Diva in Demand: Soprano Renee Fleming

October 13, 1999 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Now, the life and career of a top opera soprano. Spencer Michels begins our story.


SPENCER MICHELS: Renée Fleming has become one of the world’s most sought-after soprano’s. At the San Francisco Opera, she recently perform the title role in a new production of “Louise” by French Composer Gustave Charpentier. It’s a 100-year-old work, whose highlight is Fleming’s solo, “Depuis le Jour.” (Singing opera). The critic for the San Francisco Chronicle called Fleming’s performance “heartfelt and heavenly.” (Fleming singing) Fleming is praised regularly for her warm, seamless lyric soprano voice sometimes described as creamy silver. She is often called the diva without a diva’s temperament, easy to work with, funny, and warm.

SPENCER MICHELS: She balances her demanding role as an international opera star with her duties as a recently separated single mother of two young daughters. Fleming says she was a shoo-in for a musical career, since both her parents were music teachers who pushed her to perform as a child. She grew up talking music at the dinner table every night in Rochester, New York, and sang a lot of jazz while attending college. She still listens to jazz, and recently recorded some tunes by Duke Ellington.

RENÉE FLEMING: (singing jazz) .. Pay no attention…

SPENCER MICHELS: But it is the world of opera, with its passionate fans and harsh critics who grade her every note, where Renée Fleming shines. (Singing opera) Last season, in San Francisco, she played Blanche DuBois in Andre Previn’s new opera, “Streetcar Named Desire,” a performance shown on public television.

RENÉE FLEMING: (singing) I can smell the sea air….

SPENCER MICHELS: Fleming hopes to take “Streetcar” to the Metropolitan Operation in New York, where last year she performed in Mozart’s “Marriage of Figaro.” That performance will be shown on PBS stations this winter. Her popularity is high. She and a mezzo Cecilia Bartoli are ranked as the top-selling soprano CD artists in the world.

RENÉE FLEMING: How are you?

SPENCER MICHELS: At this autograph session, adoring fans bought her new best-selling CD in which she sings heroines in operas by Ricard Strauss.

MAN: I was on such a cloud for so long, the next day they were still trying to pull me down.

RENÉE FLEMING: Good. Where did you come from?

MAN: Kansas city.

RENÉE FLEMING: Oh, my goodness. We’re not in Kansas anymore.

WOMAN: Her voice is incredible. What she does is she floats her high notes, and that’s very different from a lot of the sopranos which really hit it strong just to show that they can, you know, pull off that high note.

ANOTHER MAN: My last days on earth, I want to have her standing over my deathbed singing an aria for me. That would be a happy way to die.

SPENCER MICHELS: Fleming won a Grammy Award this year for her CD, “The Beautiful Voice” and has won numerous other prizes. After leaving San Francisco, Fleming performs in Chicago, Rochester, Quebec, and at a New Year’s Eve gala at the Met in New York.

JIM LEHRER: And Elizabeth Farnsworth talked with Renée Fleming recently at San Francisco’s War Memorial Opera House.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Renée Fleming, thank you very much for being with us.

RENÉE FLEMING: My pleasure.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Let’s start with “Depuis Le Jour”, the aria from “Louise.” The day I saw you perform, the audience loved this aria. There were many, many bravos, much applause. They were very enthusiastic. What were you trying to achieve with it, and what were the key difficulties that you faced?

RENÉE FLEMING: The aria is so beautiful and so sensual, it’s the only set piece in the entire opera. No other character has an aria. So, in a way there’s a lot of pressure, because that’s the moment a lot of people in the audience are familiar with and the one they’re waiting for. It’s a quite difficult aria, as well.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Tell me specifically, why is it difficult?

RENÉE FLEMING: Well, vocally speaking, it has a very high tessatoro, and the tessatoro is – that’s an Italian word which means where it lies, which you would say where the average range of the piece is. It sets up there, and then there are these pianissimi, which is – you know, all of the things that are risk-taking in opera are the things that’s most exciting. It’s the tenor’s high C, it’s the soprano’s high C, it’s the high soft note. These are the things that make opera thrilling, that make the human voice thrilling to hear under these circumstances.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can you tell us specifically something about it that you really had to work hard to perfect?

RENÉE FLEMING: Well, maintaining that range comfortably is difficult, and I have to say is not an easy approach. It’s got a big, wonderful, long high note that everybody waits for at the end. (Fleming singing opera) Part of the problem is it’s very exposed, and, you know, singing exposed means that there’s not a lot of accompaniment. You’re basically out on your own. It’s a very naked feeling because you think, wow, if I crack, you know, if the tone isn’t right or the pitch isn’t right, everyone will hear it. And of course, the problem… the difficulty in opera is that everyone in the audience has performances of the last 100 years in their ears that they’re comparing this with. I’m being compared with 20 other sopranos who’ve sung this role, unlike a pop singer that can come up with original material and not be compared to anybody.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: It’s really like baseball…I was thinking about this as I watched the opera…in that baseball players are there with all this history behind them. And they remember when a shortstop played this, this way. It’s a little like baseball.

RENÉE FLEMING: Exactly this same thing. We’re doing the same moves. It’s the same high note. Everyone’s memory, of course, is extraordinarily generous to the past. And I think that’s human nature, too, the golden ages. There have been phenomenal singers.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: You’ve said you don’t consider yourself “one of those singers blessed with a natural technique.” What did you mean and how did you get so good if you didn’t have a natural technique?

