Renee Fleming has steered clear of the Baden-Baden casino, popular with tourists in the elegant southern German spa resort.
“I am a poor loser so it’s better not to even go there,” the U.S. soprano says in the bar of the venerable Brenners Park- Hotel, where waiters jostle to serve us. (Three came separately to take our order. That never happens when I’m alone.)
Glamorous in a black jacket nipped in at the waist and loose black pants tucked into neat ankle boots, Fleming, 53, has a soft low speaking voice that is sometimes hard to hear above the tinkling piano in the adjoining room.
The previous night, she was on stage at the Festspielhaus Baden-Baden in the title role of Richard Strauss’s “Ariadne auf Naxos,” an opera-within-an-opera that mixes slapstick and tragedy with some great music and a debate about fidelity.
Fleming almost didn’t come at all, concerned that her voice “wouldn’t be big enough” for the role of Ariadne. Conductor Christian Thielemann persuaded her not to cancel, promising the orchestra would “support her in the right way,” she says.
Thielemann stuck to his pledge, keeping a chamber-orchestra sound that doesn’t drown out Fleming’s light, warm tone.
“At this stage in my career, I don’t have to take any big risks,” Fleming says. “You want to take a calculated risk, not one that leads to people saying ‘yes, but there was that one time when she made that big mistake,’” she laughs. “It’s always a shame when that happens, especially if you’ve gotten by for decades without anything hugely tragic.
“I had said that this would be the one and only time I would sing Ariadne,” she says. Yet the feedback from those she trusts has been positive, Fleming says.
“So I might do it again, we’ll see. I haven’t been offered it yet. Musically it’s a real joy. The two arias are so beautiful.”
It’s a fair bet that the offers will come. Fleming, who has made Strauss her special focus, is considered the top soprano in the U.S. -- if not the world. The “people’s diva” performed at the Lincoln Memorial for President Barack Obama’s inauguration concert in 2009, as well as in Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games.
Fleming says she was shocked to realize that Ariadne was her first new role in eight years.
“I learned so many roles so quickly as a young singer, I thought it was time to come back to them and make them better -- deeper, more nuanced,” she says.
Memorizing new roles is “getting harder,” Fleming says with a rueful smile. “Learning this role was time-consuming.”
She says she has dropped some parts from her repertoire, usually because they were inappropriate for her voice. She sang Eva in Wagner’s “Meistersinger” at Bayreuth, “but the second act was too low for me and didn’t feel great when it was over and I had to sing something else.”
The role of Louise in the opera of that name by Gustave Charpentier was “exhausting, and the character is not interesting, she’s very passive.”
Fleming, who listens to jazz for relaxation when she has time, says she would like to turn her hand to directing at least once or twice, perhaps with children or students.
“You can’t be in this business for as long as I have been and not have developed ideas on the ‘regie’ too,” she says. “Also my hobbies are art and theater, so at some point I would love to bring that together and try a couple of things.”
Placido Domingo handily picked up a baton to conduct, and one could easily see Fleming evolving into a stage director.
In the meantime, she is appearing in a new production of Strauss’s “Arabella” at the Opera National de Paris conducted by Philippe Jordan and premiering in June, and in a semi-staged performance of “A Streetcar Named Desire” as part of a season- long residency at Carnegie Hall.
She is also creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, a position she has held for a year and loves. No one in the opera world would be surprised if, after her consultancy, Fleming ended up running a major company.
Management may be something she will do more of later in her career, she says, though at the moment, she is still “singing full blast.”
(The opera company announced details today of a world premiere it has commissioned for the 2015-16 season titled “Bel Canto,” based on the novel by Ann Patchett, with music by Jimmy Lopez and a libretto by Nilo Cruz. Stephen Wadsworth will direct and Danielle de Niese stars in the central role).
“I can’t say anything about it, I am sworn to secrecy,” Fleming says. “It has been so thrilling to see this project come together. Chicago used to have an incredible reputation for new works. It should be part of every theater’s profile.
“I am so envious of my colleagues from 100 years ago who only sang new works, they hardly ever sang revivals,” she says. “‘Ariadne’ opened in Stuttgart for a beautiful new theater in a mini-Strauss festival. Now, you would bring out ‘Aida’ or ‘Turandot,’ some real Italian hit -- and it’s the same repertoire we’re listening to 100 years later.”
(Catherine Hickley writes for Muse, the arts and leisure section of Bloomberg News. The opinions expressed are her own.)
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