The View

Renée Fleming is bringing energy, acumen and superstar clout to her new role as Lyric Opera of Chicago’s creative consultant. MEGAN McKINNEY observes the soprano in action in the Windy City.

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Photographed by Todd Rosenberg at Lyric Opera of Chicago's Civic Opera House
Tuxedo shirt by Viktor & Rolf at Ikram; bolero by If Six Was Nine at Ikram; belt by Azzedine Alaïa at Ikram; brocade skirt by Carmen Marc Valvo at Neiman Marcus; jewelry by Ann Ziff for Tamsen Z. Clothes styled by Brandy Kraft.
Makeup by Sarah Hatten. Hair by Brittany Crinson
© Todd Rosenberg 2014
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Red Spacer 1213 “Face to Face” Renée Fleming in conversation with Barbara Cook (F. Paul Driscoll, December 2001)
Red Spacer 1213 “Becoming Renée Fleming” The experiences that shaped the artist (David J. Baker, September 2003)
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Singing the national anthem at Super Bowl XLVIII, 2014
© Kevin Mazur/WireImage 2014
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Showing off Lyric’s 2013 Joseph Jefferson Award for The Second City Guide, with general director Anthony Freud
© Dick Duane 2014

She radiates an aura of ease, moving gracefully into a room, onto a stage, even a football field, relaxed and smiling. There is no sense of effort, or of the discipline and drive that have propelled Renée Fleming to her position as America’s most visible diva, an artist whose glowing presence and magnificent voice captivate audiences worldwide. On New Year’s Eve, that voice will draw nearly four thousand celebrants when she opens in the Metropolitan Opera’s new production of Franz Lehár’s Merry Widow, staged by Broadway director and choreographer Susan Stroman.

The sumptuous Fleming voice is the result of decades of self-discipline and singlemindedness, which have spectacularly elevated a generous genetic endowment. But it is her astonishing physical presence that one first senses. Her beauty is both girlish and glamorous, and her slender body, comfortable in the opulent designer gowns she favors, appears always to have been so. And yet that too is the product of the same determination that has driven her to strive tenaciously to perfect her exceptional voice, memorize more than fifty operas and accept the challenge of delivering the thorny U.S. national anthem to more than one hundred million Super Bowl fans last February.

At fifty-five, Fleming still routinely garners lavish praise from critics, as well as the adulation of audiences and distinguished awards from nations throughout the world. But it would be uncharacteristic of her not to continue to drive herself forward, preparing for a time when the extraordinary voice is no longer sumptuous. 

Following years of resolute effort to secure her position at the top of a notoriously competitive profession, she is now propelling herself with an energy unseen since Beverly Sills expanded her role from opera star to spokeswoman for the arts. Yet the pioneering ambassadorship of Sills, much of it through television appearances and as talk-show host, was merely phase one in a continued rise that would reach the summit of arts administration. By 1980, fifty-one-year-old Sills had moved neatly from center stage at New York City Opera and the Met to the front office at City Opera, where she spent a decade as general director. Taking over an organization deep in red ink in 1979, she managed to produce a surplus of $3 million by 1989, while lifting the annual budget from $9 million to $26 million.

It now appears that Fleming has followed a similar trajectory, which is not surprising. What she refers to as her “need to continually strive and improve … continuing to grow” appears to be a function of her core personality. She recalls a childhood sense of obedience, in which she was always a diligent student, the teacher’s pet determined to earn straight As. Even then, when she had dreams, she usually achieved them. 

Fleming’s girlhood aspiration to own a horse was so powerful that her parents, in spite of limited means, bought a grade horse and moved the family to a house with a barn. However, the message was “With dreams come responsibilities — you have to work for what you want, for what you love.” Rising in the dark, bitter cold of Churchville, New York mornings, breaking ice, lugging buckets of water and sacks of grain up from the basement, followed by the daily chore of mucking the stall — these were the price of her girlhood dream. 

Initially, becoming a great opera star was not Fleming’s dream, but when it emerged, she again recognized a price to be paid. Her voice, she maintains, is not merely a natural gift but the result of excellent mentoring, which she followed with the same discipline she applied to stall-mucking and predawn ice-breaking. Working arduously with a series of teachers and coaches, year after year, studying her anatomy and learning to manipulate portions of her body — the abdominal wall, for example, the rear of her neck or the “mask” of her face — she created the voice she has today.

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Interviewing conductor Harry Bicket during The Met: Live in HD transmission of Handel’s Giulio Cesare, 2013
© Marty Sohl/Metropolitan Opera 2014

Fleming, who like Sills has been a frequent host of Live from Lincoln Center on PBS, has added The Met: Live in HD to her emcee credits. Also like Sills, she ventured further into recitals and concerts, expanding her schedule by as many as thirty cities a year, with the intent of developing an audience among those who would not otherwise hear her. This also has been a means of broadening her celebrity beyond a classical audience in support of record sales, which she maintains will “keep my art alive after I’ve stopped performing.” Fleming revisited the jazz performances of her student days in her 2005 album Haunted Heart, then wandered into indie rock with Dark Hope, the surprise album she recorded in 2010. Last July, she made her theatrical debut at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Joe DePietro–Garson Kanin comedy Living on Love, to mixed reviews. Although Rex Reed, in his New York Observer review, referred to Fleming’s performance as “laced with a sense of humor that is nothing less than captivating,” Alexis Soloski, in The New York Times, described it as “eight-lane-highway broad.”

