Renowned soprano Renée Fleming discusses her history at San Francisco Opera and her love for the bel canto repertoire.
photo by Andrew Eccles
Although today’s opera-going public instantly thinks of Renée Fleming as the Strauss and Massenet heroine par excellence, the internationally beloved American soprano has also triumphed repeatedly in the bel canto repertory—a style of singing from seventeeth and eighteenth-century Italy stressing ease, purity, and evenness of tone production and a lithe and precise vocal technique. In the course of her career, Fleming has starred in Rossini’s Armida and Il Viaggio a Reims; Bellini’s La Sonnambula, La Straniera, and Il Pirata; and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia, Maria Padilla, and, for a recording, Rosmonda d’Inghilterra. Armida (Pesaro Festival production) was her first opera CD, and she won the first of her three Grammys for her album entitled Bel Canto. Speaking by phone in New York immediately following nearly two months of performances in Europe, Fleming discussed her association with San Francisco Opera and the title role of Lucrezia Borgia. This opera, her eighth with the company, will exhibit Fleming’s prowess in bel canto to San Francisco audiences for the first time.
You debuted with many companies as Mozart’s Countess Almaviva, including SFO in 1991. What was particularly special about that debut?
As a result of those performances, General Director Lotfi Mansouri helped me to forge a fruitful relationship with the theater that included role debuts and two world premieres. Every young singer needs impresarios who believe in them and are willing to help them in their development. David Gockley was my first and primary relationship in those formative years, and Lotfi soon after. I also enjoyed working with director John Copley, who helped me create many of my signature roles, teaching me how to move in period costumes, how to handle a fan and generally inhabit this new world. He usually demonstrated, and with more grace than I could hope for!
Your only staged productions of Hérodiade and Louise were at SFO.
Both roles I felt were slightly too dramatic for me at the time, or perhaps more importantly, I wasn’t yet experienced enough to comfortably manage the more dramatic scenes. Singing with Plácido Domingo for the first time was a special thrill! As Louise, other than in “Depuis le jour,” I had difficulty balancing her vulnerability with the drama of the music. My favorite scene however, was the final confrontation with her father, played by Samuel Ramey.
Fleming opposite Thomas Hampson in The Dangerous Liaisons (left)
and Rod Gilfrey in A Streetcar Named Desire (right)
(photos by Marty Sohl)
At SFO you also created Mme. de Tourvel in The Dangerous Liaisons (by Conrad Susa and Philip Littell) and Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire (by André Previn and Philip Littell).
I was thrilled to be involved in the premiere of Dangerous Liaisons, working with Thomas Hampson and the brilliant Frederica von Stade. The production values were terrific—both operas directed by Colin Graham. He was a joy to work with, collaborative and helpful. Streetcar came at a crisis period in my career that was fraught with stagefright. I was worried that Blanche would put me over the edge, but with the support and understanding of André Previn, she became a healing force, and a character I could channel pain and doubt through.
What is most vivid in your mind in thinking of your time in San Francisco?
For me, the San Francisco experience has also been about being there with my two daughters when they were young, almost every year for ten years or so. Revisiting such a beautiful city, exploring it—the closeness of so much natural beauty and so much wonder. We retell many stories from when we were there. It’s really part of our family history, as well as my singing history.
Your return to SFO as Lucrezia prompted me to consider the path you’ve taken in bel canto during your career. The first of eight operas in that repertoire was Il Pirata with Eve Queler’s Opera Orchestra of New York in 1989. When you were first considering your future in opera, was bel canto part of your thinking?
As a student, and in the audition years, I believed that you couldn’t have a career if you didn’t sing bel canto. The top sopranos sang it—Maria Callas, Joan Sutherland, Beverly Sills, Montserrat Caballé. This was beautiful music that focused on the art of singing, and I was determined to try and master our most virtuosic arias! This repertoire turned out to be incredibly important in my education. It did slow me down, in terms of my professional development: I kept trying to audition with these arias, and I didn’t sing them well enough. If I’d been singing Mozart or something with much less range— even Handel—I suspect I would have started performing a few years earlier. I credit Mozart as one of my first “voice teachers,” and bel canto certainly factors in as well.
