What an absolutely delightful evening we had with Renée Fleming at the Metropolitan Opera Club on March 19th! Renée was the honored guest artist for cocktails and dinner at our Club (on the Dress Circle level at the Met). She was tremendously gracious and generous with her time, mingling and warmly chatting with members and our guests and agreeing to our photo requests. While it’s hard not to fawn over a performer of Renée’s accomplishment, she made us each feel very comfortable to be with her.
My first note was of Renée’s recollection of a chat she had after singing to a small audience several years ago. Someone came up to her after her performance and told her: “You have an amazing voice! You should take some lessons!” With that bit of self-deprecating humor, Renée – the child of voice teacher parents, with voice degrees from SUNY Potsdam and Julliard - noted that the general public doesn’t understand the difference in education required to sing on American Idol vs. at the Metropolitan Opera.
She has sung 51 roles in opera, and would still love to do a Strauss, Wagner, and world premiere opera role. As a lyric soprano, she has a broad range and could sing in any language.
Renée recalled that she learned something after giving birth to one of her children: that women who have just had a baby have no memory. Alas, she didn’t know that at the time and was very frustrated with her inability just then to learn a new role.
She believes firmly in maintaining the health of the voice; the voice is such a fragile instrument. Renée noted that unlike many other singers, her voice has not “gained weight” over the years (just as Plácido Domingo’s also has not).
Sarah mentioned that 1 1/2 million viewers around the world have watched the Metropolitan Opera HDTV broadcasts at their local movie theaters, dramatically expanding the numbers of those who have had the opportunity to see and hear Renée perform.
As to how many years Renée might continue to perform in operatic roles, she replied she doesn’t have a particular target, but will take it one year a time. This year, of course, has been a remarkable one for Renée at the Met, featuring her on Opening Night and in Thaïs, Rusalka, and the 125th Anniversary Gala.
Renée finds that the Met, acoustically from the stage, is her most comfortable house. Despite its size [I believe it’s the largest opera house in the world today, with just under 4000 seats], Renée says when she just sings well, it carries; she doesn’t worry about her voice filling the house.
She noted that she learned a lesson early in her career about singing with ease. She found a piece she sung from Rusalka (in the Czech language of her family heritage) was almost “too easy” to sing. It took a while for her to recognize that it was easy because the piece was a good fit for her voice – an important lesson for singers: They need to audition with pieces that fit!
In working with conductors, she looks to be inspired by a conductor – one who encourages her to take risks. The conductor makes or breaks a performance – especially if the conducting is poorly paced. She can’t take tyrants, but has had the good fortune of working at length in this house and city she loves [and, I daresay, loves her!].
Renée continues to share her gifts and knowledge by offering master classes to singers and discovering and encouraging young talent. Among those discoveries is Shenyang, a bass baritone she heard in a master class she conducted in Shanghai. She introduced him to the Met’s Young Artist Program where he as been developing while attending Julliard. Shenyang will have his Met premiere on April 13th as Masetto in Don Giovanni.
Now that Renée’s Met season is over, she will be taking one of her daughters to visit colleges. I’ve sent Renée my blog piece on Getting Admitted to a Good College. I hope she and her daughter find it helpful! Meanwhile, I look forward to seeing the pictures the photographer took of Renée and me and using it in my holiday letter!