A Superstar Makes a Life Change — a Conversation with Soprano Renée Fleming
By Mark McLaren, Editor in Chief, April 12, 2017
Tomorrow night, the opera superstar Renée Fleming comes to the Metropolitan Opera House in what will be her final performances as the Marschallin in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. Fleming, who is 58, has stated that this Robert Carsen production, which debuted in London last December, will mark her retirement of the role as she continues to concertize, record and pursue offstage interests. And contrary to some recent, inaccurate headlines, Ms. Fleming confirms to ZEALnyc that she will continue appearing in opera beyond this production. Future dates are scheduled and she looks especially toward new works and new repertoire. This as she continues her current work outside of opera.
I think it is fair to say that Fleming’s talent is huge. The Met has capitalized on other thrilling musical talent in recent years. Nina Stemme, Javier Camarena and Sondra Radvanovsky with riveting vocal work in interesting productions. Netrebko, Kaufmann, DiDonato — all exceptional. But not as known to the general public as Fleming, Pavarotti, Norman or Domingo. Superstars sell tickets. The group consisting of the operatic variety has been in a slow but steady decline. So the search for (or making of) the next opera superstar(s) intensifies.
Ms. Fleming sat down for a conversation with ZEALnyc to discuss the role of the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier and her career.
ZEALnyc: Thank you for taking time to speak with us. How is your day going?
RF: Great, thank you. A lot of rehearsal.
ZEALnyc: Of course. You come to New York from London with rave reviews in Robert Carsen’s new production of ‘Der Rosenkavalier,’ in a role you are closely associated with. What does the Marschallin mean to you personally? What about this particular character has sparked your interest artistically?
RF: First of all, I would say she’s the most interesting and complex of the Strauss characters that are appropriate for my voice. I started singing this role when I was in my mid-thirties. Everyone said at the time that I was too young, but in fact that was the appropriate age — that’s how old she actually is.
However, she has a maturity and an authentic honesty that one doesn’t see in most characters that are composed for sopranos. Very often, lyric sopranos are the victims or the love interests. We don’t very often get to sing these three-dimensional characters.
This has been my favorite character as a result. It’s been the role that I’ve enjoyed singing the most.
Musically, there are exquisite moments. The end of Act I and her monologue and her phrases about time and wanting to stop the clocks. Even, at the end of Act I, her phrases about wanting to go visit her uncle take on a whole new meaning because she is trying really to explain to Octavian what is going to happen. She says so many profound things, and she is saying it as much for herself as for him.
And then the pinnacle, and the high point of the opera is the trio in the end of Act III. It is exquisitely beautiful. And for those of us who love this opera and who love Strauss…I mean, I remember where I was when I first heard it.
ZEALnyc: Where were you?
RF: I was in college and I was in somebody’s apartment at a gathering of young musicians and someone played it. And I said “Oh my gosh, that’s really beautiful.” Never really thinking, “Oh, I want to sing that.”
And I’ve sung the role on and off. There was a period in the beginning when I first started singing her that I did several different productions, then I put it away for a long time to sing higher repertoire. I thought, “Why am I doing this now? I can come back to it later,” which I then did.
ZEALnyc: How many particular productions of ‘Rosenkavalier’ have you done?
RF: Not so many productions, but I would say about seventy performances once I’ve finished this one. Not a crazy amount. There are a lot of people who sing in Europe who sing a lot more. But it has been the role that I’ve sung more than probably anything else.
I haven’t sung that much opera over the years. I concertize more.
ZEALnyc: Speaking to the opera roles that you’ve done and outside of vocal parameters, are there links to the roles that you are aligned with, Desdemona, Rusalka, Manon, Violetta? Is there a particular character link to those roles to you, or among those roles?
RF: No, not really. Obviously there is a vocal link, and that is the real key – is it appropriate for your voice. I will say, I have to like the libretto, I have to be interested in playing the character. Some of them are really out there. I mean Alcina, Armida, these are sorceresses. So some of them are really far from who we are.
I think the closest to who I am is Tatiana in Eugene Onegin. I could completely relate to her. Her strength when she enters society. And both the vulnerability and the fierce desire to make her dreams come true. And the fact that she was such a bookworm. There is so much about her that I could completely relate to.
People used to talk about the Mozart roles that I sing and the Strauss repertoire being aligned. And I would say, “…well, why?” But it is really the vocal writing that they are speaking to.
ZEALnyc: Opera, as a business, has changed fairly substantially over time. And acting has become more pronounced in casting decisions over the recent years than perhaps before.
