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The time of her life

October 4, 2018

“Hi, it’s Renée.”

That’s how classical and opera singer Renée Fleming greets me when calling from New York.

“Sorry about this beeping,” she says a little later. It seems that the car she is riding in is having a bit of trouble.

It’s one of those “celebrities are just like us” moments for the four-time Grammy winner who has sold more than 2 million recordings, is an artistic director at large at the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C., and sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl in 2014.

Fleming will be in Fort Wayne this weekend during a stop that includes performing at Embassy Theatre with the Fort Wayne Philharmonic on Saturday for opening night of the orchestra’s 75th anniversary season.

The night will include pieces such as “The Last Rose of Summer,” which was featured in the movie “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” and “You’ll Never Know,” which was heard in “The Shape of Water.” The Philharmonic will also premiere a piece it commissioned, “Fanfare for the 15th Night of the Moon” by Joel Puckett. Andrew Constantine will conduct.

At Arts United Center on Sunday, Fleming will present “Music and the Mind,” a free lecture on the power of music as it relates to health and the brain. She will be joined by Sheri Robb, professor at Indiana University’s School of Nursing and the director of Indiana Clinical and Translational Sciences Institute KL2 Young Investigators Program.

The following conversation has been edited.

You’re doing a lot of traveling right now, performing with new orchestras like the Fort Wayne Philharmonic every few days. Is that difficult? Is there anything you do to get comfortable with a new group of musicians?

It’s not difficult, it’s fun actually. One of the things I really enjoy is meeting new people, which can be very interesting. It’s the same with an orchestra and conductor.

And every audience is new as well, it sort of gives me an opportunity to meet the audience where they are.

And as long as everyone is professional and they know what the music is, it sort of comes together.

Exactly. They will have rehearsed, and we already will have gotten to know each other a little bit through the programming. I present sort of a menu of options and then we work on it that way.

When people think about current classical music and opera singers, your name might be the first, if not the only, one that comes to mind for some of us outside the big cities where those types of musicians are usually based.

(Laughs) I’m glad that I have that recognizability, but it comes of having traveled a lot throughout the years, having a good amount of television exposure and doing these outside-of-the-box things, whether it be the Super Bowl or a lot of film. Part of my program kind of highlights the fact that I’ve been featured in three films this year.

That’s the type of thing that enables us to have a little bit of a larger name recognizability. Maybe the poster children for that are the Three Tenors. They just really hit a wave and created a phenomenon that is impossible to reproduce.

Is there ever a burden or responsibility that comes with that recognition?

Yeah, I would say the Super Bowl kind of highlights that, because I was the only classical music singer that had ever been asked to do this, and I needed to do well or it would ruin it for everyone else. (Laughs) So that definitely feels like a responsibility, and that’s true for any time I have something like this where it’s far outside of the typical classical music world.

You just had a new album, “Broadway,” come out, and it’s the latest in a pretty impressive list of recordings. Are you ever at a point where you think, “OK, this is the last one”?

Oh, I enjoy recording very much. I love the luxury of being able to focus entirely on an oral experience and not have to think about “how do I look when I’m doing this?” (Laughs)

But I am surprised that I’ve had such a long, fantastic relationship with recording company Decca and that it continues on. It feels to me like an absolute privilege to have such a long relationship with a label, especially given how much the recording industry has changed. Now, we’re really in a streaming world.

In addition to singing, one of the things you use your voice for is advocacy for music, the arts and wellness. While you’re in Fort Wayne, you’ll be presenting “Music and the Mind.” Why is that such an important topic to you?

The neuroscience and music connection is very powerful. If you have the privilege of learning what I’ve learned by being exposed to these great institutions and the researchers and scientists who inhabit the world, you would definitely want all children to have access to music education, to be able to play an instrument because it develops the brain so powerfully.

Is there a specific area of music education that children benefit from or should they be exposed to everything?

Most of the research that has shown a positive effect on childhood development has to do with playing an instrument. It’s that translation of what’s on the page through the body and coordinating all of it with an instrument that has been shown to help children with oral comprehension. Even dyslexia and certain problems have been shown as a disruption in rhythm and rhythmic perception. So one of the foundations of music, which is rhythm, has been shown to be incredibly important in our development as human beings.

People probably think of a classical singer as being very posh and proper, but are there any sorts of things that you maybe should be embarrassed for loving but totally aren’t?

Embarrassed? I don’t know about embarrassed. My guilty pleasures are probably drinking coffee and reading the newspaper. (Laughs) It’s nothing to feel that guilty about.

We appreciate it when people read the newspaper!

Yes, there you go. I like the actual paper.

Is there anything that you’ve had to put aside from an album or show but still really want to do?

There’s not much. I mean, I’m doing it. I’m totally having the time of my life doing so many different things and enjoying it.

I just finished a nine-month run on Broadway in “Carousel,” and that was a completely new experience which inspired me to make this album that’s all-Broadway repertoire and really explore it.

I like to do new things. I like to stay open.

So if you hadn’t ended up on stage, what would you be doing?

I really love business, and I think I would have like to have been an entrepreneur somehow. Or I would have loved to have been a visual artist.

But frankly, I’ve been able to travel the world, I have two beautiful children. I think I’ve been incredibly blessed.

cmcmaken@jg.net

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