What Performers Can Learn From Renee Fleming
By Melinda Bargreen
If you’re a fan of great singing, there was only one place to be in Seattle on March 16th: Benaroya Hall, where the country’s most celebrated diva held court in a concert with the Seattle Symphony Orchestra and music director Ludovic Morlot.
Renée Fleming is the reigning singer of this era, the star of choice for solos at inaugurations and openings and solemn festivities of every kind. She has, however, a long list of attributes besides that incredible genetic gift of a voice. Examining the trajectory of her career, and the qualities of her recent Seattle performance, it’s not hard to come up with a list of points every performer might consider in the development of a career. Here are a few of them:
1. Connect with your audience. From the moment Fleming emerges from the wings, she radiates an energy that reaches from the stage to the far corners of the hall. Her smile, her gestures, and her direct gaze into the house all say more powerfully than words: “I am here to connect with you, and to give you an evening of wonderful music.” Her spoken remarks, introducing each song or aria, conveyed the same feeling – warmth, humor, and great respect for the music she was about to present.
2. Choose what you really want to perform. Many recitals, for instance, follow a tried-and-true formula, starting with some Classical-era selections that may sound more dutiful than inspired. It’s as if the singer or pianist were thinking, “Well, I’d better start with some Mozart; they probably expect that.” Fleming isn’t afraid to mix period and style and musical atmosphere. In her career, as well as her concert programming, she makes such eclectic choices that it’s hard to pigeonhole her in any convenient category.
3. Be generous to your younger colleagues. Fleming has written a book (“The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer”) that should be required reading for all aspiring singers. It’s frank, autobiographical, and full of tips to help readers negotiate this difficult career path. She also boosts the careers of aspiring young composers, as she did in her Seattle concert by lavishly praising, and performing, an encore by Todd Frazier.
4. Look your best. Yes, Fleming has been blessed at birth by the Beauty Fairy, but she has taken care of herself. Her book recounts her decision to lose weight after the birth of her two daughters, so that she wouldn’t eat her way out of a lot of glamorous opera roles. And you’ll never see her in a dowdy or unflattering gown – unlike some other soloists who appear to have done their shopping in the Department of “What Was She Thinking?”
5. Take the time to learn how to pronounce what you’re singing. Fleming is famous for the authenticity of her French repertoire (made especially clear in her Seattle performance of Ravel’s “Shéhérazade”), but commentators have also expressed astonishment at the excellence of her Czech (in the Dvořák opera “Rusalka”). Pronunciation and diction are vital to communication.
6. Don’t be swayed by the siren call of novelty for its own sake. One place where Fleming went awry, at least for this listener, was in her selection of so-called “indie rock” pieces (which she has recorded), in souped-up orchestral versions that sound slightly embarrassing. The songs, by Death Cab for Cutie and Muse, had to be miked, and the amplification was not enough to project Fleming’s voice in its lowest register. The soloist certainly isn’t responsible for the sound levels in the amplification – but she is for choosing to sing this material with symphonic backup.
7. Never forget to be gracious to your fans, no matter how famous you become. After the Seattle concert, a long and taxing evening, Fleming emerged in the Benaroya Hall lobby to greet her well-wishers and sign CDs and autographs for more than an hour. Now that’s a class act.