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
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.”
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.”