Recital preview

Renee Fleming stretches repertoire


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Until a couple of weeks ago, no opera singer had ever performed the national anthem at the Super Bowl. Soprano Renee Fleming -- or as the announcer called her, "Grammy Award winner and soprano superstar" -- changed that with an MVP-worthy performance at MetLife Stadium Feb. 2. The Indiana, Pa., native is one of the most recognizable opera singers of her time. Her illustrious career has brought her to the world's top opera houses, not to mention a National Medal of Arts and countless other accolades. She will take a slightly smaller stage at 8 tonight in a piano recital at Carnegie Music Hall, singing works by Mozart, Handel, Dvorak, Smetana, Canteloube, Wagner, Rodgers and Hammerstein and more.

Ms. Fleming spoke by phone on Friday. Following is an edited transcript of that interview.

Renee Fleming
Presented by: Pittsburgh Opera.
Where: Carnegie Music Hall, Oakland.
When: 8 tonight.
Tickets: $40-$150; www.pittsburghoopera.org or 412-456-6666.

First of all, I've got to ask about the Super Bowl. Where does that rank in terms of your all-time performance experiences?

Well, there are different types of performance experiences, but this is definitely the biggest, by far, and it will remain the biggest. There's no comparable audience for anything that we do, or anything anybody can do, frankly, except the World Cup. That's the only one.

Was that your first time performing in a stadium?

No, I opened the [Washington, D.C.] Nationals' first game singing the national anthem. I also sang the national anthem for a World Series event, and I've had big television audiences before -- the Obama inaugural gala and the Queen's Jubilee, and even the last night at the [BBC] Proms has a huge audience, but it's small compared to this.

You're known for your diligent preparation and technique, so how is preparing for something like the Super Bowl different? It's live, miked, comparably very short and in front of millions and millions of people.

Well, you just listed a lot of the main differences, but add to that that everybody knows the national anthem and has a strong emotional connection to it and also feelings about how it should go. And the other thing that was clear to me once we started researching the whole thing is that if you do mess it up or if something goes wrong, it stays with you for life.

So I felt a tremendous responsibility not only to the people who care about it -- people who are in service, people who are patriotic or, frankly, most Americans -- but also for classical music, because they had this opportunity for the first time. You want to really to make sure that nobody says after the fact, "Well, that was a mistake." And frankly, the response was a thousand times more positive than I had even hoped for. It's been really wonderful.

How did you select your repertoire for this Pittsburgh recital?

The title is "Guilty Pleasures," the CD that came out [in September]. I really planned [it] to be a lot of repertoire that's beautiful that I could build programs on. So that's what I've done here, is to try and create a program that's really entertaining, with all very beautiful music, and something that expresses kind of the breadth of what I do. It's three centuries of music ... everything from Baroque and Mozart to Rodgers and Hammerstein.

You'll be singing in several languages, and none are Italian. It seems like there's this shift from the recitals of old. What would you say has changed about vocal recitals during your career?

For a piano recital, Italian is not something you find so much. It's a mainstay of opera, and certainly mainstream opera, but I would say for a piano recital, the mainstay is German lieder, and some French, some English. That's the typical profile.

I'm starting to program outside of the norm and add music theater and add more popular music. I mean, "Guilty Pleasures" has eight languages on it. When I started singing, nobody was singing in Czech and Russian -- American [singers] I'm talking about. But now, language is not a barrier. ... I love poetry, I love song literature, and I also program opera on a recital now, and musical theater, for sure.

So you're returning to Western Pennsylvania. Is there something you always do when you come back here? You have relatives here, is that right?

Yeah, I do, and I have more relatives there now, because I married a guy who was actually born in Pittsburgh. So, I have an expanded family in Pittsburgh, and it's a lot of fun to come back. I really enjoy it.

What are you working on now?

There are a couple of things I'm working on now that are interesting. One is the "American Voices" that I produced at the Kennedy Center. It's a celebration of singing of all genre and the series of master classes that we did over a weekend. I'm so excited about the way it's coming together, because there's never been more interest in singing in the world than there is right now.

I mean, every country I tour has some version of a competition on television. ... People get showmanship by watching, they learn how to perform by watching, but they don't learn how to sing by watching, very easily. Some people have natural ability that carries them along, but for people who don't and want to learn, there's not a lot out there for them. So that was really fun.

The other thing I'm working on right now is a Christmas record coming out this season, I think. And "Bel Canto" is coming along, Ann Patchett's book that's being turned into an opera at Chicago Lyric. So, really, this is such a busy time. And two things were announced in the last week. I'm doing a play at the Williamstown Theater Festival and a new production of "The Merry Widow" at the Met next season. So both of those are really going to be a lot of fun, I think.

I was going to ask you about "The Merry Widow." Hanna Glawari is a new role for you. What will that require in terms of preparation?

I guess it's in English -- I need to figure that out. Sometimes they do the dialogue in English but the singing is in German. In opera, we show up at the first rehearsal knowing our parts because rehearsals are not as extended as they would be for a play.

It's been 10 years since you wrote your book, "The Inner Voice." Have your ideas about singing or your technique changed at all since you wrote that?

Oh, I'm so glad you asked me that question. Nobody ever asks about that. It has changed dramatically because my sister got her doctorate in vocal pedagogy, and she said, "Renee, I hate to tell you this, but the whole science of the voice has drastically changed." ... So I'm now having fun, because I'm in this wonderful period of learning about all of the developments having to do with science.

So give me an example. What have you found that's been more scientifically informed?

Well, when I was studying, teaching voice was based on tradition. And because the whole mechanism is internal, there was really no way historically of figuring out how the voice worked other than by trial and error. So there were great teachers and this was a tradition that was passed down. And, by the way, it worked.

But now, for instance, when I produced "American Voices," I had Dr. Steven Zeitels come and talk about his work. He's best known for operating on Steven Tyler and Adele. It was really exciting having him come and talk about surgery and how he's developing ... ways of treating vocal damage and regeneration techniques -- what people are doing for people in terms of aging. So it's a whole new world, and it's very exciting at this time in my career to be exploring that.


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