Perhaps the preeminent American lyric soprano, Renee Fleming has become one of the greatest female figures on the opera stage. She is frequently praised for her beautiful voice, which falls into the relatively rare “lyric” category, and for a charm and vivacity that make her an exceptional performer. Fleming has become most famous for singing Mozart and Strauss, but has also appeared in the premieres of several new operas, including the role of Blanch Dubois in Andre Previn’s 1998 adaptation of A Streetcar Named Desire. Another famous professional friend was conductor Sir Georg Solti, who played a key role in starting the singer’s recording career. Having now been cast in many of opera’s greatest female roles in the world’s most important opera houses, Fleming easily fills the traditional role of diva on stage but is otherwise a rather unconventional opera celebrity. Far from being the temperamental, ego-driven starlet of opera myth, she is known for her pleasant demeanor and her ability to juggle being a mom and wife with her booming career.
Fleming had to win several hard-fought battles before earning attention of opera house managers and kudos from critics. The soprano told the Chicago Tribune, “Seeing me today, everybody finds it hard to believe that I wasn’t a natural, extrovert performer…. That’s one of the things I had to work at very hard.” As a child, Fleming was a reluctant singer. The daughter of two high school vocal-music teachers, Fleming grew up in Rochester, New York with constant reminders that she was expected to be a singer. She explained in the New York Times, “When I got older, we discussed singing every night at dinner. So I felt a lot of pressure. My mother was the worst kind of stage mother. She would make me and my younger sister and brother little duckling costumes and put us in kiddie shows.” She continued to perform, but as Fleming recalled, “I was stolid and stone-faced…. I did everything grudgingly and became painfully shy.”
At one time, Fleming fantasized about becoming a horse trainer, but she went on to study voice with Patricia Misslin as an undergraduate, and earned a bachelor’s degree in music education from State University of New York (SUNY) Potsdam in 1981. Subsequently, she attended the Eastman School of Music and then the American Opera Center at Julliard, where she met her husband Rick Ross and the woman who would remain her vocal instructor for many years, Beverly Johnson. While at SUNY Potsdam, Fleming worked as a jazz singer and so impressed the famous tenor saxophone player Illinois Jacquet that he offered her a job. Fleming
For the Record…
Born Renee L. Flemming, February 14, 1959 in Indiana, PA; daughter of Edwin Davis Fleming and Patricia (Seymour) Alexander (both vocal music teachers); married Richard Lee Ross (an actor) on September 23, 1989; children: Amelia and Sage. Education: State University of New York at Potsdam, B.M. (Education), 1981; Eastman School of Music, M.M., 1983; Julliard American Opera Center, 1983-84; Fulbright scholar, Frankfurt, Germany, 1984-85.
Made professional opera debut at the Landestheater, Frankfurt, Austria, 1986; New York City Opera debut, 1989; Royal Opera at (London) Covent Garden debut, 1989; New York Metropolitan Opera debut, 1991; appeared in premiere of The Ghosts of Versailles, 1991; appeared in premiere of The Dangerous Liaisons, 1994; signed exclusive solo recording contract with Decca/London, 1995; released first solo album, Visions of Love, 1996; appeared in premiere of A Streetcar Named Desire, 1998.
Awards: Förderungs Preis, International Singing Competition, Austria, 1985; winner, Metropolitan Opera National Auditions and the George London Prize, 1988; the Richard Tucker Award, 1990; Solti Prize, Academy du Disque Lyrique, 1996; Debut Recording of the Year for Visions of Love, National Public Radio’s Performance Today, 1996; Vocalist of the Year, Musical America, 1997; prize for The Beautiful Voice, L’Academie du Disque Lyrique, 1998.
Addresses: Management —ML Falcone Public Relations, 155 W. 68th Street, Suite 1114, New York, NY. Record company —London/Decca, c/o Columbia Artists Managment Inc., 165 West 57th Street, New York, NY, 10019-2276.
remarked in Opera News, “It’s tempting to say I worked my way through college as a jazz singer… but the truth is I didn’t make much money doing it.” These performances required her to tell jokes and chat with the audience, which was important in helping the singer begin to deal with her stage fright.
