women, Mr. Domingo dropped out of Verdi’s “Macbeth” at the Met at the last minute and ended his career in America.

Ms. Fleming recalled that, as a young soprano, she almost fainted when she had to go on as the understudy at the Met in 1994 in “Otello” with the world-famous tenor. “He was so frightening in the confrontation scene and he’s crazy with jealousy and he almost hits Desdemona, and it was also a huge opportunity for me,” she said, “and the adrenaline was just off the charts and I could hardly walk off stage.”

She continues, “I’m really happy that the Me Too movement has occurred, that people have been called out and hopefully people think twice before they behave badly.”

Rumpled reputation: Mr. Domingo as the titular character in Giuseppe Verdi’s “Otello,” and Ms. Fleming as Desdemona during the final dress rehearsal for the Met’s 2002 opening night gala at Lincoln Center in New York City.Credit…Jack Vartoogian/Getty Images

She also echoed the calls for race reform in her profession, saying that impresarios must identify and nurture Black talent. “There are some things about opera that are extremely democratic because it’s about the voice,” she said. “There are some extraordinary young artists, Lawrence Brownlee, Julia Bullock, J’Nai Bridges and other gifted singers who are stars or on their way to being stars. But that’s not enough. We want to come into the opera house and see the diversity reflected everywhere.” She enlisted Ms. Smith to write a libretto about Chicago inspired by her “Notes From the Field,” an examination of systemic racism.

I ask Ms. Fleming about Leontyne Price, the legendary Black soprano and pioneer at the Met, and she described her as a “phenomenal mentor.”

“I think the most important thing that she got me to think about was that period of time where everyone wants a piece of you and you know you have to set up filters, you have to protect yourself, because there aren’t enough hours in the day to respond to everything,” she said. “And she referred to all of that as ‘the noise.’ And she said, ‘You’re hearing the noise and you need to tune out the noise and focus on this’” — here Ms. Fleming stroked her throat to indicate her voice — “because if this goes wrong, the noise will disappear overnight.”

She continued: “I try not to be too neurotic about my voice, but I can’t speak over loud parties. Even after a concert, I would go to a reception, which is part of my job, and find speaking really tiring, really taxing.”

Ms. Baranski testifies to how protective Ms. Fleming is of her voice. “When an opera singer is your girlfriend, you find yourself at Orso or some other restaurant,” she said, “and you’ve just ordered your martinis and then you’ve got to get up and leave or go to a back room because it’s too chilly or you have to speak over too many people.”

The kindness of stages: Teddy Tahu Rhodes, left, as Stanley Kowalski and Ms. Fleming as Blanche DuBois during a 2013 performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire” at Carnegie Hall.Credit…Ruby Washington/The New York Times

‘Nothing Is Uncool’

Ms. Fleming’s favorite heroine is Tosca, but said the heroine closest to her personality is Tatyana in “Eugene Onegin.” If she could sing any tenor role, it would be Don Jose in “Carmen.” And if she could dine with any composer? Richard Strauss, no contest. “A secretive man who created the most sublime music,” she said. “And there are secrets in his music that I find compelling, phrases that haunted me for months.”

Ms. Fleming, who was shy and insecure growing up and became a bit bolder only when she sang in jazz clubs in college, had crippling bouts of stage fright. “I had it early on as I was just trying to transition from being a student to a professional and then I had it again in 1998. I had a huge number of new roles that year, a divorce, too many things at one time. It lasted for almost a year. I almost quit singing. It’s intense, it’s very hard to walk on stage.”

She was heckled that year at La Scala in Milan, performing “Lucrezia Borgia” — just for being an American singing an Italian opera in Italy — and found it “really traumatic.”

When she played Blanche DuBois in Andre Previn’s opera of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” also in that year, she was channeling her own neuroses. “That was in a period when I was really troubled and having panic attacks and the anxiety around performance was so great, I thought either I’m going to crash in this role or it’s going to be a really extraordinary vehicle for me to begin to heal. And I think it was the latter.”

She had therapy and read books about stage fright. “Instead of seeing the audience as judgmental, as a critical body, and thinking it’s not going to go well because you’re a fraud or you’re not good enough, you see yourself as sharing something with them.”

