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Exclusive Interview with legendary soprano, Renée Fleming

Giuseppe Verdi Symphony Orchestra of Milan, Renée Fleming

CDs: 1
Tracks: 17

Decca Music Group Ltd.
Rel. 20 Jun 2014

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On Wednesday, December 2, 2009, a day after learning that her Decca release Verismo had received a Grammy nomination for "Best Classical Vocal Performance," Classical Archives Artistic Director Nolan Gasser caught up with world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming – just as she was beginning a six-city recital tour on the West Coast. In this rich and delightful interview, Ms. Fleming discusses the inspiration behind her just-nominated release, as well as her active and passionate involvement with new works, her busy and diverse performing schedule – including a recent collaboration with rocker Lou Reed, and much more!

“I am a person who likes variety and exploring new things. I'm innately musically curious, and love the whole process of trying new things on.”

  • Nolan Gasser: First of all, hearty congratulations on the just-arrived announcement that your most recent Decca disc, Verismo, has been nominated for a Grammy for "Best Classical Vocal Performance".

  • Renée Fleming: Thank you very much.

  • NG: When did you receive this news?

  • RF: Shortly ago – I'm usually the last to know, but I found out sometime last night.

  • NG: This would be your third Grammy, which would be quite an accomplishment for a classical artist.

  • Renée Fleming RF: Well, I'm not holding my breath [laughter]. It's just nice to have a project recognized. With so many recordings released every month, I don't know how they keep track of them, I really don't. This one in particular was a labor of love, because the repertoire is unknown and it's nice to bring some attention to it.

  • NG: We'll return to discuss this disc, for sure; but perhaps we can begin our discussion with regard to your current activities – that which brings you to Seattle [where Ms. Fleming was staying at the time of this interview] – namely a set of recitals with the pianist Gerald Martin Moore: a program that includes two modern French pieces that you've recently performed with full orchestra, Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi and Henri Dutilleux's Le temps l'horloge, as well as Strauss songs and Italian arias. What was the inspiration for you to mount a 6-city tour with this diverse program?

  • RF: The program itself is drawn from things that I'm currently working on, and some things that I love. It's an extremely challenging program both for me and for the audience because the first half is largely 20th and 21st century French music. Then the Strauss Lieder are not well known and certainly none of the Italian arias are known. But I think it creates for the audience a terrifically entertaining program of enormous variety; it's a neat, satisfying program. People seemed to enjoy it in Vancouver [where the tour began].

  • NG: Messiean's Poèmes pour Mi is well known, of course, but I've only a read about the Dutilleux – which was in fact written for you. Do you have plans to record it?

  • Renée Fleming RF: We recorded the premiere, actually; it will be released, I think, directly by the Théâtre des Champs-Elysées in Paris – though I don't know if it will be internationally available or not. But you know how these things are – once they're out, they're out. I believe that the live performances are on YouTube [unfortunately, the YouTube performance has since been taken down]. That's both the bane and the beauty of existence today. It doesn't matter where we sing in the world, chances are it will be on the Internet the next day. There's no more trying things out; those days are gone.

  • NG: A private performance turns into a public event very quickly.

  • RF: Yes, yes. On the other hand it's wonderful that all these things are available to people.

  • NG: Especially when it comes to new works. Now, the Dutilleux was written for orchestra. Is this a recent transcription that Dutilleux himself did, or an original sketch?

  • Renée Fleming RF: It's the piano-vocal version – which he did at the same time as the orchestral version. Henri is very fastidious in his writing; it takes him a long time, and he really suffers over every pitch. So, it only stands to reason that he pulls out a piano-vocal version as he's doing the orchestration, because he knows I'll need it to learn the piece – so that somebody could sit at the piano and work with me on the piece. There are very few pianists who can read a full score.

  • NG: Since you were, in a sense, the inspiration for the composition, did you work directly with him once the concept took hold to write something for you?

  • RF: I really didn't need to. Henri had listened to a lot of my recordings, so I only asked for a couple of tiny changes. Generally speaking, I'll ask for a high pitch to be sustained, or very small things like that. But he talked to me all through the process. He would ask, "Would you feel comfortable about a cadenza?" He would always ask along the way if I thought something would be okay. He loved my recording called Haunted Heart, which is a jazz recording. He said he really wanted to highlight my low voice. Even though the last song is very high, the general tessitura of the cycle is a little bit lower than usual, because he wanted to show off that aspect of my singing. He's such a joy to work with – so passionate; still an incredible fire for creation! He's an inspiration to me, that at his age he's still going strong.

  • NG: I'm sure it must be gratifying for him as well, to know that a new work is going to get such a fully realized premier performance – with you, Seiji Ozawa, and the Boston Symphony.