Fleming was ripe for a move within opera in February 2010, when, over lunch at New York’s Café Boulud, Richard Kiphart, then president and CEO of Lyric Opera of Chicago, proposed that Fleming take on some formal administrative involvement at Lyric — an opportunity for her to make a leap in which she would develop new creative, educational and marketing programs for the company. Included in the package was curatorship of a new opera, with a world premiere to take place during the 2015–16 season. After much serious thought on how to squeeze all of this into an already taxing schedule, Fleming agreed in further discussions to a creative consultancy to be known as the “Renée Fleming Initiative.” 

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A working session for Bel Canto with director Kevin Newbury, music director Andrew Davis and composer Jimmy López
© Jaclyn Simpson 2014

The new property is Bel Canto, by Peruvian composer Jimmy López and Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Nilo Cruz. Based on the best-selling novel of the same name by Ann Patchett, Bel Canto will be conducted by Andrew Davis and star Danielle de Niese, with Kevin Newbury as stage director. This will not be the first attempt to bring Bel Canto to an opera stage; Santa Fe Opera commissioned Aaron Jay Kernis to compose a version as a part of its 2006 fiftieth-anniversary season. When Kernis failed to produce a score on schedule, that plan was postponed indefinitely. (Patchett, who has become a close friend of Fleming since writing the book,  introduced the diva to her current husband, Tim Jessell.)

“Lyric Unlimited,” launched by the company in the summer of 2012, embraces a number of collaborations with other Chicago arts and educational organizations in what Fleming describes as “being creative in twenty-first-century presentation about pursuing new, younger audiences — moving out of the theaters and into the community. You can focus as much as you want on the quality of what you present,” she says, “but then you are still preaching to your current audience. The world has evolved so quickly that even classically educated people my age don’t necessarily think it’s relevant to them and their lives.” Her partners include cellist Yo-Yo Ma, who mirrors Fleming as creative consultant for the Chicago Symphony Orchestra; the city’s mayor, Rahm Emanuel; the Merit School of Music, a nationally respected community music school located in Chicago’s Near West Side; and the Chicago Public Schools. 

Fleming’s achievements as Lyric creative consultant have resulted from regular Chicago visits, six to seven times annually and generally lasting two or three activity-crammed days, during which her driven persona dominates. A typical two-day schedule last spring began on May 8 with a crush of Lyric appointments, morning and afternoon, before a dinner dance at the Palmer House Hilton to benefit the Merit School. At that event, Fleming received the Alice S. Pfaelzer Award for Distinguished Service to the Arts “for her outstanding leadership in supporting accessible, high-quality arts education in Chicago and nationwide.”

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Marking the first anniversary of the CPS Arts program in 2013 with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel
© Todd Rosenberg 2014

In one of a string of meetings the following day, Fleming is businesslike, cordial but without the performance smile, absorbing the gist of a new idea in a pulse beat, reworking it mentally and returning a revised version with Wimbledon precision. While brainstorming a new outreach project in a conference with University of Chicago music historian Travis Jackson, she flips a proposed concept and belts it back to him, tapping energetically into her laptop. His own rapid return excites her respect, and she responds in kind. By the end of thirty minutes a vague concept that had begun the session has developed definition. They will meet again — soon.

The next meeting on the schedule is with Lyric general director Anthony Freud. Following the meeting — a ninety-minute box-lunch session in Freud’s office with Fleming and Lyric president and CEO Kenneth G. Pigott — the dynamic Freud brain is almost visibly swirling. His initial comment is,“Ahhh, the flow of ideas! She is incredibly visionary, incredibly focused.” He is perceptibly energized by the encounter. Fleming, meanwhile, is on her way down in an elevator to a rehearsal hall on the second floor, where she will conduct a two-hour master class. 

The radiant performance smile appears again as she settles onstage in a vast rehearsal hall, listening to the first performer, a soprano and third-year member of the Patrick G. and Shirley W. Ryan Center, Lyric’s professional artist-development program. At the end of the aria, Fleming rises and walks over to place her hand on the young soprano’s shoulder. “I love how you express the emotion,” she says with a warm smile. “I’m just going to show you how to fine-tune some things. Part of the problem is your energy. If you can harness that…. Try it again.” Following a second brief snatch of aria, Fleming returns to give the singer’s shoulder a light massage. “I see a lot of tension here, and you have to vary the emotion. Everything sounds the same.” The process continues with increasing results. “Relax,” she says, “have fun, play around.” Finally, after one more run, the segment has ended, and Fleming is beaming. “It is quite gorgeous,” is all she says. The young soprano, now also beaming, steps down to make room for a first-year tenor. In another ninety minutes, Fleming will be on her way to the airport and a flight home to New York and overscheduling in a different city.

