Covering News And Entertainment.
UPDATE: NPR Music, WNYC Radio, CORRECTION/CLARIFICATION to The New York Times misleading and inaccurate article/report.
Hold Up! Renée Fleming Is Not Retiring From Opera: The opera firmament was shaken yesterday when a New York Times article, headlined “The Diva Departs: Renée Fleming’s Farewell to Opera,” landed online.
The lengthy piece gave the impression that Fleming, a beloved star of classical music and one of the most successful sopranos of her generation, was ready to call it quits as far as opera was concerned. Her ostensible final performance would come on May 13 in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier at New York’s Metropolitan Opera.
The 3,000-word article begins with a wistful prelude probing Rosenkavalier’s themes of farewell and letting go. What follows are phrases such as “Her departure is a watershed moment for her extravagant, expensive art form … ” and “So Ms. Fleming is trying to say goodbye on her own terms,” and “She isn’t temperamentally inclined to share her regrets, but on the eve of her farewell she offered a few.” But also this: “Rosenkavalier may well be her farewell to staged opera. She will sing her final performance on the afternoon of Saturday, May 13.”
The key word here is “may.” Truth be told, Fleming has no plans to quit opera at all.
“I never said that I was stepping away from the opera stage for good. Never, never, never did I say that to anybody,” Fleming insisted in a phone conversation from her home in New York City earlier today.
“I think it misleads people,” she added. “They sort of imagine that I’m an opera singer and I’m now retiring. So I just want to make sure that gets cleared up.” Fleming said she told the newspaper she was interested in pursuing new operas and had received proposals from composers.
What Fleming is also clear about are her plans to shelve a number of roles she’s practically owned over the last decades, including Rosenkavalier’s Marschallin, the title role in Dvořák’s Rusalka and Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello. Her schedule, she says, is booked for the next two years, including appearances at the Met in 2019, and she’s “in talks” with the Los Angeles Opera about a new role and a new production.
“As long as you’re singing well, there’s no reason to stop. I just sang a sold-out show with Plácido [Domingo] in Tokyo,” she said.
Rumors about Fleming’s retirement from opera have circulating for some time. That’s why opera mavens, seeing the Times’ article, might have thought that now the curtain was finally falling. That sentiment was evident in many of readers’ comments, where fans lamented her farewell.
“There’s been press about this now for last couple of years floating around,” Fleming says. “I think it started with some paper in London, but it’s inaccurate.”
Fleming has guarded her vocal resources carefully, singing roles that fit her creamy, lyric soprano as well as her designer gowns suit her elegance. Critics have complained of vocal mannerisms cropping up, but her instrument has remained remarkably intact.
“My voice has not gotten lower,” she says. “In some ways I wish it had, then it would open other kinds of roles to me. It’s really just the same.”
Although she’s excited about much new opera being written today, Fleming laments that standard repertoire roles for a lyric soprano of a certain age are few. She’s also concerned about her looks in front of high-definition cameras.
“Unfortunately, the repertoire for my voice is mostly young girls. And it’s really important at this point, in the day of HD, to make sure that you’re not too far away from that ideal,” she observes. “I can still sing Rusalka and a lot of the Massenet repertoire. But would I? No, at this point.”
Given the demands of opera, which Fleming calls “an Olympian sport,” she has slowly been cutting back on her staged performances, doing a couple per year. Instead she’s focused on concerts, recitals and recordings. Last November, she premiered Letters from Georgia, a new song cycle written for her by Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts, which may be getting an operatic expansion. She’s also just released Distant Light, an album featuring another new song cycle composed for her and three songs by Björk.
“I don’t understand the focus on opera,” she says about the thrust of the Times story, especially the headline. “I guess it’s because it’s the New York Times and the Metropolitan Opera is here, it becomes very, sort of, myopic.” But overall she liked the article: “I’m not upset. I think the profile is wonderful. It’s one of the more balanced portrayals in that [writer Charles McGrath] sort of got who I am.”
