She has inspired high drama at La Scala, where patrons booed and her conductor fainted dead away. She has inspired low drama among opera queens, who divided bitterly over everything from her lush, sometimes sultry vocal style to her occasionally rococo fashion choices. She has inspired mystery, even, at the Metropolitan Opera, where she withdrew from a high-profile engagement amid swirling rumors about overwork, miscasting, and marital strife.
Can there be any doubt that Rene Fleming has arrived?
The irony is that Fleming, a 38-year-old soprano whose career has ignited after a long stretch of journeyman work that began with her 1986 debut at the Virginia Opera, is known for scrupulous professionalism, personal graciousness, and a devotion to balancing her work and her family. For her Met run in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro late last year, director Jonathan Miller even created a nonsinging part for the older of Fleming’s two daughters.
But now she is unmistakably the diva of the momentand fans will find drama in the doings of even the most self-possessed of that breed.
A confession: I am a Fleming devotee. I stumbled on her at a Carnegie Hall gala in 1994, just as her career was beginning to explode. The lure was a veritable constellation of major stars: Marilyn Horne, Frederica von Stade, Montserrat Caballe, even Renata Scotto and Teresa Stratas (who, inevitably, canceled). But a striking young woman with a silver-gilt voice full of terrible melancholy sang a piece by theater composer John Kandera wrenching lover’s farewell based on a soldier’s letter uncovered by documentarian Ken Burns in his Civil War research. And I was hooked.
So I’ll be there at the Kennedy Center this Saturday afternoon, when Fleming makes her Concert Hall debut. I have been known to refer to her as St. Renéea style not of my coining, but one that seems somehow more appropriate than the lofty “La” that frequently attaches itself to opera stars. “La Fleming” is too precious and studied for this creature, who cloaks herself in glamour but sang nightclub jazz in college (and plans an album of Ellington)who, Callas-like, faced down the Scala audience that hissed her performance in Lucrezia Borgia, but who insists that old-fashioned ideas about what a diva must be are moribund.
“I think it’s time to give that up,” Fleming suggests. “We live in such a different world now….I spend half my time these days on a laptop. I actually do like the term ‘diva’ now, but I’ve defined it for myself. It can be glamorous, and I do strive for that. And it can be exciting, but it doesn’t have to be small; it doesn’t have to be petty.”
She pauses, then admits: “If I had time to sit on a chaise lounge and eat bonbons and cook up scandals, I would.”
Not everyone, of course, is convinced by the general acclaim that has greeted Fleming. If profile writers exclaim about the breadth of her ambition, some passionate opera lovers say she tries to do too much. She sings Verdi’s Desdemona; Mozart’s Countess; Massenet’s Thais, Manon, and Herodiade; Dvoùrák’s Rusalka; Richard Strauss’s Arabella and Marschallin; Handel’s Alcina; Rossini’s Armida; and Donizetti’s Lucrezia, among the standard repertoire; she has created roles in three major premieres by contemporary composers; and she’ll be Carlisle Floyd’s Susannah in the opera of the same title’s Met premiere this spring.
James Jorden, notoriously waspish creator and editor of the queer opera ‘zine Parterre Box, takes issue with her certain hallmarks of her style”the white-tone attack, the crooning, that maddeningly just-under-the pitch underenergized tone”and with her characterizations both onstage and in recordingshe has “no concept of pluck or inner resolve,” and she reduces “strong and passionate heroines to a gaggle of dishrags.” As for the program of the recital tour that brings Fleming to Washington this weekend, Jorden calls it “the graduate recital.”
“It’s the least challenging material I’ve ever seen a major artist do. It’s like what you do for your master’s in music recital,” he says. And then, archly: “Though I have to say, the Glinka setting of ‘Gretchen am Spinnrade’ is something we haven’t seen before.”
Even Jorden, though, acknowledges Fleming’s “outstanding instrument” and innate intelligence; he praises the subtlety of her Mozart in nearly the same breath that he attacks her Donizetti, and despite his judgment that the latter is “certainly mediocre,” acknowledges that the fabled booing was balanced by “a nice hand…at the final curtain.”
Albert Innaurato, the playwright and opera commentator, dismisses even the boos, saying they were bought and paid for by the Lucrezia conductor, who’d clashed with Fleming in rehearsal and fainted during the opening as his hired guns tried to shout her down.
Innaurato does acknowledge that the soprano may be having trouble focusing her career, if only because she’s gifted enough to tackle almost anything. “I think, like a lot of American artists”;he names Eleanor Steber and Eileen Farrell;”she’s too versatile for her own good….You don’t make a great career, realistically, by being all over the map.”
Still, Innaurato says, we’re talking about “the greatest soprano in the world today.”
There will never be a singer who unites all operagoers in her praise;even Maria Callas, the diva against whom all are measured, had as many enemies as partisans;but even among the jaundiced creatures who haunt the underground warrens at the Met, there’s a surprising uniformity of opinion about what a nice person Renée Fleming is. Not for her the aloof grandeur of a Jessye Norman (which has its place, of course) or the neurotic antics of a Kathleen Battle (which, admittedly, can be interesting to gossip about).
She can project star quality as quickly as the next diva, but she’s easy and unpretentious in person, laughing ruefully in an interview at the memory of a Met production that included;briefly;a highly bred hound who kept trying to turn one of Fleming’s arias into a duet.
“I thought it was somebody backstage singing along with me;in a less-than-flattering way,” she says. “Every diva should be upstaged by a dog at least once.”
“She’s just a wonderful human being,” says the rising young composer Ricky Ian Gordon. On one recital tour, Fleming dedicated an encore;Gordon’s “Will There Really Be a Morning?”;to his lover, who had died not long before; at Gordon’s place one night after dinner, she sang late into the evening with the host and the actress Cherry Jones. “Not many singers will do that,” he adds.
And so it was particularly painful to those who love her when news came in November that Fleming would not, after all, sing her much anticipated performances as Violetta in La Traviata at the Met, the scene, just weeks before, of her triumph;some said her apotheosis;as the Countess in Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro. Though the opera house cited “family reasons” for the Traviata withdrawal, one article in the New York Times speculated that there might be other, voice-related reasons for abandoning a role “inappropriate for her gifts” (a “patently idiotic” assertion, Innaurato says).
The career goes on, though, as it must; Fleming is booked at opera houses the world over at least through 2002, and she already has some commitments five years down the road. A major staging of Samuel Barber’s too-seldom-performed Vanessa, at some point, is “an obvious choice,” Fleming says.
But Susannah is the next major milestone;Floyd’s opera, written more than 40 years ago, is just now getting its Met premiere, in large part because Fleming and two other stars, Samuel Ramey and Jerry Hadley, have championed it.
And this fall, in a series of Lincoln Center concerts, she will be part of something that might be called an Emily Dickinson evening: The actress Julie Harris will perform snippets from William Luce’s The Belle of Amherst; Fleming will sing settings of Dickinson’s poems. Some she will have performed before, but at least one or two will be new works by Andre; Previn.
“That whole thing hatched the night of the Kennedy Center Honors,” Fleming reports. (That would be last month’s gala, at which Previn was feted by Mia Farrow, who told mildly embarrassing stories from their cohabitation, and by Fleming, who sang a set-piece aria from Previn’s new operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire, written with her in mind.) Fleming and Previn discussed the Dickinson idea at the Honors, and “the next day he called and said, ‘Well, I’ve written one for you.’”
Amid a season of triumphs and disappointments, she says, “that was my favorite Christmas gift.”CP