35 Who Made a Difference: Renée Fleming

The soprano is renowned for her beguiling voice and presence

Renée Fleming
Wikimedia Commons

For well over a decade now, the American soprano Renée Fleming has enjoyed acclaim for a voice unsurpassed in loveliness. It's produced with a degree of technical assurance rare in any singer, combining a densely luxuriant texture with an illusion of weightlessness. The sound floats with stunning ease and maintains a beguiling softness throughout a three-octave range. Though climaxes can be thrilling (the B flat of her signature aria, the "Song to the Moon" from Dvorak's Rusalka, has been described by Fleming as her "money" note) and spectacular (she delights in showing off a range that extends well above top C), there is never any hardening or loosening of the sound under pressure.

Her repertoire extends to nearly 50 operas, ranging from Handel to André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire (composed especially for her in the 1990s). But perhaps her most successful roles—apart from Dvorak—have been in operas by Mozart, Massenet and Richard Strauss. These benefit from her limpid tone and her sensual stage presence. Her acting is impressive, and it draws from many sources. Her portrayal in Paris of Massenet's Manon, in 2001, arguably owed as much to Marilyn Monroe as to the theatrical traditions of the Opéra Comique, but was irresistible. In Mozart her approach is more restrained if no less rich (Donna Anna's recitatives in Act One of Don Giovanni are as revealing in facial expression as they are vocally compelling). And Fleming seems totally at home with Strauss: subtle in gesture, eloquent in diction and effortless in sustaining the highest-lying phrases. Seeing and hearing her in these roles is one of the great operatic experiences of our day.

Among Fleming's earliest memories is that of listening in her playpen to her mother giving singing lessons—"the work that went into making a beautiful sound." Fleming, whose father was also a music teacher, grew up in a suburb of Rochester, New York, in the 1960s—a time when beautiful sounds were not necessarily a priority in classical music; many composers explicitly rejected them, along with the pleasure principle that underlies them, as emotionally and ideologically suspect. And the fact that Fleming took a relatively long time to gain full confidence in her voice (she was 29 when she made her major debut, as the Countess in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at the Houston Grand Opera in 1988) may have had something to do with that climate. She says she was obsessed, early on, with the "jagged" lines sung by Anne Trulove in Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress. That view stands in marked contrast to her later feeling, expressed in a 2002 interview, that "music is about floating and soaring; it wants to bend and be fluid. I avoid heroic pieces; I like curves, not jagged edges." This latter view reflects to perfection the characteristic sensuousness of her phrasing today.

Fleming's singing is healthily heterogeneous in inspiration, combining an awareness of 18th- and 19th-century performance practice with a sensitivity to 20th-century popular singing styles. (She says she has long admired Billie Holiday and Joni Mitchell, among others.) While studying at the State University of New York in Potsdam in the early 1980s, she developed her improvisational skills and vocal range by singing jazz. It was an experience that has influenced her phrasing in Handel and operas by Rossini, Bellini and Donizetti—operas that depend on the creative intervention of the artist, who is free to embellish the melodic line and play with rhythm to suit the character. Fleming has not always enjoyed unqualified triumphs in these works, but she clearly relishes the challenges they offer.

Nothing exposes a voice like a recital with piano accompaniment, and Fleming's increasing devotion to this medium is further proof of her technical mastery and command of nuance. What Tim Page of the Washington Post has described as her "magnificent way with a song" is as evident in the works of Duke Ellington as in those of Debussy. Her commitment to her two young daughters (she and actor Rick Ross divorced a few years ago) and desire to reach wider audiences have motivated her recent favoring of concert engagements over operatic productions, which require a lot more travel and many months away from her family. "My children need me at home now more than ever," she says. "With a season solely in opera, I can reach audiences in only five or six cities a year, whereas with a recital tour I can reach many more people in less time."

At age 46, she says she intends to focus "on deepening the interpretations of roles I have already sung, with a few new additions" to her repertoire. And she looks to the future as "the most creative period of my life, now that the nuts and bolts of building a career and a technique are largely behind me." If she's correct, the next decade should prove to be as life-enhancing for her audiences as for the singer herself.

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