Busy, glamorous opera star still following 'Inner Voice'

But popular soprano Fleming won't take success for granted

Classical Music

February 13, 2005|By Tim Smith | Tim Smith,Sun Music Critic

The recent deaths of Renata Tebaldi and Victoria de los Angeles provided a bittersweet reminder of glory days when compelling soprano voices seemed so plentiful, so wonderfully warm, creamy, individualistic. And when the singers themselves exuded such extraordinary glamour.

The presence of Renee Fleming on today's scene affirms that golden vocal artistry doesn't belong exclusively to the past. Same for the glamour.

This American soprano -- the American soprano right now -- enjoys a stellar status achieved by few singers. It's gauged not just by all the acclaimed appearances on opera and concert stages and a substantial discography, but spreads in Vogue and People and, just last month, a pre-L.A. concert party in Malibu held in her honor, attended by such A-listers as Barbra Streisand and Warren Beatty.

Fleming, who gives a recital for the Washington Performing Arts Society and Vocal Arts Society at the Kennedy Center on Tuesday, the day after her 46th birthday, has been on a particularly strong roll lately.

In September, her all-Handel recording was released and became a best seller. In October, she sang with the Philadelphia Orchestra to open Carnegie Hall's season, a concert later televised nationally.

In November, her book The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer was published, proving that the tone of her writing is as elegant as the tone of her voice. In December, she enjoyed a fresh triumph in the Metropolitan Opera's first production of Handel's Rodelinda.

"I feel incredibly grateful for where I am," Fleming says by phone from New York. "It's funny. How do I put this? I'm a very positive person in almost every way, but when it comes to my achievements, the glass is always half-empty."

The singer finds a value in this self-doubt. "It drives me, and it certainly keeps me humble," she says.

'I grew up a lot'

Can a soprano really hang on to humility after two Grammys, command performances for presidents and prime ministers, duets with Elton John, and even a couple of solos on the soundtrack to The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King?

Stardom "does bring added pressures," Fleming says. "Fortunately, I've had enough experience behind me to digest these things, so I'm OK with them."

Her book addresses some of those pressures, along with early career struggles, bouts of stage fright, techniques of coping with high notes -- all in an effort to tell "the story of how I found my voice, of how I worked to shape it, and of how it, in turn, shaped me," as she writes in the introduction.

"I didn't know how difficult writing a book would be, but I'm so glad I did it," Fleming says. "I grew up a lot in the process."

When it comes to the nitty-gritty -- her divorce in the late 1990s, backstage gossip -- the author is the soul of discretion.

"I was surprised to learn that some people wanted to read more dirt," Fleming says. "Whenever I read that kind of book, when I'm finished I think, is that all there is? You can't really write that kind of book until you retire, and I'm very much in the middle of my career. But I don't even retain those kinds of things anyway. I'm too busy."

Busy exploring more early music, for example, the repertoire before Mozart, whose operas provided Fleming with her first major successes starting in the late 1980s. "I'm loving early music," she says, "and the kinds of expressive choices you have. Working on Handel, and now Purcell, I've learned so much about style and performance practice."

When turning to baroque music some singers attempt to approximate historical authenticity by eliminating vibrato and any other technical or interpretive choices more commonly used for Verdi or Strauss.

"That kind of bloodless performance is just not the style anymore, even with singers who may have voices that are perhaps less colorful," Fleming says.

Came from jazz roots

One aspect about baroque singing holds particular appeal for Fleming -- ornamentation, the practice of embellishing a vocal line. "Coming from a jazz background, it comes naturally," she says. "Sometimes I have to hold myself back from doing it in Strauss."

A jazz background? Yes, Fleming, who grew up in Rochester, N.Y., the daughter of high school music teachers, sang jazz with a trio during her early college years. She is returning to those roots with her first jazz recording, due out in May.

Fleming is not about to move away from classical singing, of course, or from continuing to give that singing her own distinctive approach.

It's not an approach that pleases everybody. Acerbic British critic Norman Lebrecht dismissed Fleming's recent CD as the "most execrable Handel recording of the year." A review in England's Opera magazine characterized her efforts on that disc as "not merely disappointing, but, frankly, lazy singing."

On these shores, too, it's possible to find occasional carping, usually about "mannerisms," or overly refined touches in her performances. "I've heard the line 'too perfect,' " Fleming says. "I just tell myself, enjoy it while you can, it won't last."

The soprano takes reviews "with a grain of salt," she says, "because I know there are certain influences at work. Some people think, 'She's had too many good reviews. What can I find to pick apart?' Familiarity breeds contempt."

Not for her fans. They find in her radiant voice and equally glowing personality the stuff of genuine artistry and stardom.

Fleming, spying that half-empty glass, isn't about to consider laurel-resting. "I am constantly trying to grow artistically," she says. "I'm definitely a work in progress."

Renee Fleming

Where: Kennedy Center, Virginia and New Hampshire avenues N.W., Washington

When: 8 p.m. Tuesday

Tickets: Limited availability

Call: 202-785-9727 or visit www.wpas.org

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