Opera singer Renée Fleming

Originally aired on May 20, 2014
Guest interviews are usually available online within 24 hours of broadcast.

The versatile soprano reflects on her career and discusses her role in A Streetcar Named Desire, which she’s played at Carnegie Hall and in Los Angeles.

Known as "the people's diva," Renée Fleming has embraced a wide variety of works throughout her career and performed at the world's leading opera houses and concert halls. She's also recorded contemporary pop songs, jazz and film soundtracks. She was the first woman in the 125-year history of the Metropolitan Opera to solo headline an opening night gala and gained a new audience when making history as the first classical artist to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. The daughter of two music teachers, Fleming studied at Juilliard, is a Fulbright Scholar and has a degree in music education. Among her numerous awards are four Grammys and a National Medal of Arts.


Tavis: Four-time Grammy winner Renée Fleming has performed at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, Lincoln Center, the Royal Opera House in London, on “Sesame Street.” (Laughter) Her lyric soprano is considered one of the finest in the world.

Right now she is performing in the L.A. Opera’s production of “A Streetcar Named Desire,” based, of course, on the Tennessee Williams play, singing the role of Blanche DuBois, which was written for her by composer Andre Previn.

Let’s take a look at Ms. Fleming singing an aria titled, “I Can Smell the Sea Air.”

[Film clip of live opera performance]

Tavis: You have done everything with everybody at least twice, I think, in the world, and yet I can’t imagine what it feels like to have a piece written for you by Andre Previn. This is specifically, Renée Fleming, for you.

Renée Fleming: It’s incredibly exciting, because typically we sing, in classical music, we’re presenting works by composers who are no longer with us, and we’re trying to fit into a template created by someone else.

So when it’s for you and you’re the template, there’s such freedom, because I could say, “Andre, it would be a better fit if I had a high note there,” if you let me do this glamorous thing.

Oh, what a joy, because you just walk on stage, it’s like stepping into a suit that fits you perfectly.

Tavis: What is, to your point, what is the joy of being able to work collaboratively like that because the piece is written for you?

Fleming: Well it’s specifically, he’ll come up with an idea, and I’ve done this with a couple of composers. They’ll listen to my recordings or I’ll work with them and they’ll say, “Gosh, I like this part of your voice, so let’s focus on that.”

I was able to say to Andre, for instance, “I tour a lot. Could I have an aria?” Just so that I could take it with me. So he gave me five. (Laughter) I just talked to him yesterday, actually, and he has a new piece in mind for me as well. So this is, it’s creative. It’s totally creative.

Tavis: Have you already figured out how you’re going to fit this into the show, your show, as you travel?

Fleming: Oh, I actually do these arias all the time and have – we premiered this a long time ago, and so I’ve been singing it ever since. Now young singers are performing it.

It’s been a successful piece, it’s had about 24 different runs, and I’ve been in five of them.

Tavis: Your voice works well in this play why?

Fleming: Tennessee Williams’ plays are all operas, I think. They’re so dramatic, and the drama is, the emotional content, it so extreme in many of them, and the stories are really rich.

So it lends itself well to opera. Blanche Dubois is so complicated and a fascinating person, and someone you want to – somebody said last night, “We wanted to rescue her from the story, from the place.”

On the other hand, she’s not completely sympathetic either. So to sing her, in a way, gives her more range. The music heightens the drama. So I think the piece works extremely well with music. A lot of his plays could be set easily to music.

Tavis: I want to explore that a little bit more, because I had never thought about that. I want to talk, of course, about Tennessee Williams, and so I’m glad you took me in that direction.

But I never thought of his work as operatic, and I guess as I think about it, it makes sense.

Fleming: Yeah. “Rose Tattoo,” “Night of the Iguana,” all of these pieces would be great operas, and some other ones have. “Summer in Smoke” has been made into an opera; some of the other ones have been already set.

But this one is, it works so well, and this production works well also. And we have the great Stanley shouting “Stella.” Andre was smart not to try to have him sing that.

Tavis: Right. (Laughter) Tennessee Williams is, there are many who believe that he’s absolutely the best, that it’s hard to top his work.