“I don’t know why they insisted on that headline,” she concludes. “I guess it’s more controversial.” —Tom Huizenga, NPR Music, WNYC Radio, April 6, 2017
The Diva Departs: Renée Fleming’s Farewell to Opera— Richard Strauss’s opera “Der Rosenkavalier” is about the passage of time. It’s the story of a wealthy married woman, the Marschallin, who is having an affair with a much younger man, and who realizes that she is getting older and that he will sooner or later move on. Her most famous aria, at the end of the first act, is about wanting to stop the clocks. At the end of the opera, to music so full of feeling Strauss wanted it played at his own funeral, she accepts the inevitable and graciously surrenders her lover to a younger woman.
Robert Carsen’s new staging of “Rosenkavalier,” which had its debut in London this winter and opens at the Metropolitan Opera on Thursday, April 13, emphasizes the theme of change and upheaval by moving the setting from 18th-century Vienna to the moment when the piece was written, at the twilight of the Hapsburg Empire and the eve of World War I. It becomes an opera about the end of an era, or even the end of the world.
For Renée Fleming, the superstar soprano who will sing the Marschallin at the Met, and for music, this really is the end of an era: This “Rosenkavalier” may well be her farewell to staged opera. She will sing her final performance on the afternoon of Saturday, May 13.
People who know Ms. Fleming, 58, say that she has been planning this moment for years. The novelist Ann Patchett, who became friends with her after finishing “Bel Canto,” about a diva with many Fleming-like traits, said recently: “For as long as I’ve known Renée, the thing she always talks about is the fact that it’s all going to end. She has always had this feeling: ‘I’m a carton of yogurt with an expiration date stamped on it, and that day will come and I’ll be thrown out.’”
So Ms. Fleming is trying to say goodbye on her own terms. “You don’t want people to be saying, ‘Oh my God, please stop,’” she said in London as she prepared to finish the “Rosenkavalier” run there. “Or, ‘I heard her when.’”
Her departure is a watershed moment for her extravagant, expensive art form, which is always imagining itself in trouble — what is opera about except crises? — but may really be in peril this time. Not only is opera more divorced than ever from mainstream culture, but also its core audience, the people who buy subscriptions, is literally dying off. The Met has had some luck attracting new operagoers through social media, collaborations with theater and visual artists, and fresher branding, but the most reliable way of ensuring attendance is still by casting big international stars, and one of Ms. Fleming’s magnitude is almost impossible to replace. Plácido Domingo, the only singer on her level still performing, is 76, and, though he keeps defying time, can’t go on forever; younger artists like Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann may be opera-famous, but are hardly household names.
“A superstar is that intangible thing,” said Mary Lou Falcone, the publicist who in 1998 helped guide Ms. Fleming through a crisis of confidence so severe she almost quit opera after being booed in Milan. “Nothing can explain it. After all the projections and trajectories, the public either latches on or it doesn’t.”
Drawn to Ms. Fleming’s combination of glamour and accessibility — she became known as “the people’s diva” — the public did latch on. Invited to sing David Letterman’s Top 10 list, and to record, in the original Elvish, some of the soundtrack for the third “Lord of the Rings” movie, she gained a following among people who, strictly speaking, weren’t opera buffs at all. In many cases, Ms. Fleming was the first and only opera singer they’d ever paid attention to. She has sold over two million records, a huge number for opera, and won four Grammy Awards. In 2014, she became the first opera singer to deliver the national anthem at the Super Bowl. In 2015, she made the jump from Lincoln Center to Broadway to appear (as a tetchy diva) in the play “Living on Love.”
“Her huge ambition was not just to be an opera star,” said Matthew Epstein, Ms. Fleming’s manager from 1995 to 1999. “She wanted to be Beyoncé. She still does.”
Like Beyoncé, and unlike many of her opera colleagues, Ms. Fleming has gone about her stage career — and, now, her plans for after — with unusual deliberation. “Renée is not like other singers,” said Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met. “I’m not saying she’s the only one who’s nice. But she’s very calm. Whatever fears or horrors she has are well hidden.”
