Saturday 25 November 2017

Renée Fleming: the super soprano who stole the show

Rich voice: Renee Fleming
Rich voice: Renee Fleming

George Hamilton

Her record label calls her 'America's favourite soprano'. Critics describe her as 'the peoples' diva'. If you're one of the many who enjoy the regular broadcasts of the New York Metropolitan Opera's Saturday matinees, you'll know who I mean.

Renée Fleming, the host of the popular shows, celebrates her 56th birthday this St Valentine's Day. At the top of her game, she has performed over 50 roles right across the operatic spectrum from Baroque, through Mozart, to Verdi and Puccini, and on to Richard Strauss.

Renée was born to sing. Her parents were both voice teachers. Her initial intention was to become a teacher herself, and her first degree was in music education.

While she was a student, she was singing - but it was as a soloist with a jazz trio. She had the opportunity to move in the direction of jazz when she got an invitation to join one of the top big bands. But she then turned to opera, signing up for postgraduate courses at the Eastman School of Music and then the Juilliard Opera Center. She won a Fulbright scholarship to go to west Germany, where one of her mentors was Elisabeth Schwarzkopf.

Her breakthrough came at the age of 27, in Salzburg, when she sang Konstanze in Mozart's Entführung aus dem Serail. Success in the Metropolitan Opera's annual singing competition was the next big landmark.

Debuts in New York and Covent Garden followed, before her first appearance at the Met when Felicity Lott had to cry off, and Renée stepped in to fill the role of the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro.

Her rich and sumptuous voice soon made her a favourite in the major opera houses and she reached a wider audience with a series of superb recordings. Four Last Songs, a Richard Strauss compilation with the Munich Philharmonic under Christian Thielemann (Decca, 478 0647), is a terrific album that showcases her wonderfully melodic soprano, warm and engaging with a lush richness.

Five years ago, Renée Fleming surprised her army of admirers when she headed off in a completely different direction, releasing Dark Hope (Mercury, 2739699), an album of Indie Rock covers of material by artists as diverse as Peter Gabriel, Jefferson Airplane, Tears for Fears, and Arcade Fire.

Her status as an American superstar was underscored last year. At the 2014 Super Bowl in New Jersey, she became the first classical artist to sing the National Anthem. She brought the house down, hitting the high notes to perfection. USA Today described her performance as 'gorgeous'.

Renée's diary for 2015 features recitals and concerts from the United States to Australia and New Zealand, and takes a detour in April when she moves on to the Broadway stage to star in a new comedy as, you might well have guessed, an opera singer.

Another soprano had a birthday this week. Leontyne Price, the first African American to become an international operatic star, turned 88 last Tuesday.

George Hamilton presents The Hamilton Scores on RTÉ lyric fm from 10am each Saturday

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