Fleming: Well, and I think the tragedy with him too is that he had so much success so early and so young, and then you had this sort of going out of fashion piece and struggle then after that. It’s a shame, because he’s one of our greatest playwrights ever.

Tavis: Yeah. The exact opposite of that is the fact that you have had this long and enduring career where you’ve had a chance to do a variety of things. What is it about you that always finds you wanting to try and do something different?

Fleming: (Laughs) That’s it.

Tavis: You’re always pushing the boundaries.

Fleming: Yeah, that’s true. I’m very musically curious and I love new experience. I’m an adventurer. Some people want to sort of stay in a safe zone and repeat the same things and give them more depth, and I want to do new things all the time.

So one of the – I also think because I grew up with very eclectic interests and tastes in music from pop to jazz, and wanted to explore that – music theater, and that’s a particularly American thing as well, at least in my generation.

I didn’t want to really be pushed into a ’50s Italian template of what an opera singer is.

It wasn’t even a good fit for me vocally, which is why Blanche is my “Tosca” or my “Madame Butterfly.” I can’t sing those roles, so this is my chance to be dramatic.

But I love the voice. Everything there is about the voice. I did a project at the Kennedy Center that will be on PBS this year called “American Voices” that explores what we have in common, we as opera singers, with all genres of singers.

We all came together and talked about it, from medicine to business to vocal technique to lifestyle issues and what our challenges are. Loved that, learned from it, learned a lot from it.

I’m doing a holiday disc right now I just recorded with Winton and some fabulous other performers of holiday tunes, but non-classical. So another style of singing.

Tavis: Since you mentioned Wynton, Wynton and I have had many, many all-night conversations about this very issue, which is this notion of particular genres wanting to box artists in.

I suspect you and Wynton have had this conversation, I’m sure, yourselves, about this notion of purist in a particular field.

Fleming: Yes.

Tavis: They could be jazz purists, they could be opera purists, but they want to oftentimes box in certain artists. Even critics will come after you for moving beyond the boundaries of what they deem appropriate choices musically.

You, though, seem to be one of those artists who’ve been able to kind of navigate that minefield relatively well. What do you make of how you’ve been able to do that and not have just disdain you for (laughter) trying so many different things.

Fleming: I think it’s changing. When I even a decade ago, you did it very carefully and there was tremendous risk associated. But everything is generational. We’ve seen changes happening so quickly in life, and with each ensuing generation something new is possible.

I’m finding younger performers have thrown all those rules away. They’re in a club with leather jackets on and performing Penderecki with Coldplay. Anything goes. Whatever they want to explore artistically, as long as it’s of quality and as long as there’s an audience for it, is fine.

So I love that, and I’ve found even with myself it’s much easier now and I don’t worry about it quite as much as I used to.

Tavis: What you basically just said to me, Renée, is that it’s good for the artist to be allowed to do X, Y, or Z, so long as they do it well. The inverse of that, though, is whether or not it’s good for the music, whatever music we’re talking about. Is it good for the music?

Fleming: It can be. A lot of it is taste. A lot of it is the audience’s taste. Who is the audience, finding the audience. Sometimes it’s quality. Sometimes you just think well, that’s not really a fit.

I’ve certainly tried things that I’ve thought well, that didn’t work so well. But the act of exploration and the process of the adventure, I think it grows. You grow in that, and it’s important.

Stylistically, I started in jazz, and I didn’t really learn how to sing, technically, until I was in a jazz club for two and a half years every weekend, and I found my voice and my freedom, my ability to communicate with an audience.

All of that came through jazz. At the same time, I was studying classical music and opera, and I applied that stylistically to how I sang. Some people loved it and some people didn’t, but it was me.

Tavis: What’s the greatest gift – you mentioned a couple now I think, and you may have already answered this, but just to make sure I got it right, what’s the greatest gift you think jazz gave you, singing all those weekends at the club?

Fleming: Absolutely the improvisatory freedom. Having to improvise, finding high notes through that, my voice teacher would come sometimes. She used to say, “Do you have any idea what you just sang?”