Fashion and costume has helped armor her. “I would say my performance wardrobe for concerts and television is unique in that the number of couture designs from top designers is — I don’t think there’s anybody else who’s had this in history,” she said. “The extraordinary media push around Maria Callas’s CDs and her glamour, I think, fed a desire on the part of designers to dress a diva. So I think I just happened to be in the right place at the right time.”

In 2008, she became the first woman, à la Pavarotti and Domingo, to headline an opening of the Met season in her very own gala, starring in scenes from three different operas, Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Massenet’s “Manon,” and Strauss’s “Capriccio.” Lacroix, Lagerfeld and Galliano each designed a different costume for her.

Issey Miyake, Oscar de la Renta and Vivienne Westwood have also festooned her. “I started with Gianfranco Ferré, and he would send 17 gowns and many of them in the end came in boxes and without fittings and they were perfect,” Ms. Fleming said. “And I had a form, a model in his studio that was next to Elizabeth Taylor’s, so I was in good company.”

She is also renowned for her gems, some of which she borrows from her good friend, Ann Ziff, the chairwoman of the Met who runs a jewelry label.

Culture and couture: Ms. Fleming arrives at the 2018 Met Gala in New York City wearing a Vivienne Westwood gown.Credit…Hector Retamal/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Is she worried about the crepuscular nature of her art, that opera will wither away if its grand poobahs can’t figure out a way to attract young people?

“There’s an anti-opera wave in the mainstream media now, I’ve seen it in commercials where opera is the joke, ‘Oh, you don’t like opera, do you?’” she said. “It’s unfortunate because it makes people who do like it afraid to say they like it. It’s a manufactured prejudice. It should be a matter of taste just like any other style of music. It shouldn’t have some negativity ascribed to it that’s it’s uncool. Nothing should be uncool. It should be, do you like it or do you not like it?

“Look at ‘The Voice’ or ‘America’s Got Talent.’ When a 14-year-old boy gets up and sings ‘Nessun Dorma,’ everybody’s crying and cheering. Why is the connection not made between that and the art world?”

Ms. Fleming walks me out. When she opens the door, she finds a package from DSW, the discount shoe store.

“I’ve been found out,” she laughed. “I needed some clogs. I don’t think I’ll ever wear high heels again.”

Somehow, I don’t believe her.

[A bonus coda of Confirm or Deny]

Maureen Dowd: Tenors are dumber and more neurotic than sopranos.

Renée Fleming: I wouldn’t say dumber. I would say more neurotic probably because they have a greater risk. If a tenor fails, it’s much more obvious than when a soprano fails because they are singing with their chest voice, full throated. And so when they fail, there’s a huge split or a crack. And when a soprano fails, it’s just unattractive.

Tenors are often shorter than their soprano partners.

Tenors have not, by and large, been a tall singing block. And there have been a lot of Latin American tenors. There’s something in the language and maybe the Mariachi tradition.

You hate your fach.

Yeah. I wish my fach were broader but I’m happy being a lyric soprano.

You are the only opera singer to have an asteroid named for you.

Truth, yes. I said, “That’s thrilling. I really am a star!”

You sometimes talk to your husband in Sindarin in romantic situations.

No, but he would probably love that. We could try to improv.

You baked cookies with Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg.

I did and that was surreal. And of that trio, I am the one who is out because Martha Stewart and Snoop Dogg have collaborated in other ways. But I’m not a good cook, so I’m sure that was it.

You can get glamorous in 10 minutes.

I would say that’s true. I don’t like to spend a lot of time on it with one exception, my hair. There’s a reason why my escape plan is just to shave my head. It’s a pain.

You’ve learned 50 operas in six languages.

Confirm. The first time I learned Russian for “Eugene Onegin,” my first child was a month old and I kept thinking, “What is wrong with me? This is not sinking in.” And then, of course, a couple years later, they started talking about what happens to women hormonally when they’ve had a baby, which is they’re stupid for a while.

Both your daughters can sing.

Definitely, they’re wonderful singers, but they know too much. They’ve opted for other careers.