Dare to be diva
She is one of the world's most respected opera singers, but Renée Fleming isn't afraid to try her hand at jazz and rock, writes Richard James Havis
RENÉE FLEMING is sometimes referred to as America’s favourite soprano, and it’s easy to see why. Glamorous and possessing the charisma of a classic movie star, the lyric soprano has a sublime voice that can soar over an orchestral accompaniment to reach the furthest reaches of an opera house.
Fleming, who came to prominence in the 1990s, and is now one of the world’s most sought-after classical vocalists, made her name singing Mozart, and then, later, Richard Strauss. A prolific performer, she has learned about 50 operas, and can perform in five languages, including Russian and Czech.
Fleming returns to Hong Kong on May 9 for a sold-out solo performance with a varied set which includes some Handel oratorios, Strauss songs, and some musical theatre by Rogers and Hammerstein. The Strauss works include 1894’s Morgen!, a love song with lyrics from a German poem by John Henry Mackay, which Strauss composed for his first wife Pauline de Ahna when they married.
“Strauss is my core composer,” says Fleming, whose last outing in this city was in 2007 when she performed Strauss’ Four Last Songs with the Hong Kong Philharmonic.
“I have sung mostly the music of Strauss for the past 10 years. These are really popular songs, and my favourite songs, too. Morgen! is a very early song, but it reminds me a bit of Im Abendrot [At Sunset, one of the Four Last Songs].
That is interesting to me, as they act as bookends for his songwriting.”
Fleming says that some listeners may be surprised by the Handel oratorios, as they were written in English. Handel’s operas were in Italian, but the oratorios proved to be popular in England, so he wrote them in English.
“I’ve found the Handel oratorios to be very accessible, and they have a really modern sound and feel,” says Fleming. “There is a simplicity to the music, and they have a very direct emotive core. Most of them, like Samson, are not very well known, and are interesting because they, in a way, feature very modern women.”
Four Debussy songs have also been included in the programme. “It’s wonderful to bring some attention to the really delicate songs he wrote with the poet Charles Baudelaire. It’s the perfect marriage of poetry and music in a way,” Fleming says.
The inclusion of music by Broadway composers Rodgers and Hammerstein is not a surprise. Fleming performed their You’ll Never Walk Alone at Barack Obama’s presidential inauguration in 2008. Although a classical artist, Fleming often ventures into other genres. She just likes to sing, and she’s not snobbish about jazz and rock, although she has admitted she doesn’t know much about the latter.
Jazz, in fact, has been there from the start. The daughter of two suburban music teachers, Fleming’s first foray into performing was as part of a jazz trio while she was studying at the State University of New York at Potsdam. She released a jazz album called Haunted Heart, in 2005 and, unexpectedly, an album of rock covers, Dark Hope, in 2010, on which she seemed to channel Fleetwood Mac’s Stevie Nicks.
“Music theatre is such a popular genre, especially these pieces from Rogers and Hammerstein, which are known worldwide. Plus, that brings my own culture to the tour,” she says of The Sound of Music and Hello, Young Lovers, two songs on the Hong Kong bill. Singing jazz and the Broadway classics is a totally different performing experience to singing opera, she notes.
One of the skills of an opera singer is to make their voice heard, and the lyrics understood, over the accompaniment of a full orchestra without the use of any amplification.
This feat seems incredible for lyrical sopranos, who have softer voices than the dramatic sopranos who belt out the great heroines of Wagner at full tilt.
(Fleming did perform Wagner once, in 1996, essaying Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, in Bayreuth. She feels that was a mistake, as Wagner is not suitable for her voice.) She’s also played the title lead in Rossini’s Armida at New York’s Metropolitan Opera House in 2011and, more recently, sang in André Previn’s A Streetcar Named Desire at Carnegie Hall.
Jazz and rock are more intimate than opera, she says, as the microphone takes away the need to sing loud. “It’s a much more spoken register,” Fleming explains. “The technique is totally different. But [when I use a microphone], I think it also reminds people that opera singers are not amplified, and how incredible it is that a human being can ride over a whole orchestra without screaming. It is a sort of cultivated scream in a way, a sophisticated scream based on hundreds of years of this technique.”
This “cultivated scream” takes a lot of training, she says: “It’s like any athletic technique, it takes practice, and you have to understand the concepts.
It’s especially hard for singers as we are all different, our bodies are different, and our bone structures are different.
Everyone has to do it a little bit differently. It’s almost a kind of physical ventriloquism. You are projecting the sound with the least amount of effort, and that takes years to learn.”
Loudness is a relative thing, she adds. “It depends on the pitch. If it’s higher, it’s much easier to come out over the orchestra. Lower pitches don’t carry as well. It depends on the piece, too. Even a piano can be loud.”
Strauss, she adds, suits her voice, and is also a good fit for her, as she speaks fluent German. (Her Italian is not as good, she has said.) “Strauss is good for my voice, my temperament, and it’s also in a language that I studied. It’s just a really comfortable place for me to be. Strauss loved the soprano voice, he wrote his best vocal music for the soprano, and the characters are all interesting.
“I’ve enjoyed Marschallin [in Der Rosenkavalier], Capriccio and Arabella, and I have also recorded Daphne, which is much lesser known. I find that I have to keep coming back to Strauss.
Early on in my career, Mozart had that position, but now it’s Strauss.”
Lyric sopranos are generally known for their warm and bright voices, and their ability to make a relatively soft voice heard. But like most singers, Fleming does not like to describe her own voice.
She points out that, as the performer, she never really gets to hear it the way that the audience does.
“I am caught up in what I am doing, so I am the last person that would be able to describe it. I only hear it through my inner ear, or on recordings, which is not the way that the audience hears it in concert,” she says.
“Even with a good recording, the overtones are different to those in a concert hall. The acoustics of the hall combine with the voice to make something that is unique. That is why live performances are so compelling – people hear a human being expressing something, exploring stories and poems through music.”
Her long career has provided so many personal highlights that none spring to mind, she says. Travel is a part of her work that she enjoys nowadays.
“I like to see the world through music and experience new audiences. That is something that brings me joy.”
“I still love to go back to the same opera houses and concert halls, too.
This summer I am in Lebanon for the first time, and Dublin – I have never been there before – and also coming back to Asia. I’m looking forward to it.”
An Evening with Renée Fleming. May 9, 8pm. HK Cultural Centre Concert Hall.