I’d say, “No,” and she’d say, “Good. It’s better that way.” (Laughter) “It’s better if you don’t know.” It was like haiku. But the main thing was style, was really, and I’ve applied that to Strauss and everything I do.

As to how you bend a phrase, how you create tension and a line – that’s what makes music sexy. It’s tension. I learned that by singing in the club.

Tavis: You intimated earlier that so much of this is about taste, and it is. But because I want to get inside your head and your heart, for that matter, what do you hear when something that you have tried that you don’t think works.

Because if you’re a Renée Fleming fan, it’s hard for us to decipher anything you’ve done that we don’t like. We just love the fact that you’re so brilliant at what you do. But when you hear something that you’ve tried, to your earlier point, that you don’t like, what are you hearing?

Fleming: Well to be fair, I’m hypercritical of everything I do. We all are.

Tavis: Of course, I expect that, yeah.

Fleming: We’re perfectionists, right?

Tavis: Sure, sure.

Fleming: A lot of times there are certain sort of givens for me. Pitch is one. I don’t, on repeated hearing, which a recording is, I don’t want people to kind of be irritated by something that I’ve done, and I don’t want to be irritated by it.

So that’s one thing. Languages have to be perfect. You want to sound as authentic as possible. Then beyond that is how do you make an interpretation in something that sounds authentically, that sounds real, that sounds honest? Honesty is very important to me.

So but in terms of style, sometimes I just think gosh, my voice doesn’t do that very well. I shouldn’t have tried that. Or sometimes it’s one track or, but for the most part I’m very conservative about my choices.

So there haven’t been too many things where I’ve just thought that was horrible. A lot of times, I just chalk it up to learning. I learned a lot from that project. Maybe it wasn’t the most successful thing, but I grew in that.

Tavis: I think I take your point about honesty in music. I’m certainly turned on by the phrase. Let me just drill a little further, if I can, what you mean by “honesty in music.”

Does that mean lyric, does that mean lived experience, does that mean stylistically? What do you mean by the music having to be honest for you?

Fleming: You have to, I think, find the emotional truth for yourself and what you’re singing. That’s very important, that I feel something, because otherwise you’re not going to communicate with the audience.

So if it’s just wow, I’m doing everything right, that’s not going to hit home. There’s an emptiness to that. That said, I’m not saying I’m always successful. I’m not. But that’s what I’m striving for, and I’m also always striving to find the most emotional moment in everything I do.

How to find that line. Because if you start crying, then you can’t sing very well anymore. But almost to that point – that’s where you want to be.

Tavis: Have you done performances where you almost tripped yourself up emotionally because of the power of the piece?

Fleming: Oh, sure. Yeah, oh, sure, sure, sure, and then you have to rein it in just enough to keep going. But that’s a great fine line to be on.

Tavis: Yeah. I don’t want to color this question any more than I’m going to deliberately. Because you have performed for audiences all over the world, give me two or three lessons, two or three takeaways – I don’t want to color it any more than this – that you’ve learned from performing before live audiences.

I think that the answer, we’ll see in a second, I think the answer you’re going to give me applies not just to musical artists but to anyone who stands in front of a live audience and performs. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned about how to do that successfully?

Tavis: We opened last night in “Streetcar” and we have two more performances, and I suffer a lot to perform. I really am one of these crazy people who has to suffer to perform comfortably.

Tavis: After all these years?

Fleming: Oh, it’s almost worse now.

Tavis: Wow. (Laughter)

Fleming: It’s almost – I’ve made up a whole new level of suffering.

Tavis: Wow.

Fleming: I think, God, why am I still doing this? But there’s something magical about that audience relationship, and they’re all different. We were stunned last night by how much people laughed in “Streetcar” and how funny they thought it was in the first act (unintelligible) of course then it wasn’t funny anymore.

But I just thought wow, that’s so fascinating to me, that – and there’s a high afterwards. So I think you can get a little addicted to that response, in a way, and it’s not a life like this, it’s a life with a lot of mountains and valleys.

Tavis: Mountains and valleys – as you look back on the course of your career thus far, what do you see as valleys? I see a lot of mountains, but what are valleys?

