Renée Fleming: The People’s Diva

When soprano Renée Fleming appears in recital with Russian pianist Olga Kern at the Kennedy Center on Feb. 23, as part of Washington Performing Arts’ Star Series, she’ll be on familiar footing. So will her audience, because in the world of classical music, Fleming, with 50 operas to her credit, is just about the most familiar face that lives, breathes and sings in these times.

You can expect Fleming to be in fine form, performing songs by Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Strauss, not because the music comes easy to her, but because she gives it impassioned attention. That’s where the love especially exists.

“The Rachmaninoff songs are new to me, but I’ve done the Schumann and Strauss pieces before,” she says, every inch, one way or another, the diva – a description she doesn’t particularly mind. “You can embrace that without thinking of it in terms of high-strung temperament. It’s about the utmost quality in the performance, and doing all the things that are required with being a singer, a performer, at a high level.”

Certainly, she’s the best-known diva. She’s been called “the people’s diva,” because she crosses the boundaries of classical music and leaves the world of her opera roles often, almost with a certain amount of glee.

She can be heard in the “Lord of the Rings” movies singing in Elvish. For the 2010 album “Dark Hope,” Fleming abandoned her familiar soprano tones to take on pop-rock compositions, including Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Willy Mason’s “Oxygen,” which Fleming tosses out like a gift of bouncy music.

Blessed with good looks, she remains striking and glamorous. She followed the traditional pathways to musical stardom, more or less: studies in school, graduate studies, a Fulbright scholarship, appearances in small operas companies and, a big leap forward, winning the Metropolitan Opera Auditions at 29 (when she also sang the part of the Countess in “The Marriage of Figaro” at Houston Grand Opera in 1998).

The rest is a prodigious and world-whirlwind success story – singing in pretty much all the major houses, singing many of the major roles to critical and popular acclaim. She became a star, a diva, call it what you will.

But that world – sometimes confined both musically and in terms of lifestyle – changed. If you became the kind of megawatt star that Fleming has become at 55, the expectations shift. She believes that, for one thing, opera is a world that’s expanding, with brilliant new works from contemporary and modern composers. This belief led her to performing as Blanche DuBois in Andre Previn’s opera, “A Streetcar Named Desire.”

“I don’t think classical music stands still, nor should we rely only on an existing great-works repertoire. We need new music and forms and should embrace them.”

She’s gotten past a divorce after 11 years of marriage, has two daughters, Amelia and Sage, from that marriage and in 2011 remarried after being set up on a blind date by her friend, novelist Ann Patchett (“Bel Canto”).

“We’re very good friends,” she said of Patchett. “The book is beautiful, it lends itself to opera.”

She is curating an opera based on the novel for the Chicago Lyric Opera, which commissioned the project. She is a creative consultant for the Chicago Lyric Opera.

There’s more. She hooked up with the Kennedy Center in 2013, heading its American Voices project. She sang “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl, wrote a book (“The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer”), and she is well known for being part of numerous charitable and educational projects. Which is why she’s recommending a book called “The Organized Mind: Thinking Straight in the Age of Information Overload.” “This is important, it really is, because there’s so much going on in everyone’s lives,“ she said.

Change begets change. Fleming and her husband, who live in New York, recently bought a home in the Palisades neighborhood near Georgetown.

And oh yes, she’s taking to the stage in the comedy “Living on Love”, based on an unfinished Garson Kanin play, scheduled to open on Broadway in April. She plays a famous—wait for it-diva. These days, anything can happen. With Fleming, that’s no longer a surprise.


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