Mr. Epstein recalled a period in the 1990s when Ms. Fleming was making a specialty of “Der Rosenkavalier.” “She said to me: ‘I think I’m going to stop now, and this is something I can come back to at the end,’” he said. “The arc of a career is complicated. It’s hard to start a career, and it’s even harder to end one elegantly. So I think this is a very smart and considered decision on her part. It’s called going out at the top.”
Mr. Carsen, who has also directed Ms. Fleming in some of her most acclaimed productions, including Handel’s “Alcina” and Tchaikovsky’s “Eugene Onegin,” said: “Renée has been one of the most glamorous and really beautiful singers. A beautiful woman in every respect. It was never in the cards that as the years moved on she was going to start playing people’s mothers.”
Ms. Fleming turned 58 in February. Her friend and mentor Leontyne Price was the same age when she retired from the opera stage in 1985, and there is a famous YouTube video of her struggling to keep it together as she receives an endless ovation. It’s hard to believe that Ms. Fleming won’t puddle up a little at her last performance. But in London in January, on the morning after her second-to-last “Rosenkavalier” at the Royal Opera House, she was anything but nostalgic. Sitting in the kitchen of her flat on one of the city’s most posh streets, she seemed less a forlorn diva than the very organized and energetic, very American chief executive of a small company: Let’s call it Renee Fleming Inc.
“My guide to this whole process, when I was thinking about what to do, was Leontyne Price,” she said in her surprisingly deep speaking voice — so low she once saw a speech therapist, fearing it might be bad for her singing. “She said that her concertizing afterward was when she had the most fun, and she also said something to the effect that she felt she was no longer surrounded by her colleagues. That becomes true very quickly — pretty soon your colleagues are of another generation.”
Ms. Fleming insisted that she wouldn’t stop singing entirely but that she was just changing her focus. She plans to give more concerts (which, though she didn’t say so, are both easier and far more lucrative than singing staged opera), make more records, find new music to sing, and spend more time at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where she was named creative consultant in 2010. (Some have speculated that position might be a steppingstone to running an opera company herself.) She said she was even thinking of getting involved in an internet start-up for streaming arts programs.
Some of Ms. Fleming’s fame is a result of arriving at the right moment, when there were still powerful management and record companies to promote her career. Some is a result of calculation and astute self-management. Following the advice of Ms. Falcone, whom she hired in 1995, she lost weight and started paying more attention to her hair and wardrobe. (Nowadays, according to Ms. Patchett, she dresses up even to go to Kinko’s at 8 in the morning.)
But it couldn’t have happened without her voice — shimmering and lustrous. Her detractors sometimes claim that Ms. Fleming’s voice is actually too much of a good thing: too lush, too creamy. She has been called the June Cleaver of opera singers — too bland, in other words — and her voice has been described as Botoxed, so plump and seamless that it lacks dramatic expressiveness. Ms. Fleming’s sound hasn’t darkened with age, as often happens to sopranos. (If it had, she might have ended up with a wider choice of roles in her 50s). She’s not as virtuosic as she once was, but whether you like her voice or not, she still sounds much the way she did 25 years ago.
It hasn’t hurt her career that, as Mr. Carsen pointed out, Ms. Fleming is also very beautiful, with a heart-shaped face, high cheekbones and unusually large eyes, which onstage are as expressive as a silent film star’s: a balcony-dweller’s ideal of what an opera singer should look like. And unlike some earlier divas, for whom the job description seemed to include being as difficult offstage as was humanly possible, she is, for a superstar, almost unnaturally normal and unaffected. She loves to interact with her most devoted fans and even makes a point of remembering their names.
Sue Schardt, a friend of hers since college, said Ms. Fleming hasn’t changed much since they shared a dorm room. “Renée’s not just humble,” she said. “She’s chronically humble.”
