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Renee Fleming: Interview

Renée Fleming is one of the hottest new stars to arrive on the international circuit in recent years. In the wake of three recordings made under that most perilous of circumstances, during live performance, an ordeal from which she emerges triumphantly. And in roles which are far from easy, she shows that she can cope with the most elaborate Rossinian fioratura in the complete recording of Armida, that she is mistress of an exemplary Mozartian style in Sir Georg Solti's new version of Cosi fan Tutte (Decca 444 174-2) and that she is not afraid of the stylistic perils of 19th century opera in an otherwise unsatisfactory version of Massenet's Hérodiade. A new recording of Mozart opera arias is made essential listening with a wide-ranging choice from among the lesser-known works. The collaboration of Sir Charles Mackerras is noteworthy except for an uncomfortably fast "Ach, ich fühls". Otherwise, Fleming is in exceptional form, in music which she herself says she wanted to record while her voice was still able to cope with the high tessitura, and high it is (Decca 452 602-2). OperaNet spoke to her last spring when she was in Paris singing Donna Anna for the reopening of the Palais Garnier and Marguérite at the Bastille. We were looking forward to her first Thaïs at the Nice Opera in February, which the soprano cancelled (wicked tongues not hesitating to say that Decca's decision not to record the piece was the major reason for Fleming's defection).

Operanet: How and where did you start singing?

Renée Fleming: I came by it very honestly and easily: my parents were both high school vocal music teachers and I sang - as far as they were concerned - before I spoke because, as a toddler, I had to sit next to my mother all day long while she gave voice lessons. It's like I had no choice. I was in all kinds of musical productions, in the chorus of this and that; my mother sang a lot of opera and did a Master's Degree while I was a kid. I was never really interested, it was something I had to do, like cleaning my room. I had to take piano and voice and violin lessons, and dance lessons - I had a real stage mother. But it's paid off.

Operanet: Where did you grow up?

Fleming: Rochester, New York.

Operanet: Was your mother your first teacher?

Fleming: Of course. I was interested in pop music and jazz really - and I worked with Patricia Misslin at a small state school in New York State (she's now at the Manhattan School of Music and has two very young students in the Met Studio, so people have discovered her finally). She really gave me not only the vocal training but also the musicianship, and really turned me on to classical music in general. Then I continued my training at Juilliard. I've been with the same teacher there now for thirteen years, Beverly Johnson. She's really been my rock, the one who helped me solidify my technique.

Operanet: And you still check back in regularly with her, no doubt?

Fleming: Before Otello at the Met in the autumn of 1995, I had two lessons a week with her before I had a baby at the end of August, to try and stay in shape, and then I started again a week after the baby was born with opening night on 2 October. She really got me into shape for that. I don't even know how I did it. Just determination, I think.
Operanet: This is your second child, I think.

Fleming: Right. The older child is in New York with her father, but she was here with me for about ten days - we went to Disneyland and all of that.

Operanet: What was your first big break? Was it the Armida at the Rossini Festival?

Fleming: No, but that was a huge break for Europe, no question about it, but I would say it was the Countess (Nozze di Figaro) in Houston in 1988. I'd won a few competitions that spring, and then in the fall they had a cancellation and that gave me a chance. It was a great cast - Tom Allen, Suzanne Mentzer, some really wonderful singers - and the whole thing kind of came together around that. It was really the Countess that introduced me to most theaters.

Operanet: You must have been 29 or 30 at that point. Do you think that such a relatively late start has helped in the development of your voice?

Fleming: Definitely. I was unhappy about it then, but I was in my late 20s when it started and it was perfect for me. I could never have handled the pressure in my early 20s. I wasn't vocally ready, I had a lot of technical problems to iron out, and it's much better for a singer to iron them out before anybody cares what they're doing than at the international level which, as we've seen from time to time, is a painful process.

Operanet: To go back to Armida, could you still sing it?

Fleming: I've been working on it all week, because I'm singing it in Carnegie Hall in two weeks. Ask me in two weeks, but I hope I can. The only potential problem I see at the moment is stamina, for two reasons: there isn't really an entire rehearsal period of a month to get the role back into my voice - I only have a week - and it's only been six months since I had a baby so that the muscles haven't entirely regained their strength. As far as the fioratura and range are concerned, it feels pretty good now.

Operanet: Would you consider doing other Rossini roles?

Fleming: I'd love to do more Rossini. First of all, the Colbran parts just lie perfectly for me, it's like oil for the voice. They're very healthy for me, and challenging. I'm also doing a new production of Lucrezia Borgia at La Scala. I also recorded Donizetti's Rosamunda d'Inghilterra for Opera Rara which should be out pretty soon.

