Soprano Renee Fleming: Golden Girl, Undaunted

Georgia Rowe on November 24, 2009

Renée Fleming is one of the opera world’s most recognizable divas. Blessed with gorgeous good looks and a golden voice, the Pennsylvania-born soprano started her career in Mozart roles and soon moved on to her favorite composer, Richard Strauss. Today, her repertoire includes a wide variety of roles, including Rusalka, Tatiana, Alcina, and Blanche DuBois in André Previn’s Streetcar Named Desire, a role she brought to luminous life in the opera’s world premiere at San Francisco Opera. Fleming returns to the Bay Area for a recital Dec. 6, presented by Cal Performances; I spoke to her by phone in New York.

You’ve been at the Metropolitan Opera this fall, singing the Marschallin [in Der Rosenkavalier]. What’s it like to return to that role?

It’s such a thrill. I put her away for about eight or nine years, and I’m very excited to come back to it, because it’s a role that I really, really love. She’s so expressive, and I think it’s better to come back to her now, 10 years later. I have a fuller understanding of her and I think I can bring more to the character.

San Francisco has seen you in that role, and some other really wonderful roles — the Countess, Rusalka, Blanche, and Louise. Have you had a favorite here?

Definitely, Streetcar. It was an incredibly important venture for me, in every respect. It’s a terrific role, it was tailor-made, it was an extremely high-profile event, and I had a wonderful time doing it.

How do you approach new works, as opposed to standards of the repertoire?

It’s a different mind-set. In a new work, I can still effect some change. I’m working with a living, breathing composer, who wants to make it fit my voice. With an existing work, I’m also up against history. I’m being compared with everyone else who’s done something. That can sometimes be a little daunting.

Another great role you sang at the Met was Imogene in Bellini’s Il Pirata. Will you do it again?

I don’t think I’m planning to do it again. With the exception of Armida, I’m probably finished with bel canto. My opera calendar is full now, pretty much between now and 2014. And it’s very difficult to imagine, after that, what I’m going to be able to sing.

Is San Francisco on your calendar?

Yes, but it’s a couple of years out, so I think I’ll let David Gockley [San Francisco Opera’s general director] announce that.

You’ve now sung over 50 roles. Are there other new roles in your future?

There are a couple. I have Ariadne coming up. I’ve wanted to sing, obviously, as much Strauss as I could. I also have Elsa in Lohengrin. So that will be a big departure. That’s 2014, so I can’t say where just yet. But those are the two roles I’m looking at. There’s not a whole lot I really want to do at this point, but there would be a couple of things.

What will your Berkeley recital program include?

It’s a challenging program, for me and for the audience. The first half is all French, with the second book of Messiaen’s Poems pour Mi, and a Massenet aria (“J’ai verse le Poison dans cette coupe d’or”) from Cleopatra. Then there’s this Dutilleux premiere I did in May in Paris, Le Temps l’horloge. Very evocative 20th-century French music. The second half is a big Strauss group, and selections from my new CD, Verismo. It’s a good program, very meaty and serious. Not lightweight at all.

How has the opera world changed since you started your career?

I would say it’s become more image-conscious. The theatrical values have improved immensely. Much more is demanded of us onstage, as stage creatures. All of that has really made quite a difference.

How do you deal with that?

I’ve certainly gotten in shape. I focus a lot more on acting, and my goal is really to give a total performance onstage. Actually, my real goal, which I can succeed in with certain repertoire, is to make people forget I’m singing. When I sing Violetta in Traviata, which I did in London this summer, and people come back and rediscover the opera, they’re in tears, they’ve been so moved. That’s what they talk about, not “Wow, your singing was great.” Then I know I’m doing a good job.

You work a lot with young singers. What advice do you have for people who are just starting in the business now?

Resilience is extremely important. People have got to work very hard at every aspect of their work. It’s just such a competitive field now. All of those things — as I travel the country and give master classes, or simply meet young people after performances, what I realize is that hardly any of the people I meet are ultimately going to make it. So I try to encourage everyone to do their best — but do it soon, because there’s a limited amount of time, and people want to discover you young. The business, and the culture in general, is very focused on youth. For singers, that can be a bad prescription, because the voice takes time to develop. I was lucky that things didn’t go nearly as well for me. It took me longer to develop, and in my case that was a very good thing.

You performed at President Obama’s inauguration this year. What was that experience like?

It was thrilling. I just was so overwhelmed with the spirit, with being in Washington at that time. I think we all felt that we were part of history. It was an exciting, wonderful atmosphere.

Is the president a fan?

Well, he told me when I first met him that I was on his iPod. I think that’s a lovely distinction.