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Renée Fleming Comes to L.A. for The Light in the Piazza

September 30, 2019

A bona fide global opera superstar, Renée Fleming seems to be in a class by herself. In addition to performing on the stages of the world’s greatest opera houses and concert halls, the lustrous-voiced soprano has triumphed in theater, in film, and on recordings, selling over two million records and winning four Grammy Awards along the way. And speaking of awards, Fleming, who received the National Medal of Arts in 2013 from President Obama, has sung on such momentous occasions as the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the Diamond Jubilee Concert for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace.

And did we mention Super Bowl XLVIII? It was Fleming, in 2014, who was the first opera singer to deliver the national anthem, with the broadcast drawing an audience of more than 111 million viewers. Sometimes referred to as “the people’s diva,” Fleming, a brilliant mix of beauty and accessibility, grew up outside of Rochester, New York, the daughter of two music teachers. Now 60, she is known for her range and ability to perform in many styles that include jazz, pop, art songs, and standards.

Indeed, Fleming brings her musical theater chops to Los Angeles to star in Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’s 2005 opus, The Light in the Piazza, which opens at the Dorothy Chandler Pavilion Oct. 12 for seven performances as part of L.A. Opera’s 2019–2020 season and also features Brian Stokes Mitchell and Dove Cameron. Fleming is no stranger to L.A.’s big-budget opera company. Having been presented by the organization numerous times in recital, she made her mainstage debut in 2006 as Violetta in La traviata and returned in 2014 as Blanche DuBois in André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire.

In addition to Fleming’s high art career, she “sang” David Letterman’s “Top-10” list, and, in 2010, she recorded a rock album, Dark Hope, which featured songs by such disparate groups as Arcade Fire and Jefferson Airplane. Not shy about lending her voice to Hollywood, she can also be heard on “Twilight and Shadow,” a tune from The Lord of the Rings, with the performer warbling in the original Elvish, while her plush, sensual sounds are also featured in the 2018 Oscar-winning film, The Shape of Water.

Singing in no fewer than six languages, Fleming — once described by The New York Times’ Anthony Tommasini as “the most sought-after lyric soprano of her generation” — is known for such roles as Mimi in La bohème, Tatiana in Eugene Onegin and the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, the Strauss work she chose as her farewell performance at the Metropolitan Opera in the spring of 2017.

Not leaving any vocal stone unturned, Fleming also champions new music, having performed works by a variety of contemporary composers, including recent works by Caroline Shaw, Anders Hillborg, and the late André Previn. In the last several years, the performer also made her Broadway debut in the short-lived 2015 comedy, Living on Love, playing, of all things, a peevish diva. Returning to the Great White Way in 2018, Fleming enjoyed a successful eight-month run in a major revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel that garnered her a Tony nomination.

As for risk-taking, Fleming made waves last April in the off-Broadway show, Norma Jeane Baker of Troy, a world premiere “spoken and sung” work by Anne Carson that opened the Shed, the $475 million arts center of Hudson Yards. Fleming played a bespectacled stenographer hired by businessman Ben Whishaw, whose efforts to understand the iconography of Marilyn Monroe lead him to metamorphose into the late sex symbol, with Fleming appearing both in person and as a disembodied voice that became the soundscape of the show. The New Yorker described Fleming’s soprano as, “another exemplar of legendary beauty [that] soars with the force of an uncontainable soul.”

Somewhat of a workaholic, Fleming recently performed throughout the States and in Europe this summer, stopping in London to star in that city’s premiere of The Light in the Piazza. The story, an adaptation of Elizabeth Spencer’s novella, is set in the 1950s and revolves around Margaret Johnson, a wealthy Southern woman and Clara, her developmentally disabled daughter, who spend a summer together in Italy. I caught up with the songstress by phone from the East Coast where she was gearing up for concerts and recitals in Canada, Alabama, and Berkeley, California, before coming to Los Angeles for Piazza.

What drew you to the role of Mrs. Margaret Johnson?

I’ve sung mothers in a couple of opera productions, notably in Handel’s Rodelinda, and [as] Lucrezia Borgia, who poisons her son by mistake when she meant to poison his friends. [As for] Mrs. Johnson, she is an extraordinary character to play, because she’s a relatively normal woman who’s in a challenging situation and handling it all alone. It’s fabulous to be able to get to know her and work with extraordinary colleagues.

Did the notion that Adam Guettel is a grandson of Richard Rodgers come into play at all, since you’ve been singing Rodgers and Hammerstein songs for years and your family has a long history with musicals?

I grew up with musicals, but I think it’s more than that. It comes into play for Adam more than for us. His particular talent is extraordinary and the piece is so beautifully composed, right from the opening of the overture. I thought, “Wow, this is beautiful!” It’s very pianistic. Adam can sit down and play it — he’s so gifted. For us, it’s great to do a piece that at the center of it has a woman in an interesting situation — dealing with her marriage crumbling, trying to protect her daughter and help her become more autonomous, and eventually trying to support her and her dream. On so many levels this piece is multidimensional in a way that musical theater and opera is not.

You’ve been interested in performing new works for some time now. What are your considerations when signing on to a work like Piazza and when tackling something outside of your wheelhouse, like Norma Jeane Baker of Troy.