Operanet: Will Lucrezia Borgia be your debut at La Scala?

Fleming: No, I made my debut in Don Giovanni in January 1993, as Donna Elvira. Right before Pesaro, which was the following summer.

Operanet: How do you feel about switching between Elvira and Anna, or is Anna now your role?

Fleming: Well, I've sung Zerlina as a student, so now I've done all three, but frankly after this experience I can't see going back to Elvira, not for a while at least, because Anna fits me so much more, temperamentally and vocally I think. I always felt that I was singing Elvira well but I never felt I could make a major impact in the part. I think people want a much stronger effect in that part, and I'm lyric...

Operanet: And Elvira is quite hysterical...

Fleming: Exactly.

Operanet: We're finally getting away from the notion that Anna is a heavy dramatic soprano.

Fleming: It doesn't make sense, it's a high part. The tessitura for a dramatic soprano is really grueling. Renée Fleming is warm and affectionate when she speaks of colleagues.

Fleming: It was so much fun singing with Montserrat Caballé in Viaggio a Reims. I learned a lot from her, we talked a lot. She was so generous to me. That's something I've noticed about the greatest singers - their generosity. Marilyn Horne's been a mentor to me for the last two years - I call her every time I have a problem to ask what should I do about? Joan Sutherland - I went to her house one day and she told me how to sing high notes. Caballé talked about the fact that she made the best part of her career in the bel canto repertoire but she said, "You know, I never really had the top." Just give me Leontyne Price's high notes, Caballé's pianissimo. Dolora Zajick is a human trumpet. We do this little piece at the end of Hérodiade, and I couldn't help myself, you just naturally think, "Oh gosh, I've got to sing really loud, I'm singing with Dolora", and I just gave up after three bars because there's no way. My veins were popping, my face was red, and she just stands there like it's nothing.

Operanet: Who would you say were or are the major influences on your career? Teachers, conductors, other singers...

Fleming: I just mentioned the grand ladies, but also Renata Scotto, Schwarzkopf. I had a fantastic education. Conductors can be influential. My first Figaro, the big break, was with Christoph Eschenbach and he's been very supportive ever since and we've done major things together, my first Marschallin last spring, we just recorded the Vier Letzte Lieder. And he worked with me a lot during that Figaro, because I was completely new, green. That's very special and it's rare today. It's not that people don't want to help, it's that they don't have time. Conductors are really on a schedule that's amazing. The jet life has taken over. For me, it's been a real terrific combination of factors, not any one situation.

Operanet: If you listen to records of other singers, who do you listen to?

Fleming: When I do a new role, I call a friend and he sends me as many as 25 different interpretations of any given role, all the way back to Mary Garden or Ninon Vallin, anything that's available. And you can imagine, for instance, when I did my first Marschallin what an education that is because styles change, voices have changed, people are now very much into historic recordings, and it's fascinating to see how things were in the 30s, say, or 40s or 50s, compared to now. To learn a role with an entire perspective is a real education. I believe in that way of learning; I know some singers don't like to hear other people, but I think the danger occurs when you listen to one singer - then you can copy. When you listen to everybody basically you can get an overview and you can sort of arrive at an informed interpretation.

Operanet: How do you feel about recording - do you prefer live or studio?

Fleming: Until recently, I'd only done live and you go out there thinking you've got to do your best tonight and hope they come up with something that isn't embarrassing. In the studio I did the Lulu and Wozzeck Suites with Levine two years ago which was just released and my first Mozart recording with Mackerras, all opera arias but one, but all unusual repertoire, and high...

Operanet: Mitridate, Lucio Silla...

Fleming: High, but not that high. Konstanze, and some even earlier music.

Operanet: One of the things that's been irritating me recently is that many singers don't take the trouble to enunciate - not a problem as far as you're concerned - to what do you attribute this?

Fleming: It goes back to my good education, for one thing. I studied in Frankfurt for a year, and one of the greatest aspects of that training was going to the opera three nights a week on a student pass, and I developed my own taste from that experience. I hadn't seen a lot of opera before that. One of the things I discovered is that a beautiful sound, no matter how well produced, without expression and without a sense of text, of meaning, of words, became very dull to me after about ten or fifteen minutes. I always ask people their opinions, and also people who aren't in the business, and I found in France they're less concerned with correct pronunciation than they are with being able to understand what you're singing. The only coaches I ever work with any more are diction coaches. I believe very strongly in getting the text out.I do think sopranos get a bad rap, in that above the staff it is almost impossible to be understood. Men generally sing where they speak and sopranos do not; I try very hard to be clear but it's virtually impossible. A lot of Marguerite is very low.