RENÉE FLEMING: Well, what it means… I had a phenomenal upbringing musically speaking, because my parents were both high school vocal music teachers, and as a result, I performed a lot at a very early age. And what happened to me then in my late teens was that I was singing with a very mature sound, too mature perhaps for my age. So I had to unlearn and relearn a lot of things that I had been doing basically naturally. And I couldn’t, for instance, sing high naturally. I couldn’t even sing above the staff. I had to learn it. I couldn’t sing soft. I couldn’t sing with ease. I had a lot of tension. So I’m very lucky. I’m grateful for this. In retrospect, at the time…

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Stop for a minute. What did you have to do to learn, what did you have to do to the muscles in your voice to do that? I think that’s what people don’t understand and I certainly don’t.

RENÉE FLEMING: Well, we barely understand it. The reason why is the muscles we use too sing are all involuntary. So everything we learn about singing has to do with imagery — things that it’s… sing so that you’re singing low when you’re actually singing high — think that you’re driving the sound to the back of the house — no, not driving, leading the sound to the back of the house. It’s so much about imagery and about… it can be supported by physiology, but it’s an extraordinarily intangible thing.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Because you’re actually forcing these muscles to do things that they wouldn’t naturally do, is that’s that what’s happening?

RENÉE FLEMING: I think singing it when it’s done well is extremely natural. It feels great. I think singing is one of the most natural things that human beings do, but it’s difficult. What we’re doing is so cultivated, it’s such a sophisticated form of singing, we have to be able to sing for three hours without amplification. We are now the only singers in the world in — certainly in the western world — who perform without amplification. I wish people would remember that. We are the power lifters, I think, of singing. We have to have enormous strength, enormous stamina…three hours long without a microphone. Give me any of the pop divas, and I will tell you they’ll have hard time with that. It’s difficult.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Is harming your voice an ever-present danger, and how the do you keep from harming your voice?

RENÉE FLEMING: It is one of the largest fears that we live with, because there are so many singers who are enormous stars one day and they disappear the next, and their voices are gone, seemingly irreparably, and nobody really knows why. It’s a mystery. And even now we can only guess. Maria Callas is the most famous example of great singer, perhaps – and some say — the greatest singer of the century, who had a phenomenal career one day and really practically overnight at a very young age, her voice went into decline. And some people say it was because she lost so much weight so quickly. Some people say it was because of her emotional distress. It was because perhaps that she… her technique wasn’t balanced enough to deal with both of those other issues at the same time. And we only guess. We can only guess. It’s not like a tennis player who has tendonitis and can go be treated by a doctor.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Can you show us something here that will help us understand, for example, how you protect your voice, what kind of exercises you do?

RENÉE FLEMING: Well, any time I’m preparing for a performance or even a rehearsal, it’s as if in a way, like any other athletes, these are muscles that support the vocal cords which are just I believe cartilage. It demands a kind of constant warming up and a constant feeling of where is the voice today. For instance, I might start with a lot of scales. And I’ll do these on different vowels and try to get the tongue warmed up and the jaw and get everything going. And then this whole thing which allows me to have dynamic control — and all of these things are based on kind of an Italian school of school. It’s where the voice starts very softly and gets bigger and gets soft again. (singing) We do all kinds of crazy things. People would listen. I mean, some of them you sound like a siren, you know. (singing) It’s just to kind of get everything lined up. It’s a very internal kind of process. You have to feel your way. Every day is different. The body is different every day. But it’s enormously intuitive along with the training that you have in order to keep your vocal health. And it’s kind of precarious.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Speaking of the pressures, how do you have a family life and perform the schedule you’re performing? You’re very busy, you’ve said that you’re booked for what, five years?


ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: How do you manage to have a normal life at the same time?

RENÉE FLEMING: Well, the biggest challenge is really the balance issue. When you say five years, we’re literally scheduling performances for me – we’re thinking in terms of 2004. It’s difficult. I mean, if you can imagine trying to figure out what it is you’ll be doing on a day five or six years in advance — it’s a skill that I certainly haven’t acquired yet. It’s a work in progress. And you now, as far as the family goes, it’s worked out phenomenally in the past because my daughters have been on the road with me since the beginning, and because I mainly sang opera and we had the opportunity to make a home for six weeks in whatever city I was in, we were very comfortable with that. Now of course that they’re in school, it’s a challenge.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And what about this issue, so many people say you’re very nice for a diva, that you’re very easy to get along with. Is this something you’ve had to work on? Did you work on it because divas have in the past had reputations for being difficult?

RENÉE FLEMING: You know, it’s funny because that’s something that a lot of people expect from an opera singer. And all I can say is I am the person I am. I have not changed with the accomplishments. I’ve remained the same. If I had changed, great. You know, but I haven’t. And I really think that a diva is on the stage. And Lee Jean Price said to me recently, and I love her, and I admire her singing so much – she said, “This is diva.” And she said, “Diva is what’s in your throat and what it does to people in the audience. If they’re moved by it, then you’re a diva.”

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: And finally, is the jazz singing that you do, whatever opera singing, non-opera singing you do, is it a relief? Is it a way to break some of the tension?

RENÉE FLEMING: Oh, yes! You know, it’s my hobby. Call me a dilatant. I love jazz. I love it as an art form. I think it’s underrated in this country. It’s our music. It belongs to Americans. Unlike most of the Western European music I sing. And I just adore it. I listen to it all the time. I’m very excited to be cooking up a terrific jazz project so people can hear that side of what I do, as well.

ELIZABETH FARNSWORTH: Well, Renée Fleming, thanks for being with us.