This Wednesday marks the 20th anniversary of Renee Fleming's debut at the Metropolitan Opera, where she's performed more than 200 times. She returns to the Met later this month to perform in Strauss's "Capriccio," the latest chapter in her musical journey. NY1's Budd Mishkin filed the following "One On 1" report.
There are many aspects of Renee Fleming's daily life that any New Yorker can relate to. But when you're an opera star:
"I have to be careful how I use my voice. I can't be shouting. I can't be in loud restaurants. I have a loud restaurant meter in my head that, unfortunately, goes off in about 90 percent of restaurants, where I think, 'This is just not gonna work,'" says Fleming.
She calls it "the tyranny of the voice." It is a voice that is heard around the world.
She is the rare performer whose talents have propelled her beyond the world of opera into the consciousness of music fans everywhere. So it's somewhat startling to hear that after attending Julliard in her late 20s, she almost gave it up.
"I was getting a lot of rejection. And not a huge amount of encouragement," recalls Fleming. "And I wasn't one of these people who had to sing, who had to be a musician. I needed to be good at something, I needed to be successful at something."
Success soon followed, and has not abated for two decades. Fleming has enjoyed international acclaim in the highly scrutinized opera world. She has also felt its sting, experiencing a level of personal critique that might surprise the outsider.
"Imagine going to work every day and having a public review of how you did your job, that everyone reads the next day when they have your breakfast. It's strange, it is a bit odd," says Fleming.
Operatic roles like Countess Almaviva in "The Marriage of Figaro," Violetta in "La Traviata" and recently in the title role of Rossini’s "Armida" will always be her calling card, but Fleming has increasingly performed in settings that take her far from the met stage.
"Vaclav Havel found out that my great-grandparents were born in Prague, so I developed a relationship with him and certain events: the 20th anniversary, the commemoration of the Velvet Revolution. It's thrilling," says Fleming.
There's branching out, and then there's branching out. In 2010, Fleming released "Dark Hope," an album of eclectic rock songs.
With songs by hip young bands like Arcade Fire and Death Cab for Cutie, Fleming opened herself up to the toughest reviewers of all: her teenaged daughters.
"Horror, the humiliation factor was tremendous at that point," says Fleming. "I got as far as, 'We weren't embarrassed.' And that's really good, I'll take that."
Her children present what Fleming calls her greatest challenge, much like any other working parent in New York, balancing roles as singer and mother.
"I'm sure 10 years from now they'll be in some therapist chair saying, 'It was all my mother's fault, it was her career,'" says Fleming. "I hope they're going to be okay but right now they seem to be in a very good place. Importantly, they're proud of me and they as girls, both, I presented a role model to them for trying to achieve this balance and also for being passionate about their work."
Renee Fleming grew up in Rochester, New York, the daughter of two music teachers, in a house filled not surprisingly with music.
Another love of hers growing up was horses. Fleming says tending to horses on the family's property gave her discipline. And she believes competing in horse shows prepared her for the athletic element of singing.
"You're dealing with all these involuntary muscles, and it's extremely complicated to try and figure it all out," says Fleming. "And it takes a lot of practice and a lot of thought and care. And I needed to sort of have that amount of dedication."
She studied music at SUNY Potsdam, then as a graduate student at the Eastman School of Music in Rochester. Her folks had trained Fleming and her two siblings to sing and perform, but when she got into Julliard, her innate shyness gave her father pause.
"My dad said, 'You know, you can't move to New York, you'll jump off a bridge. New York is too scary, you can't go there.' And the opposite happened," recalls Fleming.
Fleming says she loved the early years in New York City, singing jazz gigs while going to Julliard. She was living in a railroad apartment in Queens when she got the call in 1991 to make her debut at the Met.
"A lot of times you understudy parts and you're just praying they don't call you. You just want your paycheck and you just hope that you don't have to go on. In this case, I was really ready. And to walk on the stage that night and to share the stage with artists whom I had idolized for a long time, who I hadn't quite met yet, singing across from them was a dream come true," says Fleming.
She quickly became one of the opera world's brightest stars. But Fleming says for eight months in 1998, an old bugaboo reappeared: stage fright.
"This is an existential, my-life-is-about-to-end stage fright. Because it's your entire livelihood is threatened in that moment. Because you know, if you don't go on, you're probably never gonna go on again," says Fleming. "It's amazing now. Because I've gone through other vocal crises that were vocal, that were physiological. And in all of this, I sang pretty well."
Her ties to New York are both professional and personal. Fleming has raised her two daughters in the Big Apple. Her connection to the city was perhaps never more emotional than her singing of Amazing Grace at the World Trade Center site less than two months after the September 11th attacks.
"I sorta prepared myself mentally by singing through Amazing Grace every night at 10 o'clock after the children were asleep, over and over again. I just thought, 'If the muscles can do it, even if I'm crying, maybe it'll come out,'" recalls Fleming. "You care more about the people in the audience. You see their faces and you think, 'This is for them and I'm not gonna indulge myself in these three minutes. I'm gonna try to comfort them in some way."
After 25 years in the business, Fleming understands that opera's rich history creates an unwieldy dilemma, even for a singer who has ascended its highest heights.
"It's been done for hundreds of years, that everyone will assume was done better 300 years ago, even though they haven't heard it but it was written about as being amazing. And it's an incredible yardstick to be measured by. And by the same token, when I'm feeling wonderful it's an amazing tradition to belong to," says Fleming.