Songs of experience

    1 of 1 2 of 1

      While becoming a soprano with few equals, Renée Fleming has explored jazz and conquered her fears.

      It's difficult to believe, given her status as one of the world's greatest sopranos, but 48-year-old Renée Fleming's career did not unfold easily. The daughter of two vocal teachers, she didn't get her big break until her late 20s, when she stepped in for an ailing Felicity Lott as the Countess in a 1991 performance of Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at the Met.

      Reached by phone in New York, Fleming–who appears this Sunday (May 20) at the Orpheum with the Vancouver Symphony Orchestra to perform arias by Gustav Mahler, Richard Strauss, Jules Massenet, and Giacomo Puccini–explains that her early struggles to make it in the classical world compelled her to pen her autobiography, The Inner Voice, published in 2004.

      "That's why I wrote this book, to help young singers feel less frustrated and be more patient, because it's very challenging," she says in a husky, almost sultry voice. "We have so much to learn: languages and style and learning how to sing, which is almost impossible to begin with...It's an enormous learning curve."

      At a time when western culture is placing such emphasis on youth that Britney Spears is considered washed-up at the age of 25, and a 12-year-old Canadian named Aria Tesolin is putting out CDs with warbling renditions of opera masterpieces, it's refreshing to hear someone extol the virtues of taking time and care to develop a talent. Not that Fleming goes so far as to condemn the child-star phenomenon.

      "It's completely individual," she says, diplomatically, when asked for her take on the fad for precocious opera singers. "It depends entirely on the person. It's dangerous because the voice doesn't mature until much later. You're talking about a voice that hasn't matured yet and putting it under pressure. But it can be a lot of fun for a child who's doing it in the right way."

      Fleming sounds so self-assured, but it was not always that way. Following her 2000 divorce from actor Richard Lee Ross, with whom she has two daughters, aged 11 and 14, she was struck by attacks of stage fright, to which she devotes an entire chapter in her book. When gently pressed to explain just what would make an internationally acclaimed singer suddenly lose the nerve to appear in front of an audience, she willingly elaborates.

      "It's not the kind of nervous jittery, sweaty palms," she says. "It's much deeper than that.... You're thinking that you absolutely cannot walk on-stage, and there's no way you should walk on-stage, and who ever thought it was a good idea for you to walk on-stage?"

      So how did she beat it? "I had a wonderful team of people and teacher and all of the right support, and it took a lot of time, and it's something I still, to this day, have to think about and guard against.... There's so much analyzing that has to occur to figure out what caused it–but then, of course, there's also the massive part of it, which is dealing with it, and how to overcome it."

      The career-threatening phobia strikes many performers, she points out. "Sir Laurence Olivier disappeared from the stage for seven years, Barbra Streisand for 20 years. So many performers have dealt with this," she says, adding Carly Simon's name to the list.

      It's not the first time during the interview that Fleming mentions singers outside the classical realm. In fact, the down-to-earth soprano insists that "jazz is my real love." As a young singer, she performed with a jazz trio but became convinced she wasn't cut out for the genre. "The opportunities [to sing jazz] didn't present themselves consistently, and I became more involved in loving and exploring classical music," she explains of her early shift away from jazz. "I also realized that this was better for me temperamentally: that I wasn't a person who had the personality as a performer to be in a club and be entertaining and talking to the audience. I was more studious than that. So I stuck with classical music."

      This, however, didn't stop her from putting out a jazz album, Haunted Heart, in 2005 with guitarist Bill Frisell and pianist Fred Hersch. Today, she remains "a Joni Mitchell fanatic" and has some surprising plans under way. "The project I'm working on now with Elvis Costello is a roots project of Appalachian music," she says. "That music is so rich."

      Her daughters have also introduced her to the likes of Bjí¶rk, whose new album she says she loved. Fleming clearly isn't one to hold any one genre of music above all others. But as the image-conscious bent of the pop world trickles into the classical realm, she confesses to feeling some concern.

      "There's no question that it's becoming more and more important, the visual over the musical. I think that's dangerous," she says. "I don't want the audience to forget what great singing is and be too focused on how people look. That does concern me. I don't think that's a reactionary statement, because I think in great singing and great music are the real rewards. Because otherwise, go to the theatre, go see a movie–you know what I mean?"

      Come this Sunday evening, you'd be a fool to be anywhere but the Orpheum.