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10 Questions for Renee Fleming

4 minute read
Terry Mccarthy

The same American soprano who got booed at Milan’s La Scala a few years ago went to Paris this month to receive the Légion d’Honneur. After recording three new albums–the jazz-inspired Haunted Heart, the Strauss opera Daphne and a collection of sacred songs–Renée Fleming, 46, spoke with TIME’s Terry McCarthy about practicing in front of the mirror and learning to sing in Elvish.

YOU HAVE A CHRISTMAS ALBUM? Every singer eventually gets around to a Christmas disc. Only now it’s called a sacred collection. My father was a choral master, and I learned these songs as I grew up. It was fun to come back to.

DO YOU THINK OPERA NEEDS CELEBRITY SINGERS TO GET YOUNGER PEOPLE INTERESTED? [Audiences] want to hear the most thrilling singing. When a human being without amplification makes a sound that is high and loud, it is almost unworldly. To get younger people interested, you also need a sense of theater and spectacle. Titles have made it more accessible. But I think the real future is streaming video over the Internet–then you can be heard not just by 3,000 people in the hall but live all around the world. One of the biggest markets for classical music is China.

DO YOU EVER WORRY ABOUT LOSING YOUR VOICE? The voice is such a mystery. It is hard to diagnose if something goes wrong. No one really knows what happened to Callas’ voice when it went. But I am now at a point where I can trust my voice better. It is like a tennis or a golf player; you have to trust in your technique. Singing in a high range, like [in Strauss’s] Daphne, is a risk, but risk is exciting. That is what audiences want.

IN 1998 YOU WERE BOOED AT LA SCALA BUT RETURNED TO PERFORM AT THE OPERA HOUSE SEVEN MONTHS LATER. HOW WAS THAT? I felt if I didn’t go back, the experience would loom larger in my memory, and I needed to step up to the plate. It is a lot like getting back on a horse that has thrown you. But Pavarotti was booed there, and he never went back. [Opera at La Scala] is a little bit like a sports event, with fans shouting at their teams.

IS IT TRUE THAT YOU PRACTICE SINGING IN THE MIRROR? Once in a while. I can see if I am singing out of the side of my mouth or lifting a shoulder–we do all these involuntary movements when we sing. If I could just sit in the audience and hear myself, I would be so much better, but I have to rely on others listening to me.

SINCE YOU ALREADY SING IN EIGHT LANGUAGES, WAS IT HARD LEARNING ELVISH FOR THE LORD OF THE RINGS SOUND TRACK? Would you believe–in two dialects, old Elvish and new Elvish? Who knew? It was wonderful. It put me in touch with a whole new audience, including my children’s friends.

HOW DO YOU MANAGE BRINGING UP TWO DAUGHTERS WITH YOUR CAREER? I have cut back a lot on my travel, by reducing the number of operas I sing. Now I do more recitals. My daughters are happy. I take my cue from them. They know that they are my highest priority. I was reading recently there is this huge wave of women with spectacular educations who are leaving the work force to look after their children. When I was growing up, we thought we had it best because we could have it all: family and career. It is always fragile, being a parent.

WHAT ARIA DO YOU MOST LIKE SINGING? The Song to the Moon, from Rusalka, is my signature piece.

AND WHAT DO YOU MOST LIKE LISTENING TO? Susan Graham singing as the Composer from Ariadne and Placido singing Otello–he was the greatest Otello for 30 years. Luciano, too, was so perfect in every way. I think of him as Ella Fitzgerald, and Placido as Sarah Vaughan. Luciano– classical, crystal, timeless perfection. Placido–more baroque, a little bit twisted, crazy and sexy. For my own singing, I used to be attracted by the baroque, the flashier the better, but now I prefer a simpler, purer style.

NEW YORK–BASED CHEF DANIEL BOULUD CREATED A CONFECTION CALLED “DIVA RENEE AU CHOCOLAT.” WHAT’S IT LIKE HAVING A DESSERT NAMED AFTER YOU? It is too many calories! And with my face lasered on the front of the dessert, it is hard for me to look at that and then eat it anyway!

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