At the beginning, Renee Fleming’s career shot up in a vertical line. At this stage, the soprano said during a lunch, it’s broadening out horizontally. She demonstrated with a graceful wave of her arms.
After 20 years center stage in the world’s greatest theaters, the personable star is honing her management skills as the Lyric Opera of Chicago’s first creative consultant.
Her brief is to expand audiences and she’s already been hugely successful, promoting the grander musicals as well as collaborating with Chicago’s popular improv group the Second City.
The results are funny skits that have turned into YouTube favorites featuring a psychiatrist who specializes in troubled couples.
Hansel and Gretel come to him with food and mommy issues. Mimi and Rodolfo sit and bicker. “Why don’t you get a job so I can see a doctor?” asks the coughing seamstress.
In early January, she and Patrick Stewart will present “The Second City Guide to Opera” at the Lyric theater.
Fleming spoke with members of the Muse team in Bloomberg’s New York headquarters after eating a few grilled shrimp.
Lundborg: What’s the worst thing a director ever asked you to do onstage?
Fleming: I’m pretty shielded from that. My earliest shows were in Germany and Austria and those were wild. Once I had to climb a two-story fence and down the other side -- while singing.
Lundborg: What are you working on now?
Fleming: I just finished a recording to come out next year, a follow-up to “The Beautiful Voice,” a combination of arias and song literature, beautiful, sweet things. I sort of want to call it “Guilty Pleasures.”
Lundborg: You’re also pulling together an opera based on Ann Patchett’s novel “Bel Canto” -- how’s that coming?
Fleming: It will premiere in 2015 in Chicago. Jimmy Lopez, who’s Peruvian, is composing the music, with a libretto by Pulitzer Prize-winner Nilo Cruz and direction by Stephen Wadsworth. Danielle de Niese will sing the lead role.
Lundborg: Looking ahead, would you like to run an opera?
Fleming: I’m learning everything outside of programming because for actual programming you have to be there every day. You have to be free to travel and really hear and see everything. My knowledge is limited to my experience.
But I’m really loving it. I’m involved in development, with a real focus on world premieres and establishing ideas for advertising campaigns, education, outreach, trying to get young professionals in.
The Merit School program, I’m pushing to expand it to other schools in Chicago because I just know there are great voices in the city that we aren’t having access to.
Lundborg: What about directing -- you must sometimes feel you can do better?
Fleming: I would never say that’s what I want to do, but to try it and work with young singers in particular would really interest me.
Lundborg: Do singers crave direction?
Fleming: Singers need and want most of the time more intervention. Teach them how to move, teach them how to externalize something.
Once an onstage colleague came up to me and said, “Somebody said I looked like I was bored.”
And I said, “Since you ask, I did wonder why you weren’t appearing more distressed. I imagine you’re thinking all the right things. You just need to externalize it a little bit.”
Lundborg: How has marriage affected your career?
Fleming: We’ve been married for a year, but we’ve been together for 4. He’s based in D.C., so we live the bi-city life. I’m actually all over the world so it almost doesn’t matter.
But when I met him I said, “Listen, I have a child in high school, so this is kind of a waste of time, isn’t it? I can’t leave New York.”
Lundborg: It must be tough to be apart so much.
Fleming: He has been a saint. Since we met he’s been on a plane almost every weekend to see me wherever I am in the world. He came to Europe six times this summer.
He’s really helped me -- he’s my guinea pig. When we go to things, he’s often seeing it for the first time. I learn so much because he’s a well-educated guy who wasn’t that interested in classical music or opera. He’s a Bruce Springsteen and Bob Dylan fan and a sports fanatic.
Lundborg: How did your paths cross?
Fleming: Ann Patchett had a friend doing an astrological chart for me four years ago. I was feeling very hopeless about the whole thing.
She wouldn’t let me pay her, so I sent some CDs and she wrote and said, “My neighbor says he would date you.” He had walked into her kitchen and said, “I’ve had it with women! Women are insane! I’m done.”
And he saw the CDs and said, “I would date her, but otherwise forget it.”
Lundborg: Did he know who you were?
Fleming: He had no idea. He asked a colleague, “Have you ever heard of this singer Renee something?” His colleague was a fan and said, “No way are you dating Renee Fleming,” so he just went through with it, I think, on a dare.
For more information: http://www.reneefleming.com.
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(Zinta Lundborg is an editor for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own. This interview was adapted from a longer conversation.)
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