Fleming was granted a Fulbright Scholarship to study in Germany during 1984-85, which gave her the opportunity to take a master class with soprano Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. In 1986 she made her professional opera debut in Salzburg in the Mozart opera Die Entufhrung aus dem Serail. Both of these events, which had the appearance of being great opportunities, only served to shake Fleming’s confidence and left her doubting if she knew how to sing. Regarding the debut performance, Fleming told Opera News, “l just wasn’t ready for it. Inretrospect I’m so grateful that it happened then, when nobody cared.”
Perseverance and further training with Johnson eventually ironed out problems of vocal technique. Moreover, upon returning to the United States, Fleming got professional help with her stage fright. She remembered in Opera News, “for six months I went and saw a lady and we just dealt with my self-esteem issues.” Fleming’s new self-assurance and improved singing were confirmed by a series of awards received in the following years: a first place in the Metropolitan Opera National Auditions and the George London Prize in 1988, and the Richard Tucker Award in 1990. These honors earned her the attention of opera management and, finally, numerous of job offers.
In 1989, Fleming made her New York City Opera debut as Mimi in Puccini’s La Bohème and her Royal Opera debut at London’s Covent Garden in Cherubini’s Médée. Her Metropolitan Opera debut came somewhat unexpectedly in 1991 when she replaced the flu-stricken Felicity Lott as the Countess Almaviva in Le Nozze di Figaro. This would emerge as one of Fleming’s signature parts, as she noted in Opera News: “I was emerging in the role just as the Mozart bicentennial was about to hit, so I ended up singing a lot of Countesses.” Even so; she managed to accept parts in a wide range of operas, including the premieres of John Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles in 1991 and Conrad Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons in 1994.
Having had this kind of exposure, it is something of a surprise that Sir Georg Solti had not yet heard of Fleming in 1994 when she was recommended as a replacement for the part of Fiordiligi in his production of Mozart’s Cosi fan tutti. Solti was wowed by her voice and, after offering her the role, became an important advocate for the soprano. In 1996, Solti honored Fleming with the first Solti Prize, awarded by the French Academy du Disque Lyrique. The conductor was also largely responsible for the shape of Fleming’s recording career, having recommended her to London/Decca. The recording company signed her to an exclusive solo contract, the first such agreement it had made with an American singer since signing Marilyn Home in 1965. Commenting on her relationship with Solti, who died in September of 1997, Fleming told the Chicago Sun-Times, “I had three fantastic years with him…. The great conductors are larger than life. They have the ability, like any great leader, to inspire. What that does for me as an artist is take me beyond my own expectations, beyond what I think I can do. Solti was tough, demanding, loving. We outperform ourselves for somebody like that.”
Many critics have perceived something rare and special in Fleming’s particular soprano sound. In 1998, John von Rhein marveled in Chicago Tribune, “The voice, a peaches-and-cream soprano with both agility and carrying power, is in full bloom. Rarely since Eleanor Steber has America produced a full lyric soprano voice of this quality—a natural for the Mozart and Richard Strauss roles and the French repertoire that make up her Fach (vocal specialty).” In Opera News, James M. Keller said, “Fleming’s voice seems custom-made for Mozart’s heroines, displaying refined technique, warm timbre, authoritative articulation, lyric agility combined with requisite heft, and an expressive, malleable vibrato.” Fleming herself commented on her own perception of her vocal quality in the New York Times when she said, “I enjoy the more floaty, exposed, elegant singing…. I don’t like to sing loud. People seem to understand this about my voice, so I don’t get too many ridiculous offers.”
This last comment refers to an important issue for the soprano: keeping her voice fit for the kind of singing at which she excels. One such offer that Fleming regrettably accepted was the 1996 role of Eva in Wagner’s Die Meister singer in a Bayreuth, Germany production. The part was too low for her voice and affected her vocal placement for weeks afterwards. Fleming was forced to cancel engagements while she worked to return to a more natural mode of singing. Solti had advised her against this role and was quoted in the New York Times, “What I told her, speaking like a father, which I could easily be to her, is that she must not sing parts that are too heavy too soon…. Or sing too much. She has listened more or less, but it is hard to resist temptation when the whole world is coming to you.”
