Interview: Theatre Life with Renée Fleming

The world famous opera and Broadway star on returning to the Kennedy Center stage and more

By: Sep. 26, 2020
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Interview: Theatre Life with Renée Fleming
Renée Fleming. Photo by Andrew Eccles.

Renée Fleming's long and distinguished career includes performing in some of the world's most famous opera houses, performing on Broadway, and being heard on many recordings singing everything from arias to showtunes.

Tonight Ms. Fleming will add another honor to her canon as she and pop superstar/actress Vanessa Williams will become the first artists to perform a live indoor concert onstage at Kennedy Center's Opera House. The evening is entitled A Time to Sing: An Evening with Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams. While the audience will be very minimal in person, you can watch the concert in your very own living room by purchasing a ticket for the livestream. Click here for details.

Ms. Fleming is one of the most highly acclaimed singers of our time, performing on the stages of the world's greatest opera houses, concert halls, and theaters. Winner of four Grammy® awards and recipient of the US National Medal of Arts, Fleming has sung for momentous occasions from the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to the Diamond Jubilee Concert for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. In 2008 she was the first woman in the 125-year history of the Metropolitan Opera to solo headline an opening night gala; and in 2014, she brought her voice to vast new audience as the first classical artist ever to sing the U.S. National Anthem at the Super Bowl.

Last year, she appeared opposite Ben Whishaw in Norma Jean Baker of Troy to open The Shed in New York City. Last summer, she performed world premieres by André Previn and Kevin Puts at Tanglewood, and she made her London musical theater debut in The Light in the Piazza, bringing the acclaimed production to Los Angeles and Chicago in the autumn. She earned a Tony Award® nomination for her performance in the 2018 Broadway production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's Carousel.

This 16-time Grammy®-nominated artist has recorded everything from complete operas and song recitals to jazz and indie rock. Her voice is featured on the soundtracks of the Best Picture Oscar winners The Shape of Water and The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. Known for bringing new audiences to classical music and opera, she has starred in and hosted an array of television and radio broadcasts.

In May, Ms. Fleming launched Music and Mind LIVE, a weekly online interview show exploring the intersection of music and arts with human health and the brain. To date, the show has been seen by more than 450,000 viewers, from more than 60 countries. She was inspired to launch the series by the Sound Health initiative she leads as Artistic Advisor to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, in partnership with the NIH and the NEA. She has given presentations with scientists and practitioners on this material around the world.

Her additional awards include the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, Germany's Cross of the Order of Merit, and France's Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur.

Live performance has been away for far too long. While tonight's concert will leave us wishing we were sitting in the Opera House in person, A Time to Sing: An Evening with Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams is still going to fill a much needed void.

Purchase your tickets for tonight or watch on demand through December. Here is a chance to get your theatre life back in gear with two very accomplished vocalists. The set list has something for everybody. And the voices are second to none. What more do you need?

When you were starting your career in music, was the intent always to perform in opera?

As a student, I thought I was headed for a career in jazz. I sang with a jazz trio at a local club in Potsdam when I was in college. Ultimately, I was offered a tour with the Illinois Jacquet Big Band, but I felt I just wasn't ready. So I continued on in my studies, on a path that led to classical music and opera.

Who would you say influenced you the most musically starting out?

As a teenager, I discovered Joni Mitchell, who seemed to say everything I felt in her music, and she has been a touchstone throughout my life. In fact, I am performing one of her most well-known songs in "A Time to Sing." I credit Mozart as a voice teacher, because I sang so much of his music when I was starting out. It is absolutely unsparing in the purity it demands. And when I went to Germany on a Fulbright scholarship, I had the good fortune to go to the opera about 3 times a week, and there I discovered Richard Strauss, who composed some of the most rapturous soprano music there is. In terms of singers who influenced me, Leontyne Price has been a treasured mentor, and Marilyn Horne and Beverly Sills gave me valuable guidance, as well.

Can you please tell us how this evening's performance at the Kennedy Center with Vanessa Williams came about?

Honestly, I think it might have been on a Zoom chat with our mutual friend Elizabeth Curtis, who is producing and directing the show, over a quarantini or two. We all enjoy each other so much, and have so much in common. Vanessa and I are both from upstate New York, we both have raised children while pursuing our performing careers, and we share a lot of experiences. We couldn't resist the idea once it occurred to us.

How honored are you to be asked to give the first performance back in the Kennedy Center?

I consider it an enormous privilege to be one of the first performers back on the Opera House stage at the Kennedy Center. It is America's cultural center, and the living memorial to President John F. Kennedy. It really is a national treasure-- so, yes, this means a lot to me.

Interview: Theatre Life with Renée Fleming
Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams in rehearsal for tonight's concert.
Photo by Richard Corman.

Is this the first time you and Vanessa Williams have worked together?

We have been on the same program a couple of times, for the PBS A Capitol Fourth and National Memorial Day concerts, but this is the first time we have sung together. Of course we have enjoyed each other's performances, and been friends, for a few years now. She is amazing. She really can do anything, and all with a level of glamor that is off the charts.

Can you please give us a few hints about what we might hear during the concert?

I think people might be surprised by our repertoire. There are some new pieces for both of us, including things we have both loved but never performed. A highlight will be the world premiere of a duet that the brilliant Andrew Lippa composed just for us- pure fun. And the list of other songwriters includes Sting, Cy Coleman, Pasek and Paul, Benjamin Britten, and Dvořák. Not a common lineup, I think.

Interview: Theatre Life with Renée Fleming
Renée Fleming and the company of the 2018 Broadway production of Carousel.
Photo by Julieta Cervantes.

You were part of the 2018 Broadway revival of Carousel and the recent London and US production of The Light in the Piazza. Most opera singers are not accustomed to an eight show a week grind. Did you find it difficult to adapt to singing a show eight times a week?

It's just not possible to sing 8 shows a week in opera. Because it is unamplified, and so extremely demanding on the voice, you would destroy your instrument. On Broadway, using a microphone, you can adjust your vocal technique, to allow for 8 shows a week. And the mic permits a different kind of nuance. It's really a different skill entirely. Which is not so say it isn't grueling. I'm in awe of artists who can do that for years. A lot of Broadway performers have to lead a pretty monastic life when they are on that schedule.

Which roles in both opera and theatre would you most like to perform when both genres are allowed to return to their full glories?

For me, returning to the stage is not so much about the particular roles or music I want to tackle. What I'm looking forward to most is the human connection with a live audience. That's something I'm thrilled about with this show- we will have a small, socially-distanced audience on the Opera House stage with us. Both Vanessa and I miss that terribly. That said, I am excited about some upcoming projects. One of them is the opera of The Hours, based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and the Oscar-winning film. The Metropolitan Opera is presenting the world premiere, and Kevin Puts, also a Pulitzer Prize winner, is the composer. His music is gorgeous. He composed The Brightness of Light, a setting of the letters of Georgia O'Keefe and Alfred Stieglitz that I premiered, and I know from that experience how beautiful this score will be. And I have something in the works with Opera de Paris. I can't wait to get back there!

Special thanks to Kennedy Center's Director, Public Relations Brendan Padgett for his assistance in coordinating this interview.

Theatre Life logo designed by Kevin Laughon.


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