Even back in the mid 1990s, students at the Eastman School of Music spoke of alum Renée Fleming with the same fervor kids these days talk about Beyoncé. The lyric soprano was something of a legend as classical musicians in the making considered her time in Rochester, N.Y., as somewhat validating their own path in finding a place in an already challenging arts and entertainment industry.
Everyone speculated: Who would be the next Renée?
"You know, I'm officially an empty nester. My second child is off to school — both my children are thriving."
I fondly remember revealing to my classmates that I had acquired the 1998 recording of Dvorák's opera Rusalka in which conductor Charles Mackerras cast Fleming in the title role alongside tenor Ben Heppner. An impromptu listening party that included numerous replays of the drop dead gorgeous "Song to the Moon" held me hostage in my own humble dwelling — and there was little I could do about it.
Still, there's only one Renée.
In a change of heart from previous season opening concerts, the Houston Symphony is surrendering an overused program that showcases its orchestral musicians in solo pieces to offer something different: Fleming front and center.
With the concert set for Sept. 7 at 7:30 p.m. at Jones Hall, the three Grammy-award winning chanteuse tells CultureMap on the phone from her place in New York that she's planning an evening of, "a little bit of this, a little bit of that" with a playbill that comprises arias, classics, Broadway tunes and selections from her recent stint with music that crosses over other genres.
CultureMap: By the time you arrive in Houston, you will have celebrated two years of marriage with Tim Jessell. How's your life with the hubby, as a mom and as a busy performing artist?
Renée Fleming: It's fabulous! I am really, really happy. I love the richness of my life in terms of having work that I adore and feel passionate about plus finding happiness in my personal life. You know, I'm officially an empty nester. My second child is off to school — both my children are thriving. I can't ask for more than that.
CM: You've been cast in almost every leading role suitable for your voice type. Is there a role that you identify with more personally than others?
RF: Definitely Marschallin (from Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier). For me, that's the role that's most satisfying dramatically. Many of the characters written for a lyric soprano voice are two dimensional, but Marschallin is one of the most complex and emotionally drawn women in the operatic repertoire. She's a character both men and women of all ages can relate to. I perform the role often, last summer in Munich and I get to do it again in Vienna this October.
RF: Interestingly, I learned about Todd's music through Robert Freeman (former director of Eastman and now dean of the College of Fine Arts at the University of Texas at Austin) years ago. I heard Todd's Buffalo Altar when it toured with an Eastman ensemble, and I met Todd's father through a friend of mine. So that's how Todd and I became friends.
I love his Thomas Jefferson: The Making of America. It's very moving for listeners. When I sang it with orchestra a couple of years ago, it made a big impact. I am putting an excerpt, "We Hold These Truths," on the program.
Here's another thing: For American themed concerts, we need more up tempo music. If I hear Copland's "Ching‑a‑ring chaw" one more time . . . needless to say we need to add more to that repertoire. So I'll be singing a brand new arrangement by Todd of "Wild Horses ," based on a folk tune by Jean Ritchie, that I think is going to be a lot of fun.
"I consider Houston my first home in terms of opera. Plus Christoph Eschenbach was crucial in my development as an artist. I am excited to come back."
CM: And the rest of the program?
RF: I've gathered pieces as sets. First German, then Italian and then French, with "O mio babbino caro" (from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi) — probably the most popular aria for soprano in the world, possibly in history — thrown in the middle. And then a music theater set with music by Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, and Leonard Bernstein at the end. It's a light, fun program with a tremendous amount of variety.
Some of the songs in the program come my latest CD, Guilty Pleasures (to be released on Sept. 17), which includes the type of songs you can just put in the background and wallow in.
CM: As they say in fashion, who are you wearing for this concert?
RF: I have purposefully left that detail out of the program. I haven't yet decided but I am thinking about three designers. Vivienne Westwood is somebody who I really admire. She's a fashion icon who's featured in a pop punk exhibit at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Vivienne and her partner are good friends of mine.
Douglas Hannant is a terrific designer here in New York who does beautiful gowns for some of the most beautiful women in society. Angel Sanchez is a designer whose gowns I probably wear most often. He understand a curvy woman and crafts beautiful, elegant, modern clothing that fits me really well. I've worn his gowns in many of my CD covers.
CM: The music world has changed dramatically since you launched your career. If there's one piece of advice that you could give to an emerging singer, what would it be?
RF: You know, that's really tough. I used to always tell singers to work hard on their technique. Now, I tell them to focus on the larger scheme of things to find a niche that separates them as artists.
I am curating a three-day festival in November at the Kennedy Center titled "American Voices" that brings together iconic singers from different music genres. Master classes and panel discussions will cover changes in medicine, vocal pedagogy, business, marketing, the recording industry and how television has become so important — among many other topics.
CM: With such a hectic performance schedule, what are your tricks to keeping yourself in shape?
RF: Well, I had a killer pilates session this morning. There's no question that pilates has been one of the crucial activities that help me keep core strength, which for singers is very important. It's how we support the physical process of producing our sound. As for maintaining my vocal abilities, that's all about understanding my voice and how I individually sustain my technique.
CM: How has Houston contributed to your career?
RF: I consider Houston my first home in terms of opera. Plus Christoph Eschenbach was crucial in my development as an artist. I am excited to come back.
The Centennial Opening Night Gala, held in conjunction with the concert, begins at 6 p.m. with a champagne reception at the Corinthian. A multi-course dinner with dancing follows the performance. Chaired by Carolyn and Mike Mann and Kathy and Paul Mann, individual tickets to the gala start at $1,000, tables start at $10,000, and can be purchased by calling 713-238-1485 or emailing firstname.lastname@example.org.