    Now, preceding this present tour, you've had – typically – a series of fascinating and diverse performances: ranging from the opening concert with the new Maestro Alan Gilbert and the NY Philharmonic [Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi], some Met and Covent Garden [her signature roles in Massenet's Thaïs, Dvorák's Rusalka, and Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier], the premiere of the Dutilleux; and then a performance in Prague with Lou Reed to commemorate the 10th Anniversary of the Czech Republic. For most this would be a career, for you, one season! I assume that this diversity is something you thrive on. Can you talk about how you focus your artistry to cover such a wide gamut and busy schedule?

  • RF: Well, I tend to be very careful about how much new repertoire I take on, because I know that my time is limited. And I try to really utilize that in an efficient way with my own programming. Beyond that, there's a lot to balance. Trying to geographically hit some of the bases everywhere at least once a year. Trying to make sure I'm home enough during the school year to focus on my first job as a mother. And then also exercising whatever artistic desires I have, which have a lot to do with collaborating with conductors and directors and operatic productions. It's quite a balancing act, there's no question. There's no easy answer to that question.

    Of course, anything I'm doing, I have agreed to do; nobody's making me do anything – and I'm excited about it because it's on the calendar. I am a person who likes variety and exploring new things. I'm innately musically curious, and love the whole process of trying new things on.

  • NG: What was the experience like working with Lou Reed during the festivities for the 10th Anniversary of the Czech Republic? It must have been quite moving...

  • Renée Fleming RF: It was, absolutely. I was a little bit concerned about the collaboration at first... This was [former President of the Czech Republic] Václav Havel's idea – he really wanted Lou and I to collaborate. I wasn't convinced for a while of how we were going to do that, because Lou wanted to only perform his own music. My friend Rob Mathes made a terrific arrangement for us, and that seemed to make the difference ultimately. It helped enormously that we could be on the same page while not compromising anything about the song, or anything about the way I sing. The only thing for me that was a little difficult was to do the song in Lou's key – which meant that I was sort of in the stratosphere [laughter]. It wasn't a matter of it being uncomfortable, so much as that my voice would have sounded more idiomatic if it hadn't been so high. But other than that I think it worked out pretty well.

  • NG: It must have been an interesting experience for Lou as well – how did he seem to respond to the collaboration?

  • RF: He loved it! I was concerned that he would think, "Oh my gosh, this sounds crazy for my music..." But in fact he seemed to be really happy, and liked the power of it, with the full orchestra behind him. He's a very interesting artist; he's had an interesting career; he's married to Laurie Anderson – this is a sophisticated man. So he seemed to really enjoy the whole thing. We had a lot of fun in the end. And I came very much to appreciate his work as well. [see the attached video of their collaboration]

    And the other thing that was nice was singing with Joan Baez, who's a total icon! We did "Oh Freedom", the spiritual, with her and Suzanne Vega. It was an interesting group of completely varied performers. And we all had a relationship to Havel. And I think he loved and cherished the whole idea that we were all from different walks of life, musically speaking.

  • NG: No pun intended with Lou Reed... [laughter]

  • RF: [laughter] Right, exactly.

  • NG: And I'm sure it must have been a rich experience for the audience, and for the Czech public, to witness this concert.

  • RF: It was a very international audience, and everybody was so moved. Not by us so much as by the event and the meaning of it – yes, very moving.

  • NG: Your career is not only remarkable for its success, but also for its diversity – from the coloratura virtuosity of Handel and Mozart, to the bel canto operas of Rossini and Donizetti, to heavier dramatic roles in Verdi, Strauss, and even Wagner, and a bounty of contemporary music. As the daughter of two music teachers, was this something that was fostered early on, that if you had a good instrument, you should do it all?

  • RF: Actually, I think it's inherent in being an American singer. The idea that we all need to fit to the limited template of a European singer doesn't really hold water any more. Most American and English-speaking singers I know are versatile; that's why we sing in all languages. I mean, you can't really make an operatic career singing only in English – there's just not enough repertoire. You could never earn a living. I think this is pretty par for the course. It's true that not everybody sings in as many languages as I do; not everybody wants to go to that length, because it's incredibly time-consuming and difficult to sing in languages that we don't speak. It's a lot of memorizing by rote. But most singers are intellectually curious and do want to expand their horizons. So I feel like I'm part of a wonderful time where everyone's integrity is at a very high level.

  • NG: Well, you are certainly a great inspiration for upcoming singers to tackle a wide array of repertoires, as well as languages: Italian, French and German are commonplace, Czech and Russian, not so much.

