Making all kinds of music with Renée Fleming

Renée Fleming was in Southam Hall on Tuesday night.

The legendary American soprano Renée Fleming will sing in recital at the National Arts Centre on Oct. 9. The show is sold out. But before the performance she answered some questions from ARTSFILE.

Q. You have always been a very eclectic performer singing good music from many different disciplines? Why?

A. I’m just passionate about the human voice, and that includes all genres. For me, it’s the most personal, direct form of artistic expression, and it can be incredibly powerful, in any style. Growing up, I was fortunate to be exposed to all kinds of music. I listened to Joni Mitchell, jazz, opera, Broadway, pop, new classical work. The opportunity for that kind of exposure is even greater today. I think one of the great things about the digital age we’re in is that you can go online and hear any kind of music. It’s not like that little room at the back of the record store that had opera, and then jazz is all the way over there on the other side. Now any kind of music is just a click of a mouse away.

Q. Your recital in Ottawa will cross those boundaries. What are some of the songs you will sing?

A. The song recital is an art form I love. With just a singer, a pianist, and the audience, it’s more intimate than an orchestral concert. I also take advantage of the flexibility this kind of program allows, to take the audience on a journey I’ve mapped out. The core classical repertoire for the song recital (and what first drew me to this art form) is the German Lied, so I have a set of Schubert songs, some very familiar, and others less often heard. I am also singing pieces, ranging from classical to popular, that I have sung in films over the past year — The Shape of Water, Three Billboards Outside Ebbing Missouri and Bel Canto, which will be released in Canada on Oct. 26. And my run in Carousel on Broadway rekindled a love of musical theatre, resulting in a new album, Renée Fleming: Broadway, so I’m bringing some theatre songs I love. Musical theatere is an amazingly rich genre for an adventurous vocalist, with almost every style of singing. So I loved making that album — I really stretched myself vocally and stylistically. There’s Rodgers and Hammerstein, before amplification was in use, and performers sang with something very close to classical technique. Then there’s music like that of Kander and Ebb, who wrote Chicago and Cabaret, incorporating influences of vaudeville, European cabaret, and jazz. In Ottawa, I’ll be singing a combined pair of songs they wrote for The Visit. And more recently, popular music has really influenced the sound of Broadway. There’s a beautiful song on the album by Sting, from his show The Last Ship.

Q. Can you talk about your collaborator in this program Roger Bado. How long have you worked together? 

A. I first met Richard Bado when we were both 17 years old as students at the Chatauqua Music Festival. We went on to study at the Eastman School of Music together, so he’s been a part of my life as a classical musician really since it began. We both work with other partners, but I think our long history together has given us a very a special understanding, which is wonderful for a singer and pianist to share. And of course, it helps that he is an extraordinarily sensitive musician and brilliant pianist.

Q. Tell me about singing in Carousel on Broadway? How did you enjoy the Great White Way?

A. Being in a Carousel was fantastic. After my high school outings in musical theatre, doing a Broadway musical was not something I ever envisioned. But then producer Scott Rudin came along with the offer, at a moment when the stars aligned for the calendar, which is always a challenge. Important for me, he said that the musical values would be a priority, as well as the choreography, and I couldn’t say no. I had already done Living on Love, a couple of years before, which is a comedy, and I had a great time. But doing a musical that is an American masterpiece, really part of our cultural DNA, was a joy. Though a lot of people have never seen the show before, so many of us have grown up with Rodgers and Hammerstein’s music, and it really touches a chord with audiences.

Q. As Nettie Fowler, you’ve picked up a Tony nomination. What kind of role is Nettie?

A. Nettie is really the heart of the small fishing community that is the setting of Carousel. She’s a down-to-earth, successful, single businesswoman, able to support her cousin Julie Jordan when her life becomes difficult. Much is said about the occurrence of domestic violence in the show, but at the heart of the story, there are these three strong women: Julie, Carrie, and Nettie, each of whom makes her own choices. And Nettie delivers one of the show’s most powerful and well-known songs, You’ll Never Walk Alone. It’s really an anthem — about hope and resilience in the face of adversity, that just about anyone can relate to. Interestingly, the originator of the role of Nettie in 1945 was an opera singer.

Q. Is there a different community on Broadway as compared to the opera world? 

A. Because a career in classical music involves constant traveling all over the globe, that world is not as tightly knit. It’s supportive, but spread out; and as performers we often feel like ships that pass in the night. But Broadway theatre, concentrated in one place, is like a family, and they really welcomed me with open arms.

Q. Singing in a musical is demanding. It is also different from singing in an opera which is not amplified. How did you cope with the demands? 

A. It was a significant vocal adjustment. In opera and classical singing, you can’t do more than two or three performances in a week, because you’re singing unamplified —it’s the vocal equivalent of Olympic weightlifting. But the amplification on Broadway allows for a more intimate vocal production, so I could sing eight shows a week and stay vocally healthy. Physically, my routing changed because of the schedule. It was fantastic to be home in New York for such a long stretch, really for the first time in my career. On two-show days, I started biking between performances by the Hudson River. 

Q. You sang Danny Boy at John McCain’s funeral. How did you feel about it? 

A. I only met Senator McCain once, when I sang at the Alfred E. Smith dinner in 2008. That’s a charity event in New York, and, traditionally, the only social event attended by both U.S. presidential candidates every election year. When he became gravely ill, many weeks before he passed away, Senator McCain began planning the observances that he would like. He requested that I sing, and that it be O Danny Boy. I had performed the song in concerts before and recorded it as well. It is always deeply moving for me to sing at something like this. Music can play a very powerful role in bringing a community together, both in times of celebration and in moments of grief or tragedy. And there was such an outpouring of feeling in the U.S., for this man who represented not only heroism, but also statesmanship and civility that rise above politics.     

Q. You sang the U.S. national anthem at a Super Bowl? What was that like? 

A. When I was asked to sing at the Super Bowl, I knew that many in the audience would not be not familiar with classical singing. So I felt a special responsibility, like I was an ambassador for this style of vocalism. But people love to hear the human voice trained to its fullest potential. Just look at television singing shows — when contestants make a glorious, operatic sound, the audience goes crazy. The human voice, trained to its full potential, is an exciting sound and one that people will celebrate, given the chance.

Q. This is the era of #MeToo. The United States is being roiled by this debate. Do you see a change coming in the world of music? 

A. Change is definitely happening right now, in the world of music as everywhere else. I think there is no industry or area of our culture that won’t be touched by this. The dynamics of power are changing, and I think that can be a good thing. I would love to see more women composers, women conductors, and women directors. 

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Peter Robb began his connection with the arts community in Ottawa in the mid-1980s when he was the administrator and public relations director of the Great Canadian Theatre Company. After a long career in journalism with the Ottawa Citizen where he served in a number of different posts he returned to the arts when he became the Citizen's arts editor.