Fleming: Well, I think the valleys have a lot to do with the lifestyle. I’m on the road a lot, I have two children, beautiful, beautiful, girls, who are, they’re fabulous.

They made sacrifices for what I do as well, and that’s a lot to ask of your children. So that’s the biggest valley for me, is the degree to which you have to leave the people you love.

I also, to take care of this instrument that’s in you that you can’t put in a closet or put in a case, is a big responsibility and a trial when you’re traveling all the time.

Tavis: How do you think – never mind what the critics may say – how do you think, after all this use, your instrument is holding up?

Fleming: (Laughs) I think it’s holding up very well. All things considered, I can still technically do most of what I’ve always done. I can’t do it quite as consistently, and I don’t like that kind of risk, so I’m very conservative in my choices now.

But there’s still a lot of music to sing. It’s 400 years of music, so I can keep going as long as I find things that are nice for the audience and that I enjoy doing.

Tavis: Yeah. It occurs to me, Renée, that I’ve mentioned on three or four occasions now critics. What is your view, after all these years being criticized by so many, the good, the bad, the ugly, what’s your take on the worth and the value of the critic in contemporary America?

Fleming: Well I have two things to say about that. One is that I think critics can be incredibly useful in terms of helping the audience understand what they’re hearing.

I think they can educate, to a great degree, in that we don’t have time to research what we’re seeing anymore. We have a thousand pulls on our time now. So to be able to read something that kind of sums it up and gives us some history and some of the interesting history, as well, is good.

That said, I think a great degree of negativity is not helpful to the classical arts, because we’re struggling as it is to find and maintain our audiences, with all the competition out there.

By and large, if you see reviews of mainstream arts, you see a whole different point of view on it, and a different take on it. Classical arts, over time, have become this sort of in the navel kind of interior, and often not as constructive as I would wish it could be.

We want to get enthusiasm. We want to help people want to come to these things. So I’m working on the other side. I’m the first creative consultant to the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

So I’m not only performing there, but I’m trying to develop the audience and help the company think much more broadly about what we present and how we present it, with a world premiere, with bringing Second City Guide to the Opera, and these kinds of fun projects.

It’s really made a huge difference, created a lot of buzz, and I love that. That’s an important, I think, way in which we can try to get new audiences in.

Tavis: Your comment now about the classical arts and these new audiences raised two questions for me. One, curious as to your take – I’ve asked others this question, but not an artist of your stature, I think, of what it’s going to take for the classical arts in the most multicultural, most multiracial, most multiethnic America ever, to survive.

Because even if those critics start saying nothing but wonderful things about what they’re seeing –

Fleming: Right, yeah.

Tavis: – presented, if you don’t connect to an audience that is multicultural, multiracial, and multiethnic, at some point down the road in this America, the arts, those classical arts are going to suffer to an even greater extent.

How do you, in a place like Chicago or beyond, multicultural city, how do you address that?

Fleming: Well Chicago Lyric Opera just presented its second mariachi opera, and literally I heard that a woman was climbing on the stage. They got so excited, because the Latino cultures, they sing.

They can really sing. Think of all the great singers who’ve come from Mexico and South America, mostly in that area, because of mariachi. Men, mostly; tenors, mostly.

So – Placido Domingo; voila. So I think it’s incredibly important to reach out in that respect and find communities – gone are the days when you simply built a spectacular hall and opened the doors and said, “You are so fortunate to come into this temple of art,” right? (Laughter)

People are saying, “So?” Or, “Gosh, we wouldn’t know what to wear,” or “When do you clap?” So the Internet, I think, is helpful. Having broadcasts in cinemas is helpful.

But definitely going into the community and figuring out how and why do people sing, why do they care about storytelling in music, what culturally do we want to say about our lives.

Because the arts, we’re the muses of history. It’s really fascinating to know that. The Super Bowl for me this year was a huge “game-changer.”

Tavis: Can I just jump in right quick (laughter) and say we were all talking about this in advance of your arrival today. To a person, every one of us, and I’m at the front of this group, every one of us still has chill bumps from your performance.

Fleming: Aw. (Laughter)

Tavis: You killed that thing.

Fleming: Thank you.

Tavis: That was amazing, at the Super Bowl. Yeah.

