Renée Fleming is a musical treasure. That was perhaps most evident when the nation watched her powerful performance at the funeral of Senator John McCain.
Her moving rendition of “Danny Boy” brought many to tears and left an indelible memory for those who attended and those who watched the services from their homes.
Her performance next week with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic will no doubt be equally inspiring as she brings her vast repertoire of classical and contemporary music to the Embassy stage.
Fleming says her concerts reflect her own diverse tastes.
“My programs are usually quite varied, because I love such a wide range of music,” Fleming said. “That will be evident in my program with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic. I’ll be singing Strauss’s Four Last Songs, which is, to me, some of the most surpassingly beautiful music written for the soprano voice and orchestra, and a work I’ve performed all over the world.
“I’ll also perform a group of three pieces I’ve sung in recent films, The Shape of Water, which won the Oscar for Best Picture, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri, and Bel Canto, which just opened. And there will be a group of musical theater songs, from my Broadway album, which was just released by Decca.”
Background in the arts
Born and raised around Rochester, New York, the same hometown as this writer, Fleming is happy to share remembrances of her background and how it helped to shape her passion for music.
“I was fortunate growing up in Rochester when I did, because music and the arts were really robust in our public school curriculum,” Fleming said. “I hope you had the same experience, and that we see arts education supported in the future. And personally, I had even more exposure to music, because my parents were both public school vocal music teachers, so singing was as natural as breathing in our home.”
Fleming attended the Eastman School of Music in Rochester and began establishing herself as one of the best of opera’s leading ladies. Equally comfortable with beloved established operas as well as edgier, more contemporary pieces, she feels the future depends on moving forward.
“I think it’s crucial that we support the creation of new operas,” she said, “and I love new music. Opera is an art form that is centuries old, but to stay vibrant, in addition to the great classics, it needs new pieces. We’re actually in a fantastic, fertile time for opera right now, with new works premiering every year, both in major houses and at smaller companies.
“In terms of my involvement, though, it’s not so much about balancing traditional and contemporary repertoire. It is really just a reflection of who I am as a musician. I am passionate about every genre and period of vocal music. I’ve sung opera, classical, jazz, even indie rock. My new album is Broadway music, and I loved recording that. And even within that, you’ll hear a wide range of styles, from Rodgers and Hammerstein to Dear Evan Hansen.”
It is that eclectic and versatile talent that Fleming brings to Fort Wayne, one which will no doubt feature songs from her recent Tony Award-nominated performance in Carousel.
Carousel was a special experience for her and one that reflects her wide range of musical and performing interests. She enjoyed not only the different environment of a Broadway musical, but also her ability to work where she lives.
“One major difference is the performing schedule,” Fleming said. “Opera is so vocally demanding, projecting over an orchestra and chorus, without any amplification, often in huge opera houses, that you just can’t sing a leading role more than two or three times in a week.
“On Broadway, because there is amplification, you can sing more intimately, and do eight shows a week without damage.
“Another difference is the community. An opera career usually happens all over the world, and so the community is spread out. But the Broadway theater community is really based in New York. It’s like a very close-knit family, and I loved being a part of that. Just being home for that many months was something that has never really happened in my adult life, so that was something I really enjoyed as well.”
Healing through music
Fleming is aware of how healing her performance was at the McCain funeral, and, due mostly to the senator’s failing health several months before his death, she had some time to prepare for the emotional weight of the experience.
“There was only a week between his passing and the funeral, but Senator McCain had expressed months earlier that he would like me to sing that song when the time came,” she said.
“It’s not easy to sing at gatherings where people’s grief is so immediate, but music has always been central to these kinds of moments. It has such unifying power, allowing people who may otherwise be in discord to join together in a shared expression of feeling.”
With her recent Broadway stint behind her and her current tour just under way, it’s easy to wonder if she plans to return to the Great White Way anytime soon.
While the answer is a disappointment for theater fans, Fleming devotees can rest assured they have much to look forward to.
“No current plans for a return to Broadway, but I will be doing a theater piece this spring to open the Shed, a major new art space in New York City,” Fleming said. “Before that, there’s a European tour. I have a classical album on deck for spring, too, and a world premiere opera further down the road.”