Renée Fleming Will Show Houston the 'Unamplified Human Voice Trained to an Olympian Level'

We talk to the beloved singer about her upcoming Broadway debut, deep love for Björk and more ahead of her Houston show.

By Chris Becker October 31, 2017

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In the world of opera, there are singers, and there are superstars—musical artists who capture the imagination and fandom of the public well beyond the rarefied concert hall. Soprano Renée Fleming—a beautiful, down-to-earth diva whose rich, luminous voice turns listeners to jelly—certainly belongs in the latter category. 

As a former budding jazz singer who describes the operatic voice as “a cultivated scream,” Fleming has not only sung several of opera’s most beloved and challenging roles, but also collaborated with such jazz heavies as Brad Mehldau and Bill Frisell, recorded film soundtracks (Lord of the Rings, Guardians of the Galaxy), and even put out a cover album of indie-rock songs by Arcade Fire, Muse, and Death Cab for Cutie. 

Now 58 and retired from the opera stage, Fleming’s current and upcoming projects include starring in the Broadway revival of Carousel, helping to launch nRapt, a streaming service for classical music fans, and spreading the word about the connection between music and health. (Her visit to Houston this week includes a presentation at Houston Methodist Research Institute on the history of music and medicine.) “It’s heartening to have a future that can provide so much intellectual stimulation and the potential for continued artistic growth,” Fleming says.

On Saturday, Nov. 4, at Jones Hall, Society for the Performing Arts will host Fleming as she performs a wide-ranging recital of songs by Brahms, Dvořák, Fauré and Saint-Saëns, as well as two recent works by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Caroline Shaw. She will also pay tribute to Broadway singer Barbara Cook with selections from The Music Man and The King and I. We caught up with Fleming during her recent European tour to ask her about her pop and jazz influences, the healing power of music, and how to reel in new audiences for opera.

Björk is a favorite of many contemporary composers and musicians, and you sing four of her compositions on your most recent album, Distant Light. What drew you to Björk's music?

I admire so much about Björk’s artistry—her originality, the creative coloring of her voice, and her emotional honesty. There is a real openness of expression in her sound. I love that she is embraced by listeners across multiple generations and has become a household name by following her own path. Because she is one of the only singers in popular music that uses a true soprano register, I could imagine her music in my voice, with the different textures of a symphony orchestra.  

How has jazz influenced you over the years, as a singer and an interpreter of so many different eras of music?

The years I spent singing jazz and learning how to improvise in that style have given me a sense of freedom that informs my approach to some classical music and opera, including Handel and bel canto. Singing in different styles has helped me learn about my voice and perhaps expanded my creativity, and it has absolutely developed my ear.

I am fascinated by improvisation. In jazz, when many musicians, both vocalists and instrumentalists, are improvising together, it can be absolutely thrilling, and a well-known song can be entirely different in each performance. That’s really at the heart of what makes jazz unique. And we’re learning that musical improvisation engages the brain on a scale like almost nothing else.

Since you partnered with the Kennedy Center and National Institutes of Health, what have you learned that most surprised you about the therapeutic potential of music? 

I have been amazed at the breadth of the research, and the continuing development of music therapy as a field, and how it is changing what we know about the brain. All of these diverse studies, using music to understand neural plasticity, or the way we process emotions, are giving us real scientific support for what many musicians and music lovers have always believed in: the incredible power of music. The impact of music therapy on veterans, childhood development, treatments for Alzheimer’s disease, autism, pain relief and more, is compelling and powerful. But research is very granular, and putting this information together is like assembling tiny pieces of a vast mosaic. But I’m excited, because the big picture has emerged.

In 2018, you are set to make your Broadway debut in a revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel. In the age of the jukebox musical, is this a risky venture, to present Carousel in the classic Broadway style with beautiful singing?

I know that the musical standards in this production are going to be of the very highest caliber, and I think there is always a place on Broadway for that. In fact, I think all of the theatrical values: music, dance, drama, scenography, will be well served by this incredible creative team and brilliant cast—it’s really a once-in-a-lifetime assemblage of talent. I just attended my first rehearsal, and I couldn’t be more excited about Director Jack O’Brien’s vision for the piece.

Will you be dancing in this new production? 

Yes, en pointe. No, no, I’m kidding. There will be a lot of breathtaking dance in this production. We have the incredible good fortune to have Justin Peck, famous from his work with New York City Ballet, as choreographer, and an ensemble of truly stunning dancers. 

What are some of your thoughts on outreach and building audiences for opera? What have you observed that works or doesn’t work?

You may need to take opera to the audience in unexpected venues, which might include nightclubs, parks, public spaces and schools. I also believe in collaboration, in Chicago with Second City, and great artists from different genres, in Carnegie Hall with Sting and Kevin Spacey, or with Andrea Bocelli at Madison Square Garden. Because opera is a centuries-old tradition, we just need to make an effort to show new audiences that it’s not a walled garden. They can come as they are, and they will hear something they almost never hear anywhere else, the unamplified human voice trained to an Olympian level.

 Nov. 4 at 7:30 p.m. Tickets from $34. Jones Hall for the Performing Arts, 615 Louisiana St. 713-227-4772. More info and tickets at spahouston.org.

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