Opera Diva Entrances Audiences with Musical Variety

Renee Fleming blends styles, infuses warmth into performances

Adam Phillips | New York City

May 09, 2012

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In the United States, where sales show country music is the most popular music genre, closely followed by pop and hip-hop, opera superstar Renee Fleming has managed to become well known outside the rarified world of classical song.

No wonder she is known as "the people's diva."

Although she has sung for royalty and presidents, Fleming was not born to glamour. She and her siblings were raised near Rochester, more than 500 kilometers from New Yorks Metropolitan Opera House, the epicenter of classical song.

Her parents taught music in the public schools.

My parents both sang," Fleming says. "They sang duets together that they both taught. The discussion at the dinner table invariably was about the students and the vocal issues or the musicals. And when we would travel - and we took a lot of road trips - we would invariably sing in the car in perfect harmony in fact."
Fleming herself was shy and prone to stage fright. Help came from an unexpected quarter during her college days when she successfully auditioned for a jazz gig, and then became the trios regular weekend singer.

I was expected to talk to the audience which was, for me, traumatic almost," she recalls. "But eventually, you rise to the occasion. Young people have a way of adapting. So that started me on a road that I now love.

Fleming is known for the warmth she brings to her performances. Unlike many classical artists, she engages directly with her audience and has won many new fans for classical music through that interaction.

Describing a little bit what I am doing and using humor in a way to bring down barriers, particularly of difficult music," she says. "Its all music I love or I wouldnt sing it. But that doesnt mean its accessible to everyone."

Fleming realizes many people view opera and classical song as esoteric. So she takes care to reel them in slowly.

A lot of people are most appreciative of pieces they already know. Ideally, in a perfect world, its late 19th and early 20th century Romantic music," she says. "Puccini is the number one composer when it comes to concerts that I present. And then there is music that maybe isnt known, but may be very beautiful.

The Song to the Moon by the Czech composer Antonin Dvorak was once obscure, but now has become one of Flemings signature pieces.

Fleming admits that while mainstream audiences tend to think of opera as monolithic, opera fans tend to put non-classical vocal music, from Broadway show tunes to folk songs and rock 'n roll, into one basket.

And they are enormously distinctive and not just from the sound of the voice but from the actual style."

In fact, Fleming has recorded in a daring variety of styles, from Olivier Messiaens surreal French song-cycle "Poemes pour Mi" to the Blossom Dearie jazz number "Touch the Hand of Love" to "Stepping Stone from Dark Hope," her independent rock album.

Although she will probably remain most at home with opera, Fleming works tirelessly to help others learn the joys inherent in all the arts and in every mode of creative expression.