Renée Fleming is close friends with both Christine Baranski and Laura Linney. But for the superstar singer, watching the acclaimed actresses’ recent performances — and realizing they are at the peak of their powers — evokes understandably mixed feelings.
“They just get better,” she said with an appreciative sigh. “We singers don’t have that same ability to improve with age, since what we do is so athletic. But we try to keep going. I feel I’m having a good run.”
A good run indeed. At 63, an age when many if not most opera singers have retired, Fleming is still keeping extremely busy — and her projects have nothing to do with nostalgia. In the fall, she will return to the Metropolitan Opera in the world premiere of The Hours, Kevin Puts’s adaptation of Michael Cunningham’s novel that retells Mrs. Dalloway.
On Saturday, June 18, Fleming is bringing another Puts work to the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion: the West Coast premiere of his song cycle The Brightness of Light. The piece, which premiered at the Tanglewood Festival in July 2019, sets to music excerpts of letters between two of the greatest 20th-century American artists: Georgia O’Keeffe (Fleming) and her husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz (baritone Rod Gilfry).
The concert, produced by Los Angeles Opera, also features showtunes and excerpts from a modern American opera in which the two singers starred, André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.
While in L.A., Fleming will also take part in a summit on music, health, and healing Wednesday, June 15, at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. The free event will serve as the centerpiece of Los Angeles County Arts and Health Week.
San Francisco Classical Voice interviewed Fleming by phone from her Washington, D.C. home last week. She was relaxed, amiable, a little wistful at times, but enthusiastic about both her creative projects and her ongoing efforts to spread the word about how music and the arts can enhance physical and emotional health. The conversation was edited for length and clarity.
Has your touring schedule returned to what it was pre-pandemic?
I would say it’s even more! All the events that were canceled in the pandemic got rescheduled, and new things were coming in at the same time. It all got smooshed together. It’s a bit much.
Given that reality, why did you decide to reschedule all your canceled performances of The Brightness of Light?
I love this piece. It was my idea. Since I’m mostly concertizing now, I thought it’d be nice to find something that had theatrical values in an orchestral concert setting.
Kevin Puts and I were brought together by our alma mater, the Eastman School of Music at the University of Rochester. He had already won the Pulitzer Prize [in 2012]. I listened to his operas Silent Night and The Manchurian Candidate. He really differed the musical language depending on the subject, so I didn’t know what I was going to get. But [in The Brightness of Light], he evokes phenomenally well [O’Keeffe’s] life on the ranch and the open spaces of the desert.
We did an earlier version of this with just the letters of Georgia O’Keeffe. I suggested we add the letters of Alfred Stieglitz and have him sung by a baritone. That way we get both sides of the story. It really works.
You brought his opera The Hours to the Met, correct?
Yes, but I never thought in a million years that they would do it. Imagine my surprise when they said yes! The last thing I did at the Met was Der Rosenkavalier, which concludes with the famous trio featuring three women. This opera kind of mirrors that. Women with three different voice types play these characters, each of whom is from a different era.
We performed a concert version in Philadelphia not long ago. We were all quite moved by it. I think there will be revisions [before the Met production], but they will be minor. He’s a super-organized composer who actually gets things done on time!
How closely do you work with him when he is composing music for you to sing? Do you provide feedback or make suggestions?
Not in terms of the process. For The Brightness of Light, he chose the letters. He probably would have welcomed my input, but I didn’t have time, and I was delighted by his choices in both versions of the piece.
I may come up with an idea or two, but I wouldn’t give myself the title of collaborator. Now, if something is not comfortable [for my particular voice] — if I want it to be higher or lower — he has always been terrific about accommodating me.
Do you feel a personal connection with Georgia O’Keeffe?
I didn’t at first. But once I learned more about her, I thought she was an incredible maverick. To move to New Mexico and live life on her own terms — you can’t help but admire her. She made her own rules. I got to tour her Ghost Ranch, which was very special. I learned that she had to brush the rattlesnakes out of her studio every morning. That’s a strong woman!