Ms. Fleming grew up outside of Rochester, where her parents were both music teachers. She was gifted, but not a prodigy, and there wasn’t enough money to send her to a fancy conservatory like Oberlin College, her first choice. So she enrolled in the Crane School of Music at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where she majored not in performance but in music education, assuming she’d follow in her parents’ footsteps.
She has said that back then she had no idea how to sing and sounded like a “buzzing insect,” which isn’t quite true. Ms. Schardt shared an ancient tape recording of Ms. Fleming singing in the student union, and she sounds not unlike a young Joni Mitchell, her idol at the time.
“Renée was always doing surprising things,” Ms. Schardt recalled. “So does it surprise me, the career she has now and what she’s developed into? No. Is it something we were thinking about when we graduated in 1981? No. It all goes back to being a working-class girl from central New York. At the core, that’s who she is. She’s a working singer, and these are gigs. What grounds her is her friends, her family, her girls.” (Ms. Fleming has two daughters by her first marriage — which ended in 1998, around the time she was heckled in Milan — and three stepchildren with her second husband, Tim Jessel, a corporate lawyer Ms. Patchett fixed her up with on a blind date.)
If Ms. Fleming had a noticeable talent back then, it was for jazz, still one of her great loves. She was good enough that Illinois Jacquet, the jazz saxophonist, urged her to drop out and tour with his group. She declined, she says, because she was too much of a nerd and afraid of that much freedom. Instead she stayed in school and, always an overachiever, kept applying for and winning fellowships: ones from the Eastman School of Music and the Juilliard School, and a Fulbright that took her to Germany. Fortunate in her teachers, among them Beverley Johnson and the imperious Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, she acquired a formidable mastery of the mechanics of singing. Even now, listening to her talk about breath control, tongue tension and laryngeal placement is enough to make you wonder how anyone ever learned to sing at all.
But even with all her technique — or maybe because of it — Ms. Fleming was a late bloomer. She suffered from stage fright, from poor audition choices and from finding a certain psychological comfort in finishing second rather than first place in competitions. For a while, she sang practically anything: for example, 10 brand-new roles in a 14-month stretch starting in 1995.
But in the period after that, guided by Mr. Epstein and Ms. Falcone, she made the crucial decision to be more selective and focus on parts that particularly suited her voice. As it happened, many of them were roles in which she wouldn’t have to do battle with the looming legacy of Maria Callas and other great divas of the past: Massenet’s Thaïs and Manon; Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello”; the title role in Dvorak’s “Rusalka” (an opera that was practically unheard-of until Ms. Fleming brought it back into the repertory); Tatiana in “Eugene Onegin”; and the Marschallin.
She has been so affecting in these last two that you begin to suspect some deep personal connection to the parts: the shy, spurned lover who never gets over her youthful passion, and the aging mistress. Ms. Fleming has said that it’s unlikely she will ever be poisoned or strangled to death in real life (or become a Rusalka-like mermaid, for that matter) but that “playing out the Marschallin’s grief, her fears and finally, her heartbreaking dignity — those are the moments when I feel most exposed.”
If Ms. Fleming has a model besides Leontyne Price, it’s surely Beverly Sills. Her popularity, at its peak even greater than Ms. Fleming’s, was based on the same formula — humble roots, hard work, unaffected approachability, the kind of voice you didn’t need to know a thing about opera to love — and after her retirement from the stage, she went on to become a hugely influential arts administrator and cultural ambassador. As comfortable sitting on panels as standing onstage, Ms. Fleming has lobbied for arts education in schools and is collaborating with the National Institutes of Health on a project to study the effects of music on the brains of people with autism, Alzheimer’s disease, Parkinson’s disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.
Her creative consultancy with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, originally intended as a sort of open-ended experiment that might bring Ms. Fleming to that city more often, has grown into something far deeper. The company’s well-received 2015 premiere production of “Bel Canto,” based on Ms. Patchett’s novel, came about mostly through her energy and determination: She proposed the project and then, acting more like an impresario than a diva, lined up all the talent, at one point bringing in a spreadsheet listing some 60 possible composers. (The Peruvian composer Jimmy López eventually got the nod, and the playwright Nilo Cruz wrote the libretto.) She has worked on audience development efforts and has encouraged the company to leaven its operatic offerings with classic musicals. Every couple of months, she spends a week or so in Chicago, attending meetings and giving master classes.