Operanet: Will your repertoire be changing in the near future, where are you heading, are you leaving some roles behind?

Fleming: I'm doing a lot of French repertoire in the next five years which I really love: Thais, Manon, Louise...

Operanet: Where will you do Louise?

Fleming: San Francisco. I hope it will get around a bit. I know that repertoire's not very popular here but it hasn't been done here in so long that I'm sort of hoping that within the next ten years there'll be a resurgence of French opera. Because it isn't done often, you hope it will be done well.

Operanet: How do you feel about some of the modern productions making the rounds?

Fleming: I was in Frankfurt, studying, in 1984 and 1985, when Gielen was there, so I saw every wild production there was - and that was another part of my education in those days - I loved the ones that made sense, that had something that was grounded, that was thoroughly thought out. And then there were the others that looked like someone had had a bad dream one night and decided to put it on stage: those I found really dull, they didn't hold my attention.

Operanet: How did you feel folding the laundry in the Garden Scene in Lavelli's Faust?

Fleming: I know people really hate that, but I find the production interesting because despite it's 23 years it still looks like something that could be produced today. I assumed Lavelli wasn't even alive anymore, that he was in mid-career when he had done it, so that when he showed up at rehearsal looking like a relatively young man I was just stunned. He must have been a kid when he did this. I love the way the show looks. I had about a week of rehearsal because I was singing Don Giovanni and got to the Faust rehearsals after they had started, but I had just sung the opera in Chicago.

Operanet: Where do you see your career heading over the next five or ten years?

Fleming: In addition to the French repertoire, I'm going to do Arabella, staying with Strauss, because that's really gorgeous music. I see my repertoire with Mozart and Strauss as the core, with the French and bel canto on the one hand - the higher things - because I want to keep my voice young, with nothing heavy for the next five years, and then on the other side some of the unusual repertoire, a couple of the Verdi roles, I love the Czech repertoire, I love Janacek, Russalka is probably my favorite role. It's a broad repertoire, but not that broad vocally.

Operanet: How many roles do you have in your repertoire at the moment?

Fleming: I never counted; I should.

Operanet: Do you have any Wagnerian plans?

Fleming: Bayreuth this summer and next. Eva in Meistersinger. It's the role I can do now and when the opportunity came up I thought this may be my only chance to ever sing in Bayreuth. Having studied in Germany, I speak the language fluently. This is the one chance I can take and be happy with because it's a beautiful part. It's quite lyric. We'll see how it goes before I think about Elisabeth or Elsa. Everyone knows it's a great acoustic in a wonderful theater. I'm also thrilled about working with Daniel Barenboim again. You asked earlier about conductors: Solti has been so key in my career. The Cosi that I jumped into with him got me my relationship with Decca, my relationship with him. That's the best part about this career - working with people on that level. It's so inspiring. That's what we all dream about when we're in school. He called me after the Giovanni to talk about Eva, because he'd heard about Bayreuth, to give me some tips. He said, "You can always call me for advice." That's the kind of relationship we dream about having with conductors, people who care. The conversation turns to Eleanor Steber with whom Renée Fleming tells me she had one lesson, and then the problems of lessons with the great ladies.

Fleming: Perhaps you're better able to learn when you're older. At the end of a week-long class with Elizabeth Schwarzkopf all I could do was cry for an hour because I was so emotionally drained - one day I would be gold and the next would be awful. It was so difficult for somebody that young to take on. It was overwhelming working with her. Interpretatively it was phenomenal, it was the vocal side of things that was hard. I had studied for a year with Hartmut Höll - whose wife is a protege of hers - so that I was learning how to dig for the interpretation. At the time it was very hard, but in retrospect it was phenomenal.

Operanet: Do you do much in the way of recitals or are you concentrating on opera?

Fleming: All I studied that year in Germany was lieder. I didn't do any opera at all. In fact, I wasn't even accepted into the opera department because they said it wasn't worthwhile for only a year. I think the truth was that I was studying with Arleen Augèr. She was a wonderful teacher. I'm going to do lots of recitals in the future. I have seven in the next six months. I'll be touring with Helen York, a British pianist who was Hartmut's protegé that year and is now at Westminster Choir College. However, Christoph Eschenbach and I are making a Schubert recording, so we'll be doing a few concerts at Salzburg and other places.

Operanet: Will you be doing some of the lesser heard songs?

Fleming: The disc will be more the "Greatest Hits", but you know, for the ten years since I've been living in New York, I don't think I've ever heard the "greatest hits" on a program, of any composer, in recital. You hear them in recordings, but in concert people are more interested in unearthing unusual repertoire. No one ever sings "Gretchen am Spinnrade" or "Die junge Nonne" in recital, in my experience.


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