To at least some critics, she comes across in this song cycle as stronger than Stieglitz. Anne Midgette wrote in The Washington Post that, in this piece, “Stieglitz emerges as a bit of a jerk.”
I would say he was very manipulative. But there’s another side to the story. One reason she became so famous was his connections, power, and marketing ability. There were other gifted women artists at the time who didn’t get as much notice because they didn’t have a Stieglitz.
Before we move on to your work regarding music and wellness, how is your personal health? Have you managed to avoid COVID so far?
Yes! It’s really weird. My husband and I have been at superspreader events, but we haven’t gotten it — yet. It’s probably inevitable.
Wednesday afternoon, you’ll be participating in an event spotlighting the work being done in and around Los Angeles linking music and medicine. What can audiences expect?
I’ll be speaking with Daniel Levitin, probably the best-known neuroscientist in the country. We’ll also see some micro-presentations about work that’s happening in this field in Los Angeles, including at the UCLA Medical Center. These will be new to me, and I’m looking forward to hearing them.
LA Opera, more than any other company in the country, has embraced this work. They have fabulous partners and are really making a difference in the community.
Do you see your role, at least in part, as taking the insights of researchers about music’s many applications to medicine and spreading the word to both healthcare professionals and potential patients?
Sure! I consider myself a cheerleader, an advocate for people who are doing this work. I think the word is beginning to spread. There’s great work being done in hospitals and elder care facilities, as well as schools. Houston Methodist Hospital is the one I know the best. Their music-therapy programs are growing fast as they enroll people dealing with long COVID — many of whom have trouble breathing. There are lots of interventions that really work — and they’re fun! Some use kazoos or harmonicas.
During the pandemic, I created an online program called Healing Breath. You feel helpless when you’re at home, not working, and people are suffering. I thought, what can I contribute? So I called 14 friends, including Christine Baranski, and asked them to share their favorite breathing exercises. We’ve now created a consortium of researchers who are coming up with a set of best practices involving breathing exercises to help with long COVID and other lung disorders.
What has really surprised you as you have spoken to experts about healing and the arts, as in your popular series of online interviews?
That veterans love opera! It’s very moving to hear [vets having troubles reentering society] talk about the effect it has on them. When they see opera, they feel normal.
That’s certainly unexpected — except that it makes sense when you think about it. What can mimic the heightened emotions of being in combat? Opera comes closest.
Absolutely! It’s true. There are tremendous numbers of organizations that help veterans, but this is something they actually enjoy.
One final question. Maureen Dowd wrote a long piece about you in The New York Times in 2020. Even then, you were arguing that opera and classical music in general have to diversify. Are you satisfied with the progress that has been made along those lines over the past two years?
For performers, no question. While it can always be more, opera performers are a very diverse body today. But that’s less true among orchestra members and administrative staffs. Everyone seems well intentioned, so I think change will come quicker than it will in other sectors [of society].
By the way, diversity is not just racial: It’s religious, and it’s also gender. I keep waiting for women to be in high positions in administrations [of opera companies]. Where are all the women creative directors? The women conductors? They exist — they just need opportunities.
So do you have any interest in running, say, an opera company?
No. I love supporting young artists. My position at Lyric Opera of Chicago was probably the most important consultancy I have had. I was able to develop some programming that I think was helpful to the company. I do the same thing at The Kennedy Center in a more limited way. But I don’t want to run a company.
For a long time, people said to me I should follow in the footsteps of Beverly Sills. But she stopped singing at 52! What I’m doing right now is exactly right for me.
Renée Fleming and Rod Gilfry will perform Kevin Puts’s The Brightness of Light at 7:30 p.m. Saturday, June 18 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion in downtown Los Angeles. Gemma New conducts the LA Opera Orchestra. Tickets are $29 to $199. Find more details online.
The Los Angeles County Arts and Health Week Summit will take place from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. Wednesday, June 15 at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion. Fleming will be on hand from 1 to 3 p.m. Admission is free. For more information, visit LA Opera’s website.