Fleming Interview

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Fleming Interview

Post by lennygoran » Wed Jan 09, 2019 7:53 am


A friend sent me this interview with Fleming-I'll have to watch out for when the Shed is doing that Norma Jeane Baker of Troy :lol: -we pass by it whenever we're on that part of the High Line!

Regards, Len

For years Renée Fleming has been the queen of operatic sopranos, so it’s kind of fitting that we meet in an apartment in the West End the morning after she has been carousing in Buckingham Palace at the Prince of Wales’s 70th birthday bash. “It was great watching all those royals having fun together,” the American declares, without a trace of irony, “but for me the real joy was meeting Judi Dench and Maggie Smith. I said to them, ‘I’ve learnt so much from the way you use your voices.’ They fell about laughing.”

As well they might. It’s hard to imagine Fleming, a few weeks short of her 60th birthday, having anything left to learn about using the voice. She may have bowed out of her greatest roles (“You can’t keep on playing the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier for ever”), but her legion of fans will be relieved to know that, after her triumph on Broadway last year as Nettie Fowler in Carousel, she has a stonking list of new projects coming up.

Foremost of which (and coming to London for 20 performances this summer) is the debut production from Scenario Two, the new company founded by John Berry, formerly of English National Opera. “I love the model John has created,” Fleming says. “It will create shows that will do short runs in opera houses and other international venues. It’s a great opportunity for me to get round the globe doing something theatrical.”

That something is The Light in the Piazza, a musical that has taken America by storm in the 14 years since its premiere (“People think it’s the best musical-theatre piece written in a long time,” Fleming declares), but, apart from a small-scale outing in Leicester, will be new to the UK. If you want a foretaste, the song that ends the work is featured on Fleming’s recent Decca album, Broadway, and the first thing you notice is how lush and romantic it is. It could have been written by Ravel.

In fact, its composer, Adam Guettel, has a different, but equally distinguished pedigree. “Yes,” Fleming says, “being Richard Rodgers’s grandson must have been very challenging, but he’s incredibly gifted. And the role I play is phenomenal. That’s why I said yes without a moment’s hesitation. I never usually get to portray a mother on stage — in opera, mothers aren’t my voice type. And this mother, Margaret, is conflicted in such an interesting way.”

That’s true. An American on holiday in 1950s Florence, Margaret watches her daughter Clara fall in love with a handsome Italian. That, however, raises a tremendous moral dilemma in Margaret’s mind because Clara has arrested mental development after a childhood accident. One reason for the musical’s incredible success, perhaps, is that the story resonates with millions of parents struggling to bring up children with emotional or learning difficulties.

“I certainly relate to it,” Fleming says, “because I had the exact same thing in my own family when I was growing up. A man fell in love with my great-aunt, who had a traumatic brain injury as an infant, and he basically took care of her for her whole life.”

Before she tackles The Light in the Piazza, however, Fleming has another role to play. And even for a singer with a penchant for playing complex, layered characters, this one is a corker: an amalgam of Marilyn Monroe and Helen of Troy. It’s one of two roles (the other is spoken, not sung, by our very own Ben Whishaw) in a new performance piece called Norma Jeane Baker of Troy. Written by the Canadian poet Anne Carson, it transposes a Euripides tragedy into 1960s America. “It’s a very witty cultural mash-up,” Fleming says, “and working with Katie Mitchell [the British director] is a dream come true for me. Her production of George Benjamin’s Written on Skin was the best thing I’ve seen — ever.”

Unfortunately, if you want to see Norma Jeane Baker of Troy you will have to book an air ticket to New York. It will be the first production in the Shed, the spectacular arts centre opening in Manhattan this spring under the leadership of the Scottish impresario Alex Poots.

And another air ticket will be necessary for Fleming fans who want to see her in yet another specially created project. That will be Penelope, in “an opera of sorts” with a text by Tom Stoppard and music by André Previn — their first collaboration since the Soviet mental-hospital satire Every Good Boy Deserves Favour, written 42 years ago. Fleming says that seeing Stoppard’s Arcadia “was the moment when I really discovered the power of spoken theatre”, and her link with Previn goes back 20 years to when she sang the role of Blanche DuBois in his operatic version of A Streetcar Named Desire.

This new piece will be premiered as part of Previn’s 90th birthday celebrations at the Tanglewood festival in Massachusetts this summer. “André isn’t really able to travel any more,” Fleming says, “but he’s still sharp and funny and able to compose more quickly than anyone I know. I once said to him, ‘Will you do some Emily Dickinson settings for me?’ and he sent the finished songs to me the next day.”

