Renee Flem­ing: In­ter­na­tional opera diva with a sin­gu­lar ca­reer based on per­sonal choices

Amer­i­can so­prano to take the stage at the Athens Con­cert Hall on Satur­day, May 14

Kathimerini English - - Life - BY NIKOS A. DON­TAS

Renee Flem­ing is a spe­cial case in the world of opera. To be­gin with, she has all char­ac­ter­is­tics of an old-school diva: glam­our, lux­u­ri­ous gowns, gala ap­pear­ances, awards, a dessert cre­ated in her honor by a top pas­try chef, not to men­tion a flower, an iris, which bears her name. The one thing she doesn’t have, how­ever, is the reper­toire. She didn’t be­come fa­mous for her Tosca, her Lu­cia or her Vi­o­letta in “La Travi­ata.” She has ap­peared in Puc­cini op­eras twice – and that was early on in her ca­reer – while there are no more than three Verdi works in her reper­tory.

The Amer­i­can so­prano, who will ap­pear at the Athens Con­cert Hall this Satur­day, man­aged to reach the top by in­ter­pret­ing – and by im­pos­ing – rarely per­formed works. She be­came fa­mous, and still is, for her take on Han­del’s “Al­cina,” Rossini’s “Ar­mida,” Dvorak’s “Rusalka” and Massenet’s “Thais.”

“My choice of works is very per­sonal,” the artist told Kathimerini. “I’m aware of the fact that my reper­toire is un­usual, but that does not mean it’s small in size: So far I have taken on 51 roles. I choose things de­pend­ing on whether they suit my voice, whether I like the mu­sic, the story, the char­ac­ter and the over­all mood. There are plenty of dif­fer­ent fac­tors which ul­ti­mately lead me to pick an opera.”

The ques­tion, how­ever, re­mains. Does Flem­ing con­sciously avoid the pop­u­lar roles, the ones which her col­leagues have built their ca­reers upon?

“Ev­ery­thing I do, I do con­sciously,” she said. “I’m very care­ful with my choices. A lot of peo­ple dis­agree with me; they say I should be singing more well-known Ital­ian op­eras. This is my ca­reer we are talk­ing about, how­ever, and I plan on car­ry­ing on do­ing what I en­joy and what suits me.”

Broad range

And there’s an­other thing: At a time when the ma­jor­ity of her col­leagues are af­ter spe­cial­iza­tion, Flem­ing is per­fectly com­fort­able mov­ing in be­tween mu­sic gen­res. In Paris she per­forms baroque op­eras ac­com­pa­nied by pe­riod in­stru­ment en­sem­bles, for in­stance, while in Bayreuth she takes the lead in Wagner works. She goes from French ro­man­tic op­eras to con­tem­po­rary Amer­i­can op­eras while also tak­ing on works by Gioachino Rossini and Olivier Mes­si­aen.

“I’m not the only one who doesn’t spe­cial­ize,” said Flem­ing. “Take Placido Domingo, for ex­am­ple. He sings ab­so­lutely ev­ery­thing, his reper­tory is much broader than mine. I’m look­ing for a chal­lenge, and it’s hard for this to hap­pen when you nar­row it down. I wouldn’t say I get bored ei­ther, be­cause I also en­joy re­turn­ing to works again and again and go­ing deeper into them. What I’m af­ter is al­ways work­ing on some­thing new; I en­joy ex­plor­ing new ground. That is why I have in­ter­preted so many works which were not widely known.”

This is ev­i­dent in her most re­cent record­ing, an al­bum which fea­tures verismo works, com­po­si­tions by rep­re­sen­ta­tives of Ital­ian mu­sic re­al­ism, in­clud­ing Pi­etro Mascagni, Rug­gero Leon­cav­allo and Gi­a­como Puc­cini. Nev­er­the­less, it is hard to imag­ine Flem­ing, the diva, tak­ing on the role of a poor coun­try­woman or a seam­stress, which is what the ma­jor­ity of the heroines of these op­eras rep­re­sent. So the ques­tion arises: Why did she turn to these works?

“I was drawn to them by the beau­ti­ful mu­sic,” she said. “I don’t sing Puc­cini op­eras on stage and I doubt I ever will. How­ever, I did en­joy the op­por­tu­nity to ex­plore this reper­toire and dis­cover beau­ti­ful roles, as well as lesser-known works which de­served to be re­vived.”

Flem­ing has a clear point of view re- gard­ing what suits her voice and her acting tal­ents.

“I’m not con­ser­va­tive. Es­pe­cially when it comes to the­ater, I en­joy watch­ing con­tem­po­rary pro­duc­tions, even more ex­treme stag­ings. That doesn’t mean, how­ever, that I wish to ap­pear in them,” she said.

The 52-year-old artist has re­duced her ap­pear­ances con­sid­er­ably to about two stage pro­duc­tions per year, but con­tin­ues to travel around the world for con­certs, dis­play­ing the same kind of ease in Euro­pean and Amer­i­can the­aters.

“New York’s pub­lic is no dif­fer­ent from that of Europe,” she noted. “It is knowl­edge­able in terms of mu­sic and aware of what it’s lis­ten­ing to. In some re­gional US the­aters, au­di­ences tend to be more open and grate­ful. The same is true in Europe when you ven­ture be­yond the ma­jor cities. I would say that in gen­eral, Euro­pean and Amer­i­can au­di­ences are sim­i­lar. There is a dif­fer­ence, how­ever, in terms of the reper­tory. When it comes to lesser-known op­eras which I en­joy, it is eas­ier to find an au­di­ence in Europe than it is in the United States.”

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