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Bowing after a Lyric Opera concert with Jonas Kaufmann and Andrew Davis
© Todd Rosenberg 2014

It isn’t until a month later that she and I are able to sit alone to discuss her vision for her post-opera career. She has stayed overnight to meet with OPERA NEWS over early-morning coffee near the top of Chicago’s Four Seasons Hotel in her only appointment of the day, and she is relaxed. However, she quickly launches into a description of her thoughts on how even the landmarked Civic Opera House could be made more accessible for the common man, woman and child.

“I’ve wanted since the beginning to change the street, to somehow enliven the exterior of the building. The first time my husband came to Chicago, he could not find the opera, because it looks like an office building. It’s dark, sort of dreary. And the signage is small and from another time. When you think about how in New York it’s been completely transformed — Alice Tully Hall has been transformed. This has worked for a long time, going from I. M. Pei and the Louvre. Even in a historic building that’s protected, it’s important to introduce some element to make the public say, ‘Oh! You’re right — the opera.’ I’m learning that the best thing is to start with the biggest possible plan and then, if necessary, to scale it down.

“My initiatives have succeeded far beyond my expectations of what I could do. I’ve loved working with Anthony and Ken. They complement each other so well. They’ve just been the most generous colleagues. Anthony is the most positive manager, really hands-on. He does everything, everything. I can’t think of a happier existence in terms of this type of collaboration. This whole idea of going outside the theater — it’s important, and it’s one that’s being embraced by a lot of different organizations, because the world is changing, quickly.

“It is essential to reach out to children until we have broad-based education in the schools — which will happen. The Chicago Public Schools have a plan to make the arts curriculum a part of the core. It’s already happening. So Yo-Yo Ma and I are working with them on this. It didn’t work to remove the arts and just focus on the core. There is a large piece of development that is hugely enhanced by this kind of activity. Even aside from people saying yes, it enhances their education, [without it] kids are dropping out.”  

When I suggest that she is following the Beverly Sills path, she insists she is not. “Beverly Sills retired young and immediately went into classical arts administration,” she points out. “But these jobs are so challenging now, with the changing face of the classical arts, the media, fund-raising. It’s all evolving very quickly, and I almost think these jobs are hard for one person. I really love what I am doing now, particularly in Chicago. Not being on the ground, managing the entire operation, gives me the chance, because I travel so much, to really be the person who has the bird’s-eye view and sees the big picture. And there’s a huge advantage to that. For instance, I can’t do the same thing with my own career. That’s a disadvantage. I see that very clearly. The fact that I’m stuck in the minutiae of how to get through the day in terms of my own obligations means that I depend on other people to see the big picture, to manage the details of my life, and I rather like being able to do that. 

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Clowning with Patrick Stewart in The Second City Guide to the Opera
© Todd Rosenberg 2014

“Johnny Carson was the mastermind behind the popularization of Beverly Sills. There are letters in her archives that he wrote to her, saying, ‘I think you could be a household name,’ which she became. And there hasn’t been anyone since who has been able to break that barrier. Television has gone from four stations to a thousand, so that the competition for audience is too great for that to happen again. The medium has become so hard to crack that whatever exposure we get is great.

“The Super Bowl has, by far, been the biggest thing to happen — for me, for us. Even for Vera Wang, with the Smithsonian displaying the Super Bowl gown she designed. It’s been a heady time, including the Annie Leibovitz portrait of me unveiled at the National Portrait Gallery last summer. It’s been just an extraordinary time for me.” She points to the 2012 National Medal of Arts as the most gratifying recognition she has received. “To be recognized by your country — but I don’t connect very much with the whole awards thing. I’m too active and doing things to stop and think about it.

“I’ll tell you who my role model is. My role model is Leontyne Price. She sat me down on three occasions and really spelled out for me her story, her trajectory, her life. It’s a good fit for me, and basically I expect to follow her path. You step away from opera first, because that’s an Olympic arena. Leontyne Price stepped away from opera but kept performing in concerts and having tremendous enjoyment. Marilyn Horne also, touring until not too long ago. That’s really what I see happening, and the other activities that I fit into that. With any luck I’ll keep doing the same thing, because I really enjoy it. There’s not going to be any one thing. I don’t have a vision of retiring and then doing one thing. My guess is that it will be a continuation of activities. I really don’t have a plan. I’m very open-minded to what the future will bring. People ask me, and I say, ‘I might just want to retire and read books.’ I don’t know. It’s a transition, a long transition. I work so hard, and I am an energetic person who likes to do things.” 

She gazes out through the broad sweep of windows to a brightly sunlit Michigan Avenue. Then, turning back to the room, she adds, “Sometimes I think it might be nice to just relax by the fireplace.” spacer 

MEGAN MCKINNEY, a Chicago-based writer, is author of The Magnificent Medills, the 2011 prize-winning biography of the Medill-McCormick-Patterson newspaper dynasty. 

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