  • RF: Right, but nobody's afraid to do it anymore. Another thing, I think, is that audience's tastes have changed: gone are the days when you really didn't have a career unless you sang the bread-and-butter Italian repertoire. Now, there are people who specialize in Janácek, and those kinds of roles. The whole amount of repertoire that is considered standard is a much larger number than it was when I started singing. Don't you agree?

  • NG: I do; although, sadly, classical audiences may be shrinking in numbers, they are becoming increasingly interested in previously untapped repertoires. This is certainly true with contemporary music, where the tides are beginning to turn – and particularly when they involve marquis artists such as yourself.

  • RF: I think it's very good that people are so intellectually curious.

  • NG: Part of this, of course, comes out of our information-age – something that the Classical Archives is very keen on: to make all of this repertoire and information, all the composers and their works, available to people with a click of a mouse. Where previously, they'd have to hunt in library bins to find the music of [medieval composer Guillaume] Machaut or [contemporary composer György] Ligeti, for example, now it's all at one's fingertips.

  • RF: Yes, it's amazing, really.

  • NG: I've read some about of your personal influences – as with hearing a recording of Janet Baker when you were a student studying Handel arias. Who were some other key vocal influences?

  • RF: I can name a few, certainly: Victoria de los Ángeles, in terms of her breadth of repertoire; definitely Elisabeth Söderström, who just passed away [on November 20, 2009], for her fearlessness about tackling difficult languages; and Eleanor Steber, for the way in which she commissioned new works. I also had a wonderful couple of afternoons with Leontyne Price, where she talked about the fact that there aren't so many singers who are willing to divide their time equally between opera, concerts, and recitals. I hadn't really thought about it before, but I realized, my goodness, she's right! I thought everybody did that, but in fact it's not quite such a common thing. So, those are just a few examples of who inspired me.

  • NG: And what about composers or repertoires – were there some in particular that had a major impact on you in your formative years? Or was it the whole gamut?

  • RF: I've never really limited myself to particular composers. And I'm constantly happy to sing new music, as long as it doesn't tax my voice in a way that's unhealthy. I am always looking at new things and I have a lot of projects in the future that are premieres. That's something I've always loved, and I have now the time to devote myself a little bit more to that.

    As far as my early years, I think I probably had more of an exposure to American music than most singers because my parents were both music teachers. They taught a lot of the standards: Bernstein and Barber, for instance... Carlisle Floyd's [1954 opera] Susannah was a good example of something that I knew very well as a kid – and loved; and when I made the recording I Want Magic [dedicated to American opera arias], I was shocked to discover that there weren't any other American aria recordings. Dawn Upshaw and I had the same idea at the same time, and we were the first ones to do that; I grew up with that music, and she did too – I think that one or both of her parents were music educators. And even though the times have changed dramatically – we're now in the world of John Adams, which is a different musical landscape than the neo-Romantic music of 30 years ago – American vocal music still has a distinctive flavor all it's own.

  • NG: Ok, so last but not least, let's talk a bit about your most recent album, Verismo – the object of your Grammy nomination. This is an album of heavy-hearted arias by composers the post-Verdi school dominated by Puccini [but also Giordano, Leoncavallo, Catalani, etc.]. You've included a few expected favorites [e.g., "Donde lieta" and Mimi's aria from La Bohème], but largely arias off the well-worn path [e.g., "Nè mai dunque avrò pace?" from Wally] I take it this was a conscious decision – to keep it fresh?

  • Renée Fleming RF: I really wanted to focus on drama, because I felt that I had done a lot of the more sustained style of the well-known arias. When Roger Pines [dramaturge of the Lyric Opera of Chicago] sent me both the [Leoncavallo's] Zazà and the [Mascagni's] Lodoletta arias, I said, "Well that's it, this is the hook!" I've always loved [famed Verismo soprano] Magda Olivero's performances of this music, but then I discovered so many other singers: Mafalda Favero is now a favorite, and Claudia Muzio – just beautiful singers, who sang with taste and a lyricism that surprised me. I thus decided to build the record around earlier lesser-known works that didn't have the association with more the spinto ["pushed", dramatic soprano] roles that the better known works do. So, it suited my voice a little bit better in the end. I was certainly surprised by the sheer amount of operas scores that were written in this period – hugely surprised! That was a joy to discover and I hope it encourages other people to look a little further into this period and find all of the other scores. There are so many new works...

  • NG: It may have been this freshness that caught the attention of the purveyors of the Grammy Awards: that the album had so much fresh and impacting material.

  • RF: Yes, exactly. And people are curious now, too, in terms of recording. You've got thousands of recordings of the well-known works from this period – Butterfly, Tosca, Bohème – and so I think people really are now ready to hear something else.

  • NG: Makes sense to me. Well, thanks so much Renée – and congratulations again on the Grammy announcement.

  • RF: Thank you so much.

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