For soprano Renée Fleming, novelty is one of the keys to happiness - as her latest album shows

Opera star’s inclusion of tracks by Iceland’s Bjork on Distant Light recording reflects her view that trying new things can keep you happy

PUBLISHED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 7:16pm
UPDATED : Monday, 09 January, 2017, 7:15pm

Soprano Renée Fleming’s new recording, Distant Light, features a work by Samuel Barber along with pieces by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg and – surprisingly – Bjork.

With her 58th birthday approaching on February 14, Fleming’s performances in Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier this month at London’s Royal Opera and at the Met this spring could be her last in the standard repertoire.

“I haven’t found too many things that are appropriate for me because my voice has not gotten heavier or more dramatic,” she says. “This will be my last Marschallin, but I definitely am hoping to do some new work in the future, and there’s a couple of things buzzing right now.”

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Distant Light , released on January 6, opens with Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a 1948 work set to a text by poet and novelist James Agee and is a perfect fit for Fleming’s silvery, soaring soprano. It links with Hillborg’s The Strand Settings, a 20-minute, four-song cycle debuted by Fleming with the New York Philharmonic in 2013. Locales – a porch on a summer evening, a roof on a house near the sea on a starlit night, bees buzzing at a bus terminal – create a textured, emotional soundscape.

“Because I’ve done all my standard rep, Decca said, ‘Hey, you haven’t recorded the Barber.’ And I’m shocked that they recommended it because these major orchestral works are not exactly radio,” she says.

“This album is sort of the beginning of me trying to explore this idea of new music.”

For Bjork’s Virus, Joga and All Is Full of Love, the microphone is much closer to her mouth, creating a contemporary rather than classical sound. The CD ends with two tracks of Fleming melded into a single recording.

“I wanted to do that for years. This is what pop artists do,” Fleming says, adding, playfully: “I’m my own backup chorus.”

Why Bjork? “Americans tend to bloc Scandinavians together, and Bjork is somebody who’s such a household name, and when I became more familiar with her music, I just thought, ‘God, this is so inventive, the use of language, the arrangements,’” Fleming says. “I’m looking for repertoire that is interesting to the public that’s a little bit more modern.”

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Fleming is one of the better-known opera singers. She performed The Star-Spangled Banner before both a baseball World Series game in 2003 and American football’s 2014 Super Bowl. She also released a 2005 jazz recording, Haunted Heart, with Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell.

Even now, she feels women face more difficult career paths than men.

“There are still many limits on what women can do. If you look at certain parts of even our business, let alone Wall Street or anywhere, we definitely don’t make up half the population of many worlds in which we live,” Fleming says.

“Now when I tour, and sometimes I’m fortunate to have private tours of shows and museums, I always ask, ‘Tell me about the women that are represented here.’ And people sometimes squirm, and sometimes they’re very proud to say we’re really working on it.”

Following an administrative track established by her late friend Beverly Sills, Fleming in December 2010 became a vice-president and creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Fleming added the role of artistic partner at the Kennedy Centre in Washington last March.

Could she see herself running an opera company?

“I used to think about that, and I would say never say never, but I think I’m probably more useful doing what I’m doing now rather than focusing in one area,” she says.

In November, she sang in the world premiere performance of Letters from Georgia, a song cycle by Kevin Puts, winner of the 2012 Pulitzer Prize for Music. It is based on writings from artist Georgia O’Keeffe to her later husband, photographer Alfred Stieglitz, and to artist Anita Pollitzer.

“We’re trying to develop this piece into something more,” Fleming says.

Whether as a singer or administrator, she wants to take different tacks.

“People want something new,” Fleming says. “Novelty is one of the keys to happiness.”