Renaissance Woman

By Laura Latzko

Renee Fleming made a name in opera, but she is an adaptable singer who has lent her voice to operatic, theater, film and classical music.

The soprano recently sang “Danny Boy” during a memorial service for Sen. John McCain.

During an upcoming visit to Arizona, Fleming will perform at the Tucson Music Hall with the Tucson Symphony Orchestra on Friday, February 6.

The Tucson concert is part of the Tucson Desert Song Festival, which promotes collaboration between arts organizations and classical singers. This year, the festival is focusing on the American voice.

During her career, Fleming played major operatic roles such as the Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” Violeta in Verdi’s “La Traviata,” Mimi in Puccini’s “La Boheme,” the title role in Dvorak’s “Rusalka,” the title roles in Massenet’s “Manon” and “Thais,” Desdemona in Verdi’s “Otello” and the Countess in Strauss’ “Capriccio.”

Fleming was recognized by President Barack Obama with the National Medal of Arts and was the first classical singer to perform the National Anthem during the Super Bowl.

The Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal winner had her music featured in the films “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri,” “The Shape of Water,” “Bel Canto,” “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” and “Rise of the Guardians.” 

She also recorded music with singer Michael Bolton and released operatic, classical and jazz albums.

Fleming has an extensive career in musical theater. Her portrayal of Nettie Fowler in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel” earned her a Tony Award nomination.

Most recently, Fleming portrayed Margaret Johnson, a Southern woman visiting Italy with her developmentally disabled daughter, in Adam Guettel’s and Craig Lucas’ “The Light in the Piazza.”

She says with roles such as Johnson, she continues to be challenged as a performer.

“This role is really one of the most interesting roles for a mature woman, in either opera or music theater,” Fleming says. “She’s in a complicated situation. She grows tremendously throughout the piece. She’s a mother and I can relate to her very well.”

In this role, she performs pop, musical theater and operatic pieces. She was always interested in singing different types of music.

“For singers, the more versatile you are, the better, because of the likelihood that you’ll work. But I’ve always tried to be versatile just because my taste in music is eclectic,” Fleming says.

In her spare time, she often listens to jazz music and different vocalists.

“I’m very intrigued by what people can do with the human voice,” Fleming says.

Fleming, who sings in nine different languages, tries to bring programs that appeal to audience members of different tastes.

“I really think about the audience. I want to make sure there’s something for everyone,” Fleming says. “So, I give a great deal of thought and time to my programming. It’s one of the hardest things I do. I have classical works that go through multiple centuries of music and multiple languages. I’ll typically put in some musical theater and film.”

While in Arizona, she will perform different programs in Tucson and Mesa.

The Tucson concert will feature music from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “La Boheme,” “Carousel,” “The Shape of Water and Puccini’s comic opera “Gianni Schicchi,” as well Richard Strauss’ “Four Last Songs” and Bjork’s “All Is Full of Love.”

Music was a part of Fleming’s life since she was a youngster in Pennsylvania with two music teachers as parents. She and her siblings were exposed to music early on in their lives.

“We all sang. We had no choice. I stuck with it thank goodness,” Fleming says.

In college, Fleming performed jazz music, which she says helped her in her career.

“It was really terrific training for me,” Fleming says. “You have to really develop your ear to sing jazz because of the freedom, the improvisation. I was performing for the same audience every weekend, which required another skill set. For me, it was a very important piece of my education.”

Fleming says finding success and carving her own path depended on different factors.

“Some of it is being in the right place at the right time, sorting out what kind of singer I would be and how to master it,” Fleming says. “I was very lucky with my first voice teacher, who was brilliant. There’re so many different elements. Talent is 10%.”

Fleming says female singers have the added pressure to maintain a certain image.

“In my generation, it really became important. People buy CDs with their eyes, especially before they really know you and become a fan,” Fleming says. “I think the expectation from the audience, because of film and television, became if you’re telling us a story about young love or X, Y and Z, we want you to represent those characters.”

As a singer, she continues to evolve and constantly performs different music.

“The vocal repertoire is centuries old. That’s completely endless. I could never make a dent in it, in terms of learning and then I love doing new pieces,” Fleming says.