RF: Acting and type also. Yes, I agree.
ZEALnyc: Are there particular singing actors that you watched as you came up in your career?
RF: No. I watched theater. Theater was my passion. I’ve gone to the theater probably five times since I got home. So that’s where I’m inspired. And I’m not saying that singers aren’t good actors. I don’t think that at all. I think there are a lot of great actors.
But when I was a student, and when I was up and coming, people didn’t lead with that. And I was more interested in the artistry. I was more interested in vocal artistry and when I took in singers, that is what I was listening for.
For just pure acting, I definitely go to the theater.
ZEALnyc: Were there particular actors that you loved? Or particular performances?
RF: No, not particular actors. I have friends who are great actors. Laura Linney is a friend. Cherry Jones is a friend. Christine Baranski is a friend. I admire them so much, the work that they they do. I mean, eight shows a week and then television. I think it’s extraordinary.
And I was just the voice of Juliane Moore for the film Bel Canto. I think they just finished filming. But meeting her and seeing her professionalism and her focus. And her desire to authentically take on what a singer is supposed to look like, and to physically inhabit that, it was so impressive to me.
ZEALnyc: I’ll preface this next question with “I may be wrong on this…,” but some may have viewed your choice of roles as too conservative.
RF: Yeah, I haven’t heard that one. I’ve heard a lot of criticism, but that one I’ve never heard. I’ve sung nine bel canto roles, and there’s no more challenging repertoire than bel canto.
ZEALnyc: That is fair, and my sample is probably too small. I apologize. You have done a lot of new work: ‘Ghosts of Versailles,’ ‘Dangerous Liaisons,’ ‘A Streetcar Named Desire.’ Some as a very established singer. Speak to me about what working on new works has meant to you, both personally and professionally.
RF: Well, it’s not really different from learning anything new — it’s a new piece.
ZEALnyc: Is it not that different?
RF: Well, you don’t have other examples and you can put your stamp on it. There isn’t a whole list of comparisons. You don’t start with “These ten singers have done it phenomenally in the past.” Now in a way, it makes it a little bit harder because there isn’t a standard. So you have to make the standard. But in another way, it’s wonderfully freeing.
Going back to your previous question — I actually think I have an idea of what you may be talking about. The hard repertoire might mean the repertoire that is appropriate for a larger voice. So I had a tricky time finding things that really suited me. The verismo repertoire was never appropriate or the heroic Verdi roles. So I would say that even though I have sung a lot of music, once I passed the Mozart and the bel canto repertoire, and stuck to the things that were comfortable and appropriate for me, there were about ten or twelve roles.
And I could see where someone could say, “Well, they’re not as virtuosic in the same way as bel canto is, for instance.” But the artistry was certainly there.
ZEALnyc: I will admit that I was a huge fan of ‘The Ghosts of Versailles.’ Speak a bit about creating the role and being there at the very beginning. Do you have particular moments that you remember, as opposed to going into a standard rep role? How was Teresa Stratas?
RF: It was wonderful being around her. She was such a great artist. She was generous to us, really wonderful to work with. There was a set piece that fell down that would have seriously hurt anyone standing under it. Two other young singers and I were close to it. And she burst into tears and had to leave the stage. That’s the kind of generous care that she brought. Yeah, so that was a terrific experience. That was complicated to put together because it was so many people.
That was supposed to be my MET debut. But I went in a year earlier in Figaro.
ZEALnyc: You come to ‘Rosenkavalier,’ a role you’ve sung over the years, in a character that speaks to aging and perhaps moving past the prime — a subject that may well speak a bit to the opera audience demographic. In this season, Glenn Close has come to Broadway in Norma Desmond, a woman also grappling with time. What are your thoughts about the topic?
RF: Well, everyone loves this character for that reason. It is very moving to the audience, and frankly, people at thirty can already relate to it. She is so moving, the way she talks about time and the passage of time. I’ve loved singing her, and I do think it is the right choice to say goodbye to the Marschallin at this point, and to do it at a time when it is comfortable. I could continue to sing this role. It’s not that it’s too difficult or anything. But I feel that I have done it in the houses where I’ve wanted do it, I’ve said what I wanted to say with it, and there is a next generation who will want to make their mark on the role. And I want to be supportive of that.
ZEALnyc: Thank you so much for your time. It was a pleasure speaking.
RF: Thank you so much!
Information on the Metropolitan Opera production of Der Rosenkavalier can be found here.
Cover photo: Soprano Renée Fleming; photo: Decca/Andrew Eccles.