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Saying farewell to some opera roles, Renée Fleming has career high notes ahead of her

May 10, 2017 at 6:20 PM EDT
Despite reports that renowned soprano Renée Fleming is taking a bow from singing, this diva is not departing. Fleming, 58, plans to perform in concerts on stages around the world, and to take roles offstage as well. Fleming joins Jeffrey Brown at the Metropolitan Opera to discuss what’s next for her.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: And, finally, a little change of pace.

Opera lovers let out a collective gasp recently when a New York Times profile of renowned soprano Renee Fleming suggested her current engagement at the Metropolitan Opera would mark the end of her storied career.

But hold on. As she recently told Jeffrey Brown at the Met, there’s plenty of singing and much more to be done.

JEFFREY BROWN: It is perhaps Renee Fleming’s most renowned role, the Marschallin, a beautiful, but aging noblewoman who loves and loses a much younger man in Richard Strauss opera “Der Rosenkavalier.”

RENEE FLEMING, Opera Singer, “Der Rosenkavalier”: This has been my home since 1992.

JEFFREY BROWN: It’s a pretty good place to make your home.

RENEE FLEMING: People ask me — well, when people said, where do you like to sing the most, I always said the Met, because it was my home.

JEFFREY BROWN: This may be the last time Renee Fleming sings this opera, after some 70 performances over more than two decades.

But let’s make one thing clear: This diva is not departing.

RENEE FLEMING: No, no, no, no. That’s a very exciting headline, and certainly I’m saying goodbye to the Marschallin and “Der Rosenkavalier” and to the bulk of the repertoire that I have sung at the Met. So that’s already a sad farewell, and a timely one.

But it doesn’t really change my schedule very much. I’m in great voice. I’m a lifelong, gregarious experiencer of new things.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now 58 and the mother of two adult daughters, Fleming will continue to perform in concerts on stages around the world. And she’s eager to work with composers writing new works, including one by Kevin Puts with words drawn from letters of artists Georgia O’Keeffe.

She’s even stepping onto a new stage this fall, making her Broadway musical debut in “Carousel,” which she sang for President Obama’s first inauguration.

But she’s also taken on new off-stage roles, including as creative consultant to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and to Polyphony, a group bringing together Jewish and Arab children in Israel through music.

And she’s participating in a project with the National Institutes of Health and the Kennedy Center to study the influence of music on the brain.

RENEE FLEMING: When you start out, the ambition is powerful, and it’s a driving force, and you have a lot to accomplish to get there, just to get to the top.

And, at this point, I think it’s a really wonderful place to begin to think about, OK, what do I want to do now? How do I want to spend my time?

JEFFREY BROWN: The daughter of two music teachers in Rochester, New York, Fleming first gained attention in the late 1980s, and then widespread fame in the ’90s, performing a variety of roles in leading opera houses around the world.

She also became the rare classical singer to crossover into popular culture, singing David Letterman’s Top 10 list, performing the national anthem at Super Bowl XLVIII, and, of course, serving as host for PBS’ “Great Performances.”

RENEE FLEMING: Welcome to our premiere performance.

JEFFREY BROWN: Age, she told me, does bring changes. One is the dearth of roles for her voice in the opera repertoire.

RENEE FLEMING: I’m a lyric soprano. They’re young women. They’re sort of between the ages of 17 and 25. And so even if my voice can still sing these roles really well, which some of them I can still sing, it’s sort of, it doesn’t really make sense in the day of HD broadcasts, in the day of people really expecting a visual experience as well.

JEFFREY BROWN: What happens to your voice as you get older?

RENEE FLEMING: You don’t have the resilience, the physical resilience. So, if I sing a big performance, I don’t want to do it again the next day.

It’s like we are the weight lifters of singers, and so that’s…

JEFFREY BROWN: The weight lifters means?

RENEE FLEMING: We are, because it’s power singing.

Imagine, 4,000 seats, an orchestra and a chorus, and we have to be heard over that, no amplification. When you’re young, you can keep doing it and doing it and doing it.

JEFFREY BROWN: So, part of it is just the sheer physicality of …

RENEE FLEMING: Absolutely, the power. Exactly.

JEFFREY BROWN: She’s experimented with different kinds of music, making a rock album, “Dark Hope.” And she’s curated festivals celebrating the diversity of American voices.

RENEE FLEMING: I am a fanatical singer. I love anything about singing.

So, “American Voices” was to bring together all these different genre and show what we have in common and how we’re different, and also to share amongst each other what the issues were in our own — for the business, you know. What do we need? How are we being supported?

They gave this costume to me, actually. I love it. It’s beautiful, and also suggests the authority and power that the Marschallin has as a royal.

JEFFREY BROWN: So many projects, so much presence. So, it was striking to hear, as she showed me costumes from “Der Rosenkavalier,” how several bouts with stage fright almost derailed her career.

RENEE FLEMING: That same voice that drives you to achieve and to get better is also sometimes telling you, you’re not good enough.

JEFFREY BROWN: Those kind of doubts.

RENEE FLEMING: If you don’t feel that you can do it, or you feel that people are judging you too harshly, it can quickly spiral into a situation where you don’t want to be on stage at all.

JEFFREY BROWN: And now, when I watch you, you don’t feel that anymore, do you?

RENEE FLEMING: I love it. I love it. I love it, because getting through that the last time, I just said, no, I am grateful to be here.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now Renee Fleming says she wants to use her celebrity to impart lessons she’s learned, including the value of the arts for all Americans.

As we looked at portraits of some of the Met’s greatest stars, including Fleming herself, she showed me a photo a fan had given her of the would-be diva in a seventh grade theater production.

RENEE FLEMING: And this was my first musical. This was Eliza Doolittle in “My Fair Lady.”

JEFFREY BROWN: Do you remember that girl?

RENEE FLEMING: Yes, yes, and partly because she looks so much like one of my daughters. That’s a bit — sort of a shock.

It’s interesting, because I can see the shyness there and that need to sort of somehow get out of myself. And I think performance was a way of doing that.

JEFFREY BROWN: One last performance in this role, with many more to come.

For the PBS NewsHour, I’m Jeffrey Brown at the Metropolitan Opera.

JUDY WOODRUFF: And she’s amazing.

And coming soon for Renee Fleming, she will be the singing voice of actress Julianne Moore in a film version of the novel “Bel Canto.”

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