People’s diva sets her course

Though still performing, legendary soprano Renee Fleming signed on for 5 years as creative consultant for Lyric Opera of Chicago.

By LAURA GOLDMAN
November 4, 2012 21:33
3 minute read.
Fleming at the Philadelphia Orchestra opening

Renee Fleming 370. (photo credit: Jessica Griffin)

Renee Fleming, with her magical voice that effortlessly trills the high note and captivating stage presence, has succeeded the late superstar Beverly Sills as the world’s greatest living soprano. Although she can boast of having her own designer scent, named La Voce, the beautiful songbird is the antidiva.

She has not restricted herself to the world’s most famous stages, but instead has lent her star power to embattled orchestras.

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Fleming, who is not Jewish, traveled to Israel last summer to perform with Zubin Mehta and the Israeli Philharmonic despite some in the BDS movement calling for her to boycott Israel. The memorable concert was captured for posterity on film and shown in more than 400 theaters to the delight of classical music audiences the world over.

She sang a dazzling “Sheherazade” by Ravel, which was later followed by a luscious “Mein Elemer!” from Strauss’ Arabella, at the recent opening concert gala of the Philadelphia Orchestra, which has just emerged from bankruptcy.

Fleming, displaying her characteristic modesty, has said that she came to support the charismatic Yannick Nezet Seguin, who is starting his inaugural season as the music director of the orchestra.

While conductor Mehta has dabbled in politics this week while the Israeli Philharmonic is playing at Carnegie Hall, Fleming has a policy of not discussing politics. That did not mean that she did not want to talk about her Israeli concert.

“Singing in Jerusalem with the Israel Philharmonic under Zubin Mehta was meaningful to me in so many ways,” she said. “Of course I was deeply affected by the culture and history of Jerusalem, and I felt a palpable, profound love of music from the audience there. I was also thrilled because the concert was given in honor of the beloved American tenor Richard Tucker, whose musical career took him from beginnings as a cantorial student to success as one of the greatest operatic tenors in the world.”

Like her mentor Sills, Fleming has started working offstage in opera. She was named the first ever Creative Consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. As part of her responsibilities, she is currently developing Bel Canto, the bestselling novel by Ann Patchett, into an opera. The novel is based on the real life 1996 hostage crisis in Lima Peru. Diplomats in Lima, Peru were held hostage by guerrillas for more than four months at the residence of the Japanese ambassador.

After reading Bel Canto, Fleming instantly knew that it could be an opera. “I imagined Bel Canto would work well theatrically because it’s a multinational ensemble piece, which would logically take place on one set: the house in South America where the hostages are being held,” she explained. “My friend Ann Patchett often brings her characters to their highest calling.

In this particular story she creates a utopian society based on the power of music and the sense of community it creates. Most of us crave a cathartic emotional experience; we want to feel something when we’re in the theater. I believe the story of Bel Canto has the capacity to do that.”

Lyric Opera of Chicago Music Director Sir Andrew Davis and general director Anthony Freud have worked with Renee to assemble the creative team responsible for transforming the novel into an opera. She reviewed the work of over 100 composers to prepare her short list.

“I then played my choices for Sir Andrew. We were surprisingly and wonderfully on the same page in terms of our tastes and the musical direction we thought Bel Canto needed.”

They ultimately chose Peruvian Jimmy Lopez as the composer; Pulitzer-winning playwright Nilo Cruz to write the libretto, and Stephen Wadsworth to direct. Bel Canto is expected to premier during the 2015 season of the Lyric Opera.

This project may be more of a labor of love than her usual projects – Patchett introduced Fleming to her second husband, Tim Jessell.


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