Famed soprano back home for concert on IUP stage
Showgoers this weekend are in for more than a concert by a Grammy-winning opera soprano of the past generation.
Renée Fleming brings a voice and stage presence seen by audiences at the Olympics, presidential inaugural festivities, Nobel Prize ceremonies and the concert celebrating 50 years of the reign of British Queen Elizabeth II.
An ambassador for the classics and an advocate for literacy and the arts, Fleming is an author, a host of television and radio broadcasts, and a guest on “Sesame Street” and “A Prairie Home Companion.”
Fleming also has a touch of Indiana County blood.
Although raised through her early elementary school years in Ridgway and later in Rochester, N.Y., Fleming was born at Indiana Hospital to Mr. and Mrs. Edwin Fleming, of RD 2 Cherry Tree, while they were senior music majors at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.
In her first return to Indiana, Fleming will perform in a recital at 8 p.m. Saturday in Fisher Auditorium, a program subtitled “Back Home Again in Indiana,” part of the Ovations! series of the Lively Arts at IUP.
“We have a whole Fleming family reunion planned around this concert,” Fleming said. “It’s going to be a lot of fun, with many family members I have not seen for a very long time. My husband is coming also — he is from Pittsburgh — with his two sisters. So I think I am going to be the one who has to lay low and protect the performance, but everybody else is probably going to have a terrific time.”
Her appearance comes in the midst of a year recital touring, following a cross-country series of performances and ahead of several appearances throughout South America.
The IUP recital comes on the heels of Fleming’s fourth Grammy honor presented Feb. 10, the award for Best Classical Vocal Solo, her album “Poèmes,” a collection of 20th-century French music, including works composed especially for her by Henri Dutilleux.
“They’re all pretty exciting. I’ve had about 14 nominations and each is an honor,” Fleming said. “I never expect to win because, frankly, the odds are so ridiculous. There must be 200 classical music recordings released each month, so the idea that they could pick the best one is not realistic. … But it still is a fantastic experience to win.”
Topping Fleming’s agenda now is her show in the Perspective Series at Carnegie Hall in New York.
“It’s very exciting; it’s a lot of preparation and time, and an artistic labor of love,” Fleming said. “Because I sing so often in New York and have sung most of my major operatic repertoire here, the Perspective Series allows one to present something new for the audience, and also for my own artistic stretch.”
Fleming’s outside-the-box kind of performance is an operatic version of the classic movie and Broadway musical “A Streetcar Named Desire,” which she now is performing at Lyric Opera in Chicago. Fleming said she expects to sing features from the show at her recital in Indiana, as she is at Carnegie Hall.
“And ‘Streetcar,’ I haven’t sung in 10 years,” Fleming said in an interview from her office in New York. “I premiered the piece 15 years ago but it’s never been heard in New York. I believe in the piece, I think it’s a really terrific opera and want to share it with the public here.”
Fleming has shown her diversity in other work with Lyric Opera, in a collaboration that she encouraged with Chicago’s Second City improvisational comedy house.
Lyric and Second City premiered in January “The Second City Guide to the Opera,” co-hosted by Fleming and Patrick Stewart, a two-hour blend of sketch comedy and operatic singing performed for a sellout audience of more than 3,700.
“Second City is coming back in June to be on stage at the opera every day for a period of weeks, and who knows after that, it would be very exciting if it could tour,” Fleming said. “It’s such a good piece and so much fun. It’s something people can enjoy who already know and love opera, but also for people to see opera through the prism of a group they’re already familiar with.
“It also humanizes opera, because it takes opera into Kinko’s and into Starbucks and the bus station, and it makes it into an everyday experience.”
Fleming finds it a way to reach and introduce new audiences to opera. Online resources, YouTube at the lead, put Fleming’s singing and countless other performers just mouse clicks away from future opera lovers or performers.
For the genre of music that’s generally confined in mainstream media to the radio stations confined to the low end of the dial reserved for nonprofit and university broadcasts, Fleming sees a strong steady future.
Contrasted with popular music, which is frequently evolving with new sounds to appeal to new young audiences, the classics’ constancy keeps them a mainstay in the arts, in Fleming’s view.
“I see tons of performers. Where we need to focus more is the audience,” Fleming said. “The list of people who want to perform classical music is greater than ever before, but we really need to keep cultivating an audience.
“I feel it’s exposure — I know people say education, but I think if people are exposed to it, if they have some way to hear and listen, people can make up their own minds immediately, ‘this is for me’ or ‘this is not for me,’ and they can learn more about it.
“And the Internet is incredibly helpful because it’s all there. … It’s a great exploration tool for people, but better yet is opera either going into schools or people being enticed to come in and try it out.”
To that end, Fleming plans to carry on the word about opera to a group of music students at IUP at a reception on the day following her show.
But with all that the Internet can offer, Fleming said, tiny computer speakers and earbud headphones just don’t do opera complete justice.
“You can’t replace the live experience,” Fleming said. “I always remind people we are the only singers in the Western world who are not amplified. Even people on the street have some sort of PA system with them. What happens with the well-trained beautiful human voice in the hall — that’s the thrill that you get from hearing a voice in full throttle, cannot be reproduced in recording. It just can’t.
“The orchestra can almost seem louder in recordings sometimes, but the human voice takes on a whole new acoustic. So that is a reason for trying it.”
Next for Fleming, following the scheduled swing through Argentina, Brazil, Ecuador and Colombia, is a tour of Asia and Europe, including China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Lebanon, the Vienna State Opera, the Royal Opera House in London, and Dublin.
“And I’m singing in some places that I’ve never been. I enjoy that part of my work, the traveling,” Fleming said. “That’s one of the privileges of what I do; my children have loved it and have really enjoyed seeing the world.”
Tickets for Fleming’s show — those not saved for the Fleming clan — are available online at iuptickets.com or by telephone at (724) 357-1313.