Throughout her stellar opera career, Renée Fleming has frequently branched out into musical theatre and jazz. As The Light in the Piazza opens in London, she tells Mark Shenton about learning from Broadway stars and explains why rigid genre restrictions are meaningless – even if the critics are slow to catch up
Renée Fleming has long been a bona fide global opera superstar; she was described in 1997 (when she was 38) by the New York Times’ Anthony Tommani as “the most sought-after lyric soprano of her generation”. The legendary conductor Georg Solti, who had worked with her three years earlier in London on a performance and recording of Cosi Fan Tutte, said: “In my long life, I have met maybe two sopranos with this quality of singing. The other was Renata Tebaldi.”
Now, Fleming is bringing that sublime voice – and shimmering star presence – back to London. But this time it isn’t for an opera or a classical recital, but a Broadway musical, when she stars in the London premiere of Adam Guettel and Craig Lucas’ 2005 masterpiece The Light in the Piazza at the Royal Festival Hall, for a run of only 20 performances.
“My gosh, I love this show and this character,” she exclaims of the work and the role of Margaret Johnson. She’d seen the show during its original run at Lincoln Center’s Vivian Beaumont Theatre – literally next door to her usual home at the Met – and fallen in love with it then.
This production, directed by Daniel Evans, marks the debut of a new commercial theatre venture: Scenario Two, co-founded by former English National Opera artistic director John Berry and producer Anthony Lilley.
When putting together the casting for their first show, Berry had been talking to Matthew Epstein, a leading figure in contemporary opera in New York, who told him that Fleming had long wanted to play Margaret. “I called her up straight afterwards,” Berry reveals.
And Fleming picks up the story: “This model he’s created is really smart – it’s like an opera model, but you can perform every day.” Still, there are specific challenges: “You have to sing smart and remember that you don’t have to create this wall of sound that carries over the orchestra. You’re miked – it makes a huge difference. I learned so much from my young colleagues on Broadway. I was amazed at how little actual output of sound there is in what they do in the rehearsal space. They’ve really learned the techniques of trusting amplification. It’s a very different discipline. It’s the only way to get through a lot of the roles they sing now that have a lot of belt and mix sounds in it, which are very taxing on the voice.”
Q&A: Renée Fleming
What was your first professional theatre job?
I went to sing at Virginia Opera when I was still at Julliard.
What do you wish someone had told you when you were starting out?
To play to my strengths – I was always auditioning out of my strength, as I thought it would impress people.
Who or what was your biggest influence?
I had a series of mentors I outlined in my book. In recent years, it’s been Yo-Yo Ma.
What’s your best advice for auditions?
Definitely perform. Put aside thoughts of your singing – it’s a performance.
If you hadn’t been a singer, what would you have been?
I’ve been an entrepreneur all my adult life. I love the notion of creating something successful, but now I’d want to work in science.
Do you have any theatrical superstitions or rituals?
On performance days, I don’t have lunch or go out with people.
As with so much in life, it’s about technique as well as talent. But it’s also about taking risks and going outside of your personal comfort zone. In the last few years, Fleming has certainly been doing both of those things, stretching herself in different directions that have included both a short-lived comedy Living on Love, in 2015, and a major revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel on Broadway last year. In April, she also co-starred with Ben Whishaw in the opening production of New York’s Shed arts centre in the Hudson Yards: Norma Jean Baker of Troy.
When I met her last November in London, she was already busy rehearsing that show with director Katie Mitchell: “We do a week here and there, which for me is actually better – I’d rather do it this way, so we have more time to absorb it. But opera singers are engaged so far in advance – further in advance than any other kind of performer I know of – so once this came into place there were already restrictions on everyone’s calendars.”
But Fleming doesn’t allow herself to be restricted in other ways, and she loves working in a variety of disciplines. Speaking of Mitchell, she says, warmly: “She’s so much my kind of director, with a fastidious attention to detail. What she’s doing is extraordinary, taking something that is very intelligent and witty and turning it into something quite emotional.”
‘The Light in the Piazza is such a complex story, but it has something for everyone – and the music is challenging’
Intelligence and emotion are also the qualities that mark out The Light in the Piazza.
“Isn’t it a great piece?” she says. “It’s such a complex story, but also multigenerational with something for everyone – on so many levels, it hits every mark. It’s also rare that I am able to play a role in which motherhood plays a part, and it’s very powerful to me that she is wrestling with how to let her daughter go or not. Also, the music is challenging – there’s a level of sophistication to it that one doesn’t always find.”
Fleming has recently recorded a new album of Broadway songs, and included Fable from the score of Piazza on it – “to see if it was a fit for me”. She goes on: “I worked really hard to look for pieces that are a fit for me, and at this stage of my life I am enjoying expanding the whole spectrum of music theatre.”
The songs of Rodgers and Hammerstein, she says, “have accompanied me through my career – I do very few concerts with orchestras where I don’t programme something of theirs.”
The Light in the Piazza’s composer Adam Guettel is grandson of Richard Rodgers, so there is a natural connection – just as there is for some theatre stars who cross over in the other direction to opera.
Three top tips for aspiring singers
1. Don’t accept your limitations.
2. Keep working – its a very competitive world out there – and have a back-up plan.
3. Young performers need to focus on what is unique about them. They need to bring some spark of originality.
When Fleming did Cosi Fan Tutte at the Met last year, she was joined by Kelli O’Hara. She notes how courageous it was of O’Hara to take it on: “One thing I’ve learned about people who inhabit the theatre world is that they are fierce workers, and will do what needs to be done. I still remember doing my first countess with Thomas Allen, and how stretched I was to keep up with him – it’s so much to absorb. But Kelli did: that’s the discipline and training and competitiveness of those in the Broadway world, who are incredibly hard workers.”
Fleming has a long history and affinity with musicals. “I grew up with them,” she says. “My family all did our own musicals. And jazz has always been a fascination of mine, too. The restrictions [for performers moving between genres] that used to be placed on us have pretty much gone away.”
Yet she also feels that stretching across different forms can create problems in how critics approach her work. “You can choose to be a specialist and have one very focused line of enquiry, that you’ll be critically lauded for; or you can choose to try to gain a larger audience, which in the US means you can find yourself in some trouble, critically. I always say that if I write another book, I’ll call it ‘Between a Rock and a Hard Place’.”
One thing that has been consistent for Fleming has been the importance of new work in her career. “I’ve always loved new work, from when I was young.” This summer she’ll be premiering a new piece at Tanglewood, the outdoor concert venue, written by Tom Stoppard, with a score by Andre Previn for the Emerson Quartet.
People, she says, “gather around music – it’s a form of social cohesion, a way of holding us together”. And as audiences will discover at the Royal Festival Hall once again, she knows exactly how to hold them in the palm of her hand with her thrillingly expressive voice.
CV: Renée Fleming
Born: 1959, Indiana, Pennsylvania
Training: Eastman School of Music, Rochester, New York; Julliard School, New York City
Landmark roles: Mimi in La Bohème, New York City Opera (1989); Micaela in Carmen, NYCO (1990); Rosina in The Ghosts of Versailles, Metropolitan Opera, New York (1991); Amelia in Simone Boccanegra, Royal Opera, London (1995); Eva in Die Meistersinger von Nürnberg, Bayreuth (1996)
Awards: Grammy awards for best classical vocal performance (1999, 2009) and best classical vocal solo (2013); Classical Brit awards for outstanding contribution to music (2004) and female artist of the year (2018); National Medal of Arts (2012)
Agent: Linda Petrikova, IMG Artists
The Light in the Piazza  runs at the Royal Festival Hall, London, from June 14 to July 5, 2019