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.
Fleming at the Philadelphia Orchestra opening Photo: 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
She has not restricted herself to the world’s most famous
stages, but instead has lent her star power to embattled
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.