Interview — soprano Renée Fleming

Renée Fleming performs at the Royal Opera Residence during the opening of the 2012 Olympic Games © Angela Weiss/AFP

“That was the biggest audience in the planet that I or any other performer could have,” says Renée Fleming. “The pressure was massive. You have to be hyper-focused and when you are in the zone like that, walking out there into the stadium, you do not really feel anything. The complete globe has shrunk to what is there ahead of your eyes.”

Even the reigning American prima donna only gets to sing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl after. None just before her has completed even that. Following in the footsteps of Whitney Houston, Mariah Carey and Beyoncé, in 2014 Fleming became the very first opera singer to execute at this pinnacle of the American sporting year.

“I believed, if I mess this up, they will in no way ask a classical musician once more,” she says. “I practised for it so a lot. It is critical to be prepared for any sound out there and we even had a rehearsal with Black Hawk helicopters overhead. The minute it was over, I felt a large explosion of relief. The images that had been taken of me coming off the ground are hysterical.”

There comes a point in the careers of the leading opera singers when doors to opportunities like that open. It is the tally of them in Fleming’s case that tends to make her an exception. In 2008, she sang at the Beijing Olympics. Then came the Obama Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial, followed by the 20th anniversary celebration of the Czech Republic’s “Velvet Revolution”, the diamond jubilee concert for Queen Elizabeth II and the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. If Fleming did not sing at an occasion, it is not worth an entry in the history books.

A whole month in London is clearly viewed as a welcome breather. The rehearsals for the new production of Der Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House will occupy a lot of time, as Strauss’s mock-Rococo comic extravaganza is a lengthy and complex opera to put on, but Fleming has an advantage. The Marschallin is one of her key roles and she has sung it in numerous productions before. Will this be her final? And is it her farewell to the Royal Opera? The concerns hang in the air.

Fleming in New York final month © Rob Carr/Getty

So far there does not appear to have been much time off. She says she is searching forward to walking round the purchasing streets to see the Christmas decorations, but her London stay began with the “busman’s holiday” of 3 consecutive operas at Covent Garden. She has observed the Sam Shepard play Buried Child, “stunning and quite relevant”, and Mark Rylance’s comedy, Nice Fish. “It’s quite Wisconsin, but also embraces a bigger culture. I hope he writes far more, as he has such a keen thoughts and a voice of his personal. I’ll go to a lot of theatre even though I am right here.”

Not surprisingly, Fleming’s career horizons are widening. As creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, she is immersed in the forthcoming Chicago Voices gala concert, which will bring together singers of blues, classical, hip-hop, jazz and rock. A new appointment at the Kennedy Center in Washington sees her as artistic adviser with a mission to expand the arts in society. These jobs, she stresses, are more than just a name at the leading of the headed notepaper. The late-evening calls and emails are mounting up.

I would like composers to think about creating interesting female characters who are mature

“They mean I get to grapple with the larger concerns — audience development, new technologies, and what relationships our youngsters and ensuing generations will have towards the arts. I think individuals will constantly want to come together and share the expertise [of live overall performance], and that means the arts can supply a neighborhood to men and women who are increasingly discovering they do not have one. For me, this is the way forwards, as opposed to what we have been undertaking before, which was focusing on top quality and artistic integrity.”

There is an irony in seeing Fleming preoccupied with leaving a legacy. Sitting across the table from me is a soprano who appears every bit as glamorous as she did 25 years ago. It was 1990 when I first saw a uniquely promising young singer take the stage in Dvorák’s Rusalka in Seattle. (“You cannot have been there!” she exclaims. “That was appropriate at the starting.”)

Because then, she has explored a lot more than 50 roles, creating a speciality of those just off the beaten track, such as Massenet’s Thaïs and the Countess in Strauss’s Capriccio, which specially suited her gleamingly stunning voice.

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Now she feels that journey is a lot more or significantly less comprehensive. Her energy is going into expanding the repertoire for, as she puts it wryly, “lyric sopranos who are no longer 20”. The future will see her concentrate on touring recitals and concert programmes she can devise herself. The current premiere of a new operate by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts, which draws on visual art and photography, points 1 way forwards. Her new album, due early in the new year, pairs a work written for her by Anders Hillborg with songs by Björk in what she hopes is “a very good, classical rendering”.

Operas, even though, are more difficult. Fleming would like to move into new roles suitable for a lyric soprano at her stage in life, but there is not significantly to pick from. “Look at what Josie Rourke is doing at the Donmar. And Glenda Jackson as Lear! This is what we don’t have in opera. So many of the women in opera are either the young enjoy interest or victims. There are some roles for dramatic sopranos in their later years, but not across other voice varieties.

“I would like composers to think about creating intriguing female characters who are, if not aged, at least mature. Individuals went wild to see Mirella Freni as Mimì in La bohème when she was in her sixties, but that wouldn’t be achievable these days. HD relays mean you can not have the age gap that was normal when I was young. It is a visual planet now.”

No doubt that is why the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier, an opera of lingering farewells, nonetheless appears such a congenial part. A middle-aged lady who is letting go of her teenage lover, she is a symbol of how to grow old gracefully, of searching back with no regrets.

Fleming singing the American national anthem at the Super Bowl in 2014 © Bill Cooper

“I 1st sang the Marschallin when I was 35,” she says. “I played her as a naive individual who was feeling these feelings for the 1st time, but as the years go by I increasingly get the sense of her obtaining been right here just before, that this affair is not her very first, as she practically admits. I really feel far more resignation now, more hunting towards the end. This function can take endless layers of interpretation and nuance, which is why I have by no means grow to be bored with her.”

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The late Welsh soprano Margaret Price tag memorably said she could not picture singing the Marschallin, because she was not somebody who would go about in the middle of the evening stopping the clocks. She slept quite well, thank you. “Did she say that?” gasps Fleming. “How fabulous! Nicely, I was melancholy all via my teens, so the Marschallin is best for me. I have worked for years to discover the authority in her, the loneliness, and the nearly manic-depressive high quality, but Robert Carsen [director of the new Royal Opera production] has lightened me up considerably. He has made it a entertaining journey.”

The huge query remains. Is it correct she has no more opera dates in her diary, either at the Royal Opera or at the Metropolitan Opera, New York, soon after this production transfers there in April? “Yes, soon after Rosenkavalier at the Met, that is it, unless a new role comes along that is match for me now,” she says. “But I don’t forget being at Elisabeth Söderström’s farewell at the Met, which was also Rosenkavalier, and I was crying along with everybody else. Then a couple of years later she came back. So this is anything I have learnt from my colleagues. In no way say ‘never’!”

‘Der Rosenkavalier’ opens at the Royal Opera Home, London, on December 17, roh.org.uk

Photographs: Angela Weiss/AFP Rob Carr/Getty Bill Cooper

Section: Arts