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Renée Fleming, songbird in seclusion
TIM Jessell, a lanky divorced Washington corporate attorney and father of three, had given up on love in 2008 when he was set up on a blind date with a beautiful blond New Yorker who had also given up on love.
They clicked and many years later began that old sitcom debate about splitting drawers and closets. If she sold her Upper West Side apartment and moved to DC, would he be able to make enough space in his town house?
"She told me she was bringing her piano," Jessell said, with a smile. "That was serious." And, of course, the designer gowns were going to overrun the closets.
Jessell, a sports fan and Bruce Springsteen fanatic who knew nothing about opera before that first date, ended up in a new place, an airy glass and stone contemporary house beside a creek in McLean, Virginia, with a hammock and the most famous American soprano since Beverly Sills.
Curled on a white couch in their living room, wearing a silky cream blouse, black pinstriped pants and turquoise jewellery, Renée Fleming said that she was glad Jessell had never heard of her.
"If they're not a fan, it gives you a chance to kind of develop something based on who you are," she said, noting wryly that their love bloomed even though the first performance of hers Jessell saw was Lucrezia Borgia. "That's an opera in which I fall in love with my own son and then kill all his friends and him by mistake," she said. "He embraced the whole thing."
Moreover, Jessell was consistently willing to get on a plane to wherever she was. Fleming had seen plenty of glimmers with men evaporate over her gruelling travel schedule. "Someone would introduce me to someone and we'd go out and I'd say 'Oh, I had so much fun tonight, I'll be back in three weeks,' " she said. "I could sort of see their eyes glaze over."
After her divorce from actor Rick Ross, when she was raising their two daughters, "I was single for a long time", Fleming said. "And there was a period in which I just felt really angry about the fact that it's hard for accomplished, gifted women to be with men of similar talents."
Now Fleming, her Steinway and her gowns are happily ensconced in their new house, where she is rehearsing a solo programme that includes Handel, Over the Rainbow and much more for a Metropolitan Opera concert at Dumbarton Oaks in Georgetown, livestreaming last Saturday. Her audience, the smallest she has ever performed for, will be four cameras, two of them robotic.
The pay-per-view event is designed to help the Met survive during a pandemic that is strangling her profession. The virus can be easily spread by singing and through crowds, which makes opera - which was already struggling - exceedingly vulnerable. The shimmery, creamy voice of the "undiva", as she is known, is ingrained in America's cultural memory, at both sad and happy moments. She sang Amazing Grace at a memorial service at ground zero after 9/11 and Danny Boy at John McCain's funeral at the Washington National Cathedral. She sang, in Sindarin, the Elvish language for The Lord of the Rings soundtrack. She sang a Top 10 list on David Letterman's show, Verdi with the Muppets, and a goose-bumps-inducing rendition of the national anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl.
"We even rehearsed with the Black Hawk helicopters so I wouldn't be thrown off," she recalled. "Imagine walking across the turf in 5-inch platform shoes with your adrenaline pumping. I wasn't going to compromise on the shoes after Vera Wang did this extraordinary dress for me, which is now in the Smithsonian."
The All-American Diva
Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met, calls Fleming "the all-American diva". The daughter of two music teachers from upstate New York, she is known for both her wholesome style and her sensuality, her natural stage presence and her preternatural voice, described by her fellow soprano Susan Graham (a mezzo) as "pure gold".
"The sensuality of her face goes with the sensuality of her sound", said Christine Baranski, her friend and a fellow Juilliard alum.
When Fleming was at the height of her spectacular career, jetting around the world to different opera houses, she sometimes told reporters she fantasised about a quiet life in the suburbs, growing a vegetable garden. Now that the pandemic has mandated that life, how does she like it? It's as if an exotic bird has perched in the grey, bureaucratic confines of the nation's capital.
"I had nice terrace gardens in New York, which I really loved, but here I'm able to do it myself", she said, in a voice that has been described as "jewels floating like butterflies".
"Right now, I have cucumbers and tomatoes, and then I'll have squash."
Fleming, 61, who does not like to be ranked against other sopranos, decided not to compete with her earlier performances and sang one of her signature roles as the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier for the last time at the Met in 2017. Headlines mourned, "The Diva Departs". But reports of the diva's departure are greatly exaggerated. She's busier than ever.
"I'm still concertising like I always was, and I have been doing a lot of new work," she said. "That's where my heart is." She has dipped into other genres, starring in a Broadway revival of Carousel and the London premiere of The Light in the Piazza. She acted opposite Ben Whishaw in Norma Jeane Baker of Troy at the Shed.
And, in a move bound to thrill her fans, she will be returning to the Met in the fall of 2022 to star in a new opera composed by Kevin Puts and based on Michael Cunningham's novel The Hours - and the movie of the same name - as Clarissa, the role played by Meryl Streep. Kelli O'Hara will play Laura, and Joyce DiDonato will play Virginia Woolf.