That won’t be the last of Fleming’s premieres. She hints that a new work is being written for her to perform at the Metropolitan Opera in New York, perhaps in 2021, but says she can’t reveal more (“Peter Gelb [the Met’s general manager] hasn’t secured the rights yet,” she says). That’s good news for those opera fans who thought she had made her final appearance at the Met last year. Yet after so many decades at the top of the operatic ladder, does she still believe that grand opera has a future, given the struggle to attract new audiences?

“The biggest issue is that the public hasn’t really latched on to 20th and 21st-century repertoire,” she says. “Not enough anyway. There’s still so much Puccini, Wagner, Verdi, Strauss and Mozart. When companies do attempt something different, the audience drops away significantly. And that’s in a context where the entire audience is dropping away anyway.

“Then there’s a problem with live entertainment generally. In the States, anyway, cable TV offers people such an unbelievable spread of entertainment in the home that they ignore live events altogether. Even sports venues are taking seats out. Everything now is on screen.”

Including opera, of course. Aren’t those high-definition cinema “simulcasts” from the Met and Covent Garden helping to stimulate demand for opera? “I love them because I love seeing performers up close,” Fleming says. “However, it’s now been proven that opera in cinemas doesn’t reach much beyond the existing opera audience, and that’s a big disappointment.”

Fleming’s pessimism doesn’t stop there. “The classical performing arts in general — ballet, theatre, opera, orchestras — are being increasingly marginalised in terms of people’s philanthropic giving,” she says. “I worry that by the time the next generation of big donors comes along very little money will go to opera and classical music.

“And the other thing I’m finding in the US, especially among younger composers, is a lack of simpatico with the classically trained voice. They want a more natural, less cultivated sound. I think they need classes to show them what’s possible with trained voices. It’s probably much more than they think.”

Fleming does believe that the opera industry has taken big strides to create a more culturally diverse workforce. “I tell you, Hamilton has changed thinking across the board, even in our world.” Does she think that the same progress has been made to resolve the claims of sexual abuse that have also plagued the opera and classical music world? After all, three world-famous conductors and a number of minor figures have been forced out of their jobs over sexual allegations in the past 18 months.

“Yes, careers have been destroyed, even erased, overnight,” she says. “And in some cases, you think, ‘This should have happened a long time ago.’ On the other hand, I do think some people whose behaviour was not as bad as others have been villainised in the newspapers. What’s important is that there are now clear protocols in place. That will hopefully change people’s behaviour because it has been a huge problem for young women in particular.”

Was she ever on the receiving end of improper attention? “No, I was quite a frumpy young person, so I never had much trouble in that respect,” Fleming replies, slightly improbably. “In fact, quite often I was thinking, ‘Huh, why isn’t anyone paying that sort of attention to me?’ ”

What does the long-term future hold, apart from performing? Fleming is already a consultant at the Lyric Opera in Chicago, where she works with young singers. She could easily have a second life running an opera company, as her great forerunner Beverly Sills did at New York City Opera.

What seems to interest her more, though, is her other consultancy — at the Kennedy Center in Washington DC, where she has collaborated with Francis Collins, the American geneticist and the director of the US National Institutes of Health, on showcasing the profound links being discovered between music and mental health. “I’m hugely passionate about advocating the science in this field, which is all new and really exciting,” she says. “People don’t realise, if you have a stroke or Parkinson’s, how much music therapy can help you now.”

She has already co-authored articles on “music and the mind” in scholarly periodicals. Could she go even farther into the scientific world? “Well, much as I would love to go back to school and retrain as a neuroscientist, it would take a long time and I’m not sure that it would be the best contribution I could make,” she says. “Instead I am aiming to create an organisation that will make even more noise about the advances being made.”

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Re: Fleming Interview

Post by John F » Wed Jan 09, 2019 8:36 am

The Stoppard/Previn piece, "Penelope," is for soprano, string quartet and piano. It must be very short as there are three other pieces on the program. After the premiere in Tanglewood's Seiji Ozawa concert hall on July 24, I expect there will be more performances elsewhere including at least one in New York, but I've no information about that.
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Re: Fleming Interview

Post by Lance » Thu Jan 10, 2019 11:49 pm

Wonderful interview. Loved it!
Lance G. Hill

When she started to play, Mr. Steinway came down and personally
rubbed his name off the piano. [Speaking about pianist &*$#@+#]


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