The pros are that they’re both great vehicles for performers, the cons are that they are both outside of my wheelhouse. Ben [Whishaw] was an amazing colleague and it was such a fascinating project. It was challenging for me and almost abstract for me, like a really strange poem. The music was two-thirds of the piece, and [it was] one of the more artistic projects I’ve been connected to.

Piazza is an ensemble piece with a tremendous amount of dialogue, and with Mrs. Johnson, I  had to get used to the notion if I don’t say something, there’s silence, which is not a constant musical prop that one has in opera.

The comedy, Living on Love, with Douglas Sills, ran for less than two weeks in 2015 and perhaps could have soured you on Broadway.

That was so much fun! I had several monologues and got to play the quintessential opera diva in a comedy, which I loved. It was short-lived [because] it was a very, very crowded period in that late spring. It was pre-Tony season, which is hard for any play. With this play and the combination of quite erudite operatic jokes and a very lowbrow kind of physical comedy, there weren’t that many people who met there. Opera fans were too snobby about it and comedy fans might not have gotten it — unless you happen to be an opera and comedy lover, it was a funny combination. But on the other hand, everybody we know who went absolutely loved it.

Your stint with Carousel was a big hit a few years later, and one in which you were miked. What was that like for you?

It was a great experience. I loved being on Broadway and experiencing eight shows a week. Being home for eight months was already terribly exciting for me — being part of this family and Broadway in general. I call it a city within a city, but the actual young people who inhabit the stage, especially in musicals, they work so hard. You couldn’t tell dancers apart from singers. I feel privileged to have been able to step into that world for a bit. I wasn’t really looking to transition to music theater, but when Piazza was offered to me, I thought this is a great role.

[As for] being miked, I had to get used to that, because of all the dialogue. It’s a loss of control and I’m used to controlling the acoustics just through my voice and suddenly it’s somebody else controlling it. It took me a bit to get used to it, but the amplification offers a lot of support.

You seem to be the go-to gal for singing at important functions — funerals, birthdays, Obama’s 2012 inauguration, where you sang, “You’ll Never Walk Alone.” Do you ever suffer from stage fright thinking about all of the people around the world watching?

The Super Bowl was huge. It’s just big and it’s very hard, no matter who you are. It’s daunting, and the national anthem is challenging. Everybody acknowledges that it’s not easy to sing. It’s  a big piece with a high note and two octaves. It’s not virtuosic, but you’ve got three minutes and it needs to be perfect for more than 100 million people. That’s pressure.

Do I ever get stage fright? Absolutely, it’s part of what we do. For most of us, if you don’t have stage fright, you’re not appreciating the risk involved. I try to turn the stage fright into preparation. I practice a lot, I rehearse — I mentally rehearse for any of those things, especially something highly emotional like 9/11. John McCain’s funeral also took a tremendous amount of mental preparation as well as working together on everything with the family.

You certainly aren’t afraid of challenges with regards to new music and projects. You recently premiered André Previn’s last composition, Penelope, with Tom Stoppard’s text inspired by Homer’s Odyssey. There was also Kevin Puts’s The Brightness of Light, an orchestral song cycle based on the steamy letters between Georgia O’Keeffe and her husband, the photographer Alfred Stieglitz, which you sang with baritone Rod Gilfry.

Most of my musical relationships are with conductors, directors, my colleagues, and my friends, but I have done a ton of new music with composers and I love it a lot. André was consistently writing things for me, and we premiered his Penelope at Tanglewood with the Emerson Quartet and Uma Thurman narrating. It was pretty exciting.

The last six months were really intense, because that same week we premiered the Georgia O’Keeffe. I can say that I’m very excited about the premiere I have coming up at the Met with Kevin Puts, a composer I’ve not worked with much. He’s writing the opera that’s happening in 2022 at the Met with a version of it [that we’ll perform] earlier in concert in Philadelphia.

Your calendar must be a sea of dates and places. How does all the traveling affect your voice and what is your vocal regimen?

It’s not a problem because I am so used to it — it’s been my lifestyle for decades. How I manage it is to not worry about it. I don’t want to be neurotic about travel and singing. I try to stay hydrated, that’s the only thing — and get enough rest. Also, everything in moderation — all the boring stuff. The one thing that I have to do that is tedious, is stay out of restaurants as much as I can. They’re too loud and if I try to speak over loud talking or music, I lose my voice very quickly. That’s today’s equivalent of [opera singers] wearing the scarf around the neck.

Finally, I’m wondering what your thoughts are on the #MeToo movement.

I’m glad that we’re raising awareness and I hope there’s not a backlash. I hope that makes people think twice. We know that people get swept up in this — and where the punishment doesn’t fit the crime, but we hope the standard for behavior is raised. We want an equal society and diversity, not just in race and religion but in gender. Women have been second class citizens probably always and we’re a larger part of the population. I have two daughters, so thank you for asking.

Victoria Looseleaf is an award-winning international arts journalist who covers dance, music, theater and the visual arts. Publications she has contributed to include the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times and KCET Artbound. Her feminist novella in verse, Isn’t It Rich? is being adapted for the stage, and her children’s/coffee table book, Russ & Iggy’s Art Alphabet, will soon be published by Red Sky Presents. In addition, Looseleaf co-founded the online magazine ArtNowLA.