The opera world, which has always been very white and patriarchal and known for backstage drama, was dealing with shocks of sexual harassment even before it was rocked by the pandemic.
Fleming was a favourite of James Levine, the Met conductor who was fired in 2018 over sexual misconduct charges involving young men. (Levine has denied the accusations.) And she played Desdemona to Plácido Domingo's Otello at the Met in 1995. After he was accused of sexual misconduct by a slew of women, Domingo dropped out of Verdi's Macbeth at the Met at the last minute and ended his career in America.
Fleming recalled that, as a young soprano, she almost fainted when she had to go on as the understudy at the Met in 1994 in Otello with the world-famous tenor. "He was so frightening in the confrontation scene and he's crazy with jealousy and he almost hits Desdemona, and it was also a huge opportunity for me," she said, "and the adrenaline was just off the charts and I could hardly walk offstage." She continues, "I'm really happy that the Me Too movement has occurred, that people have been called out, and hopefully people think twice before they behave badly."
She also echoed the calls for race reform in her profession, saying that impresarios must identify and nurture Black talent. "There are some things about opera that are extremely democratic because it's about the voice", she said. "There are some extraordinary young artists, Lawrence Brownlee, Julia Bullock, J'Nai Bridges and other gifted singers who are stars or on their way to being stars. But that's not enough. We want to come into the opera house and see the diversity reflected everywhere." She enlisted Smith to write a libretto about Chicago inspired by her Notes From the Field, an examination of systemic racism.
I ask Fleming about Leontyne Price, the legendary Black soprano and pioneer at the Met Opera, and she described her as a "phenomenal mentor".
"I think the most important thing that she got me to think about was that period of time where everyone wants a piece of you and you know you have to set up filters, you have to protect yourself, because there aren't enough hours in the day to respond to everything," she said.
The most sublime music
"And she referred to all of that as 'the noise'. And she said, 'You're hearing the noise and you need to tune out the noise and focus on this" - here Fleming stroked her throat to indicate her voice - "because if this goes wrong, the noise will disappear overnight".
Fleming's favourite heroine is Tosca but said the heroine closest to her personality is Tatyana in Eugene Onegin. If she could sing any tenor role, it would be Don Jose in Carmen. And if she could dine with any composer? Richard Strauss, no contest. "A secretive man who created the most sublime music", she said. "And there are secrets in his music that I find compelling, phrases that haunted me for months."
Fleming, who was shy and insecure growing up and became a bit bolder only when she sang in jazz clubs in college, had crippling bouts of stage fright. "I had it early on as I was just trying to transition from being a student to a professional and then I had it again in 1998. I had a huge number of new roles that year, a divorce, too many things at one time. It lasted for almost a year. I almost quit singing. It's intense, it's very hard to walk on stage." She was heckled that year at La Scala in Milan, performing Lucrezia Borgia - just for being an American singing an Italian opera in Italy - and found it "really traumatic".
When she played Blanche DuBois in Andre Previn's opera of A Streetcar Named Desire, also in that year, she was channelling her own neuroses. "That was in a period when I was really troubled and having panic attacks, and the anxiety around performance was so great, I thought either I'm going to crash in this role or it's going to be a really extraordinary vehicle for me to begin to heal. And I think it was the latter."
She had therapy and read books about stage fright. "Instead of seeing the audience as judgmental, as a critical body, and thinking it's not going to go well because you're a fraud or you're not good enough, you see yourself as sharing something with them."
Fashion and costume have helped armour her. "I would say my performance wardrobe for concerts and television is unique in that the number of couture designs from top designers is - I don't think there's anybody else who's had this in history," she said. "The extraordinary media push around Maria Callas' CDs and her glamour, I think, fed a desire on the part of designers to dress a diva. So I think I just happened to be in the right place at the right time."
Fleming is also renowned for her gems, some of which she borrows from her good friend, Ann Ziff, the chairwoman of the Met who runs a jewellery label.
Is she worried about the crepuscular nature of her art, that opera will wither away if its grand poobahs can't figure out a way to attract young people? "There's an anti-opera wave in the mainstream media now. I've seen it in commercials where opera is the joke, 'Oh, you don't like opera, do you?' " she said.
Nothing should be uncool
"It's unfortunate because it makes people who do like it afraid to say they like it. It's a manufactured prejudice. It should be a matter of taste just like any other style of music. It shouldn't have some negativity ascribed to it that it's uncool. Nothing should be uncool. It should be, do you like it or do you not like it?
"Look at The Voice or America's Got Talent. When a 14-year-old boy gets up and sings Nessun Dorma, everybody's crying and cheering. Why is the connection not made between that and the art world?"
Fleming walks me out. When she opens the door, she finds a package from DSW, the discount shoe store.
"I've been found out," she laughed. "I needed some clogs. I don't think I'll ever wear high heels again." Somehow, I don't believe her. NYTIMES