Fleming: Oh, God, I’ll tell you – sleepless nights in preparation for that. Two minutes that have to be perfect.

Tavis: Well it was worth it. I’m glad you didn’t get any sleep. (Laughter) I’m sorry you didn’t sleep –

Fleming: Oh, man.

Tavis: – but I’m glad you didn’t sleep, because you nailed that thing.

Fleming: Well, I’m excited. The Smithsonian just took Vera Wang’s amazing dress that she did for me, and it’s just very exciting, I think.

But that’s why people think differently about how we sing, and say, “Oh, you know what, that’s not so bad. She could do that.” So hopefully that’ll make people think in a more broad way. That’s what I love – I love singing, period.

Tavis: What kind of response did you, since we raised it, what kind of response did you get from everyday people when they saw you walking down the sidewalk in New York after that Super Bowl performance?

Fleming: Do you know, a lot of people, I think it was, they’re so emotional about the national anthem, it means a lot to them. I can’t believe the mail I got from people saying thank you and we loved it, and we’re so glad it was somehow a more formal version of it. So just incredibly positive response, really positive.

Tavis: I’ve asked this question of others, but not of Renée Fleming. So as keys and chords go, of all the stuff that you’ve sung, how difficult is it to nail the national anthem?

Fleming: Oh, it’s hard. This is not for amateurs. (Laughter) I don’t know how they thought that every citizen could sing this in the same – you can all sing this together in one key, because it’s an octave and a half.

Then when you add that interpolated high note that people have come to expect, it’s two octaves. It’s really challenging for anybody. Granted, classical singers, that’s very basic for us, to have range. But still, it’s not a no-brainer. “America, the Beautiful” is much nicer. (Laughter)

Tavis: A little – yeah. That’s why Ray Charles did that.

Fleming: Oh, yes.

Tavis: Because Ray killed that.

Fleming: Oh, (unintelligible).

Tavis: Yeah, nobody could do that like Ray Charles.

Fleming: Well I love his singing, period.

Tavis: Yeah. Has this – I’m almost out of time, and I can do this for hours. You’re always in New York, you never come to L.A., so I’m trying to make the most of my time with you.

Fleming: I know, I’m going to change that.

Tavis: So we’re just delighted to have you on this set, first of all. Has this career turned out to be – and it’s a long way from being over – has it turned out to be what you thought or hoped it would be, given where you started, in a whole different genre?

Fleming: Absolutely. Well first of all, when you’re young, you dream everything, right? People say, “Did you ever think you would achieve this?” When you’re young, you think you’re going to be the world.

It’s reality that really teaches you, and also remember it wasn’t that long ago that Beverly Sills hosted Johnny Carson for a week; that people were on television all the time who sang like I do.

So it’s gotten much more challenging in a way. The Three Tenors certainly changed the playing field. But that said, I could not, there’s nothing I could wish for.

I’ve sung all over the world, my children have traveled with me all over the world and I’m going to Japan in a few weeks. I love what I do; I think it’s a privilege and an honor to do what I do.

Tavis: Yeah. Well I wished for, what is this, 11 seasons we’re on now? I wished for 11 seasons for this moment to finally happen, and it happened. Renée Fleming came to L.A. –

Fleming: Aw.

Tavis: – and she appeared on this program, and I could not be more tickled at the opportunity to have sat and talked to you for this full show, so thank you.

Fleming: Thank you.

Tavis: “A Streetcar Named Desire,” Tennessee Williams, what can you say? The L.A. Opera’s production, now starring Renée Fleming as Blanche Dubois. If you can get in – good luck with that. (Laughter)

Fleming: I feel a high note coming on, Tavis. Thank you so much. (Laughter)

Tavis: If you can get in, go see it.

Fleming: Yeah.

Tavis: Good to have you here, Renée.

Fleming: Thank you.

Tavis: That’s our show for tonight. Thanks for watching, and as always, keep the faith.

[Film clip of Fleming performing “The Star-Spangled Banner”]

“Announcer:” For more information on today’s show, visit Tavis Smiley at PBS.org.

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Last modified: August 11, 2014 at 7:02 pm