Early in February, she was the host of a two-day event called Chicago Voices, which included classes for young singers on social media, self-promotion and marketing. Ms. Fleming taught a session to a group of aspiring high school students, not just encouraging them but also bending over volunteers and squeezing their backs to improve their breathing. Afterward, she presided over a panel discussion, delving into details about the larynx, the importance of hydration and perhaps more about the vocal mucosa than nonsingers really need to know.
A little more than 24 hours later, as if to prove the soundness of her theories and her own breathing apparatus, Ms. Fleming took part in a big concert celebrating Chicago singing in all its variety. She was the only one on the bill without roots in the city, and also — because this is what opera stars do — the only one to appear in three different outfits. She sang a Debussy art song, a full-throated operatic version of “Summertime,” a Sarah Vaughn jazz tune in a duet with Kurt Elling, and, with John Prine, a gently twanging version of the Nashville song “(We’re Not) the Jet Set.”
That Ms. Fleming sang more than any of the other performers doubtless had something to do with the fact that she was the organizer and headliner. But unlike a lot of singers, she also has the range to perform in that many styles. She can sing practically anything, and in about six languages — not just opera and art songs, but jazz, pop and standards. Her 2010 rock album, “Dark Hope,” including songs by indie bands like Arcade Fire and Death Cab for Cutie, was an experiment that pleased almost no one. The indie crowd resented her poaching on their turf, while Ms. Fleming’s opera fans complained that, singing more huskily and about two octaves lower than usual, she sounded so little like herself that they couldn’t recognize her.
But the album has a certain oddball integrity, and, if nothing else, demonstrated Ms. Fleming’s fearlessness. Her very eclectic most recent record, “Distant Light,” which came out in January, includes Samuel Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” a lovely old chestnut with a text by James Agee; some arty Anders Hillborg settings of poems by Mark Strand, who was a friend of Ms. Fleming’s; and three Björk songs. These last numbers might be thought an odd choice for an opera singer, but Ms. Fleming pointed out that even her mother, the former music teacher, loves Björk: “She’s so creative, like Lady Gaga even before Lady Gaga.”
Ms. Fleming doesn’t have much interest in becoming a figure like Adelina Patti, the hugely popular 19th- and early-20th-century opera star who went around, like Cher, giving farewell concerts for 20 years after she “retired.” What she wants is to keep on singing, a reasonable amount for a reasonable amount of time, and to be a part of whatever happens next. While the prognosis is not particularly good for the grand-opera landscape she dominated, she sounded determined and upbeat about the future. On several occasions, she has brought up her fascination with “American Idol,” which she used to watch with her daughter, and said that she wished opera singers were among the contestants.
“I feel like we’ve been left out of the conversation, and we have a lot to offer technically,” she said recently. “I guess it’s the ivory tower and all that, but I’m trying to open the door again. I think my contribution now is to think about audience development, about supporting young artists, and the development of the art form.”
She isn’t temperamentally inclined to share her regrets, but on the eve of her farewell she offered a few. “I would have loved to have sung a lot of the heavier repertoire,” she said. “I once had a manager who said ‘You’re never going to make it otherwise.’ Mimì, Butterfly, Tosca, Salome, Elektra: It would have been exciting, but it simply wasn’t for my voice.”
After pausing a moment, she quickly changed the subject to her work at the Lyric Opera. “That opportunity came as a shock, sort of, seven years ago, when the last thing I was thinking about was slowing down,” she said. “Right now I feel like I’m doing everything — singing, concertizing, touring, creating new work. I just kind of love doing all these different things. Time will tell. I may never choose to focus more.” —Charles McGrath, The New York Times Arts, April 5, 2017