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Text: Roksolana Chernoba
Photo: Roksolana Chernoba

Award winning American opera prima Renee Fleming is convinced that the classical stereotype of the opera prima donna is a myth that is going out of fashion. She is the mother of two; her world is full of deep seated impressions and concerns. DEI met Renee when she visited at a small American Art Festival in Florida. She turned out to be a literature fanatic (she is also an author) and together with her friend, novelist Ann Pachett, conducted a master class about career and life management which only added to our enthusiasm and curiosity.

DE I: How do you manage to win over your audience to the extent you do? During today’s performance, there was a sense of a direct physical contact between you and the audience?

Renee:   I put a huge emphasis on the connection I have with the audience during a concert. I break down the barrier that exists between classical music and the ordinary listener. We often sing in foreign languages which creates a formality which is intimidating enough to prevent a natural connection. Of course, how I communicate from the stage depends on where I am singing. I wouldn’t make such deep contact in New York or other large world stages where the listener is already quite…spoilt. But in towns like this one at these open-air concerts the music becomes ‘popular’ automatically, and I want to perform not only as a ‘Voice’, but to be able to open myself up to the human side as an individual.

DE I: Your hairstyle is amazing...

Renee:   Two fantastic women tackled my hair for an hour before the concert which I wouldn’t have been able to do on my own. My natural hairstyle would have already have transformed in to uncontrollable curls…. (laughs)

DE I: At what stage did you start talking to the audience from the stage. The standard image of an opera diva is more inaccessible…

Renee:   It sounds strange but it all started during my college years when I sang in a jazz club. For two and a half years I was face to face with an audience that needed the material to be introduced to them, so I’d have to say a few words about the songs and do it with a sense of humour. That was wonderful practice for me. Later on I used this ability during my solo concerts, at least during the encore. Then I discovered several interesting things. For example, if you are using a microphone, you don’t have to shout into it. And the most important thing of all – the audience relaxes and becomes more impressionable when I start telling them about the works I’m performing as if I am telling them something personal. This brings us incredibly close to one another because people like to learn something new and they adore it when there is a sense of being drawn closer to history, when they find out more about the music which they are listening to. The audience needs a connection with you as a person and wants to love you, to feel your warmth emanating from the stage because in this country, classical music became something only for the elite, yet I have access to a very broad range of listeners. That’s why I try to add a sense of intimacy to my performances in the smaller cities.

DE I: I you pleased with tonight and the Festival in general? Did you reach new heights?

Renee:   Of course, because I managed to touch on my entire vocal repertoire. But for the closing concert people wanted to hear something lighter – opera hits, for example. I performed a much more difficult repertoire two days ago accompanied by a pianist and I had to try to get all the serious stuff like Strauss, George Crumb, modern music out of my head. I’m always ready to sing, and I have an enormous repertoire, so I can sing anywhere regardless of the specifics of a concert or the audience, I can alter the programme quite freely.

DE I: When you read out that letter during the concert, people were crying. I am not American, but I could feel what was going on.

Renee:   You know we all share the same world. We can all imagine what it is to lose someone close in a war; we all know that sense of loss. And we all are familiar with love. The letter was an expression of that love where the key phrase was ‘If I die, I’ll still always be right by you.’ We all want to believe that. The letter was beautifully written, and was completely genuine. It’s not poetry or prose, but a real letter written by someone who really lived and died in the Civil War. I think the way things are in the world today allow people empathise with that. The world is torn apart by all the various conflicts and it’s impossible not to notice that. I’ve been very lucky; my generation grew up not having to experience that horror. I missed Vietnam. There have been wars throughout history, but right now I can feel a crazy hatred, a fanaticism from all sides. And that really upsets me. Musicians and people in the arts are responsible for protecting the emotional content of our work. These are all eternal themes that we return to century after century. The themes that concerned Mozart reappeared with Bach and Tchaikovsky. I love Russian music so much because it’s so engaging! Russian is such a difficult language for me, but I try with all my strength to conquer the music whether I am singing as Tatiana, or I am singing the Russian romances.

DE I: What a shame that you couldn’t visit Russia.

Renee:   That was due to a visa problem.

DE I: After seeing the reaction to what you say to the audience, with that kind of contact, have you ever thought of getting involved in politics?

Renee:   God forbid – anything but that! My politics is music. I’m totally sure that there isn’t enough musical education in this country and that people are not exposed to culture and art as an essential part of their lives. This is what I was talking about and I passionately want for us to conserve a qualitative level which people can aspire towards, not only in relation to money, and not just in terms of freedom to travel and education. The values of Art, culture, and literature are the route to self perfection. I hope that in the future that people will sing more and be less involved in propaganda. I ask people to look deep into the music, to read and learn to play musical instruments, to allow themselves to be creative. I don’t think someone can be really happy without the possibility of being creative. And it’s not important what you do, it can be anything, but it is a decisive factor in your life.


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