By early 1998, Fleming was booked four years in advance. At that time, Rhein described her in the Chicago Tribune as “the most sought-after lyric soprano of her generation, the toast of opera houses from New York to Milan, the American singer every impresario and concert manager in the world wants to engage.” Just a few months later, in a review of A Streetcar Named Des/refor the Los Angeles Times, Mark Swed commented, “This is to be Fleming’s year. The Metropolitan Opera is staging three new productions for her, and Previn not only created Blanche for her, but might well have titled the opera “Blanche,” so musically centered around her in the score.” As she neared the age of 40, Fleming enjoyed a sense of maturity as a performer. In 1998, regarding her frequent role as the Countess Almaviva, Fleming told the Chicago Sun-Times: “[My interpretation] has changed a lot in the past 10 years…. And right here, now, I feel like I’ve had a breakthrough. Dramatically, I have more experience of life…. I don’t feel like I’m trying to act like a countess…. It feels much more natural.”
Fleming has been given ample opportunity to showcase her growing talent in her recordings. Hugh Canning, writing for Gramophone in 1997, opined that the soprano “has a virtual carte blanche to record what she wants.” Fleming’s recordings include full opera performances of Rusalka, Cosi fan tutte, and Don Giovanni; solo projects including Visions of Love (Mozart arias), Shubert Album (songs with pianist Chistoph Eshenbach), Signatures (opera scenes), The Beautiful Voice (songs and arias), and/Want Magic (American arias); and duets with Placido Domingo on Star-Crossed Lovers. In addition to these traditional classical CDs, Fleming sang with pop singer Michael Bolton on his 1998 album called My Secret Passion: The Arias. She was also making plans for a jazz album featuring Duke Ellington tunes, an old musical love from her college days.
Clearly, Fleming has managed to be selective about her projects and to put her own stamp on nearly everything she does. As Time reporter Terry Teachout concluded, “This thoroughly modern diva does everything her own way, from wrapping up her recitals with a group of songs by Duke Ellington to scrupulously avoiding the knife-in-the-back behavior that has given so many top singers a bad name.” He further noted that she was “happily aware that in her case, the nice girl finished first.”
Der Rosenkavalier: Final Trio, Sony, 1993.
Armida, Sony, 1994.
Cosi fan tutte, London/Decca, 1994.
Hérodiade, Sony, 1995.
Bells, Telarc, 1996.
Chansons de Jadis, Centaur, 1996.
Lulu/Wozzeck Suites, Sony, 1996.
Don Giovanni, London/Decca, 1996.
Alma Brasi/eira, RCA, 1997.
Elijah, London/Decca, 1997.
Four Last Songs, RCA, 1997.
Schubert Album, London/Decca, 1997.
Signatures, London/Decca, 1997.
Rosmonda D’Inghilterra, Opera Rara, 1998.
Rusalka, London/Decca, 1998.
Star-Crossed Lovers, London/Decca, 1999.
American Record Guide, July/August 1998.
Chicago Sun-Times, March 5, 1998.
Chicago Tribune, February 8, 1998.
Gramophone, April 1997.
New York Times, September 14.
Opera News, September 1994; October 1997.
Time, November 17, 1997.
—Paula Pyzik Scott
Renée Fleming is one of the most versatile and engaging sopranos of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. With a middleweight voice and extended vocal range, she has been able to roam freely over a wide expanse of musical styles and repertoire. Her voice is beautiful in the classic sense, and her dramatic sensibilities make her a favorite with audiences.
The daughter of two vocal teachers, she grew up listening to her parents discuss the art of singing every night at the dinner table. Fleming's parents encouraged her to sing at every turn, and provided plenty of opportunities for her. Deciding on a career in music education, she attended the State University of New York, Potsdam, where she also sang in a jazz trio.
Graduate studies at the Eastman School in Rochester, New York, and at the American Opera Center at the Juilliard School in New York City (1983–1987) helped cement her musical education and set her on a performing career. At Juilliard she began studying with acclaimed voice instructor Beverly Johnson, who helped guide her through her early career.
On her third try, she won the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions in 1988. That was also the year of her big break, singing the role of the Countess in Mozart's Le Nozze de Figaro at the Houston Grand Opera. In 1989 she made her debuts at the New York City Opera as Mimi in La Boheme and at Covent Garden as Glauce in Cherubini's Medea, and in 1991 she made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera as the Countess in Le Nozze de Figaro. Since then she has been a regular at major opera houses and on concert stages all over the world.
In a profession that likes to typecast its performers, Fleming has resisted sticking to one area of the repertoire. Her early successes were made with Mozart and Richard Strauss, but she has performed and recorded extensively in both operatic and recital literature. A champion of new music, she sang the premieres of John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles and the role of Blanche in André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire at San Francisco Opera. In 1997 she was named Musical America's Vocalist of the Year.
A 1998 recording of Rusalka (one of the roles most identified with her) with Ben Heppner and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra, conducted by Charles Mackerras, won wide acclaim, as well as a number of awards, including two Grammophone Awards. Another 1998 album, The Beautiful Voice, featuring the works of Gustave Charpentier, Charles Gounod, and Jules Massenet, won a Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance.
Her success has reached beyond the vocal world. She was named one of People magazine's Most Intriguing 25 People in 2000. She has been profiled in the New Yorker and on CBS's 60 Minutes, and was the subject of a Vogue photo shoot in 2001. She also appears in Rolex and Anne Klein ads.
Though her career did not start moving until she was almost thirty years old, Fleming connected quickly with audiences, becoming one of the most popular opera stars of the 1990s. Her success derives from the pure tonal beauty of her voice and her innate theatricality.
Rusalka, with the Czech Philharmonic, conducted by Charles Mackerras (Polygram, 1998); The Beautiful Voice, with the English Chamber Orchestra, conducted by Jeffrey Tate (Polygram, 1998).
Fleming, Renée gifted American soprano; b. In-diana, Pa., Feb. 14, 1959. She received vocal training in N.Y. After winning a Metropolitan Opera Audition in 1988, she made her debut at London’s Covent Garden as Dirce in Cherubini’s Médée in 1989. In 1990 she received the Richard Tucker Award, and also took the Grand Prix in the Belgian singing competition. Following engagements as Dvořak’s Rusalka at the Houston Grand Opera and the Seattle Opera, she made her Metropolitan Opera debut in N.Y. as Mozart’s Countess on March 16, 1991, which role she also sang at the Teatro Colon in Buenos Aires. On Dec. 19, 1991, she appeared as Rosina in the premiere of Corigliano’s The Ghosts of Versailles at the Metropolitan Opera, returning in subsequent sea-sons to sing Mozart’s Countess and Pamina, and Desdemona. In 1992 she returned to Covent Garden as Rossini’s Mme. de Folleville, sang Mozart’s Donna Elvira at Milan’s La Scala and his Fiordiligi at the Geneva Opera and the Glyndebourne Festival, and appeared as Mimi at the opening of the new Bath and Wessex Opera. She made her N.Y. recital debut at Alice Tully Hall on March 29, 1993. In Aug. 1993 she was the soloist in Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 at the opening of the new concert hall in Aspen, Colo. In Oct. 1993 she sang the title role in the revival of Floyd’s Susannah at the Chicago Lyric Opera. She appeared as Mozart’s Countess at the opening of the new opera theater at the Glyndebourne Festival on May 28, 1994. On Sept. 10, 1994, she sang Mme. de Tourvel in the premiere of Susa’s The Dangerous Liaisons at the San Francisco Opera. In 1995 she appeared as Rusalka at the San Diego Opera and at the San Francisco Opera, and sang Desdemona at the Metropolitan Opera. She returned to the Metropolitan Opera in 1997 as Gounod’s Marguerite and as Manon, the latter role being one she also portrayed that year in Paris at the Opera de la Bastille. After singing Arabella in Houston and Lucrezia Borgia at La Scala in 1998, she created Previn’s Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire in San Francisco (Sept. 19, 1998). She appeared in recital at N.Y/s Carnegie Hall in 1999. As a concert and oratorio artist, Fleming had many engagements in North America and Europe. Among her other outstanding operatic roles are Rossini’s Armida, Tatiana, the Marschallin, Salome, Jenufa, and Ellen in Peter Grimes.
—Nicolas Slonimsky/Laura Kuhn/Dennis McIntire