What has this style given you musically?
My years of improvising in jazz clubs enabled me to develop some skill in decoration, embellishment, and with cadenzas. Now I work with musicologist Philip Gossett, along with talented coaches who suggest decorations, but it’s more fun to be actively involved in the process. Eve Queler was the most important figure for me in this, given how many roles I sang with her. She taught me how to tailor-make those decorations to my voice, and how to be smart about knowing what is comfortable. The hard part is that this repertoire generally sits right in the passaggio, which is challenging— that’s the first hurdle. You have to have range, fioriture, trills, messa di voce. It’s a phenomenal exercise. The great 19th-century schools of singing were all based on bel canto.
People frequently underestimate how dramatic bel canto repertoire can be.
I had an amazing conversation with Beverly Sills after Pirata [Metropolitan Opera, 2003]. She took me to lunch and said, “Why would you sing something that difficult when you could sing Norma, which is more grateful? Pirata is so long! Why would you leave blood on the floor?” Lucrezia isn’t that high, but it’s quite dramatic. There’s a reason why it was one of the last roles Joan Sutherland sang. It needs more maturity to pull it off, and not just because she’s the tenor’s mother! As with Rossini’s Armida, Lucrezia’s final scene has real bite and aggression.
Fleming in the title role of Lucrezia Borgia at Washington National Opera, 2008
(photo by Karin Cooper)
Can you sum up this opera’s appeal?
Well, it’s a very twisted story— so twisted that it’s entertaining— poisoning her son by mistake? One fascinating thing is that she’s married to the baritone, which is quite unusual. Their confrontation scene is fantastic— truly violent and very powerful. Also, the tenor isn’t really a love interest, which makes it interesting.
Do you like beginning with the entrance aria,“Com’è bello”?
I think it’s hard to start with something that lyrical, that long, and that exposed. Someone else might find it a nice warmup….
Are you glad Donizetti’s original leading lady demanded an elaborate finale for Lucrezia?
Of course! What’s a great bel canto role without a great final scene?
In that scene, is it somewhat incongruous that this sorrowful mother bursts forth in a cabaletta with major-key coloratura?
But it’s minor and almost bluesy at the start, at “Era desso il figlio mio” (“He was my son”) and, in the second half, it’s very heroic coloratura.
Did it help to find out about the historical Lucrezia?
I’m sure it did, although there isn’t very much in the libretto that has anything to do with the real-life Lucrezia. You can find paintings of her in great museums all over the world. Characters like Lucrezia, Armida, and Cleopatra have historically captured the imaginations of composers and writers far more often than virtuous heroines have.
It’s such an interesting change for you to play this kind of person.
It’s rare for women in opera— sopranos, I should say— to be dark, vengeful, enraged. But it’s fun to have that energy onstage— to be singing and acting with full power!
I know you have a deep interest in the artistry of your great predecessors. One can find recorded Lucrezias of Gencer, Caballè, Sutherland, Sills….
I typically listened to every available recording. When I sang Lucrezia at La Scala, Leyla Gencer was around and was lovely— very helpful and supportive. It’s always interesting to hear what other people do, especially in bel canto, because it’s the only repertoire that allows the artist any musical creative input.
What is the greatest strength of the Washington production?
Drama! [Director-designer] and dear friend, John Pascoe has helped us find a physical language that enhances the drama and the music. I’d just met my fiancé when I sang Lucrezia Borgia in this production, and I still think it’s his favorite opera. It was the drama that turned him on to the whole show and to opera in general. It also visually presents a terrific combination of period and “biker-cool” modern sensibilities. I’ve sung six productions with John Pascoe, who is a rare singer’s director. He brings out the best in us and cares as deeply about story-telling as any director in the theater would. It helps that he comes so prepared, he has the opera memorized and can sing all of our roles!
Pascoe’s costumes are spectacular. Which is your favorite?
The armor at the end, of course!
Act III costume design by John Pascoe
The libretto says Lucrezia collapses in the final moments. In this production, does she do that, or does she stab herself? Or drink the poisoned wine?
You don’t want to give that away!
Roger Pines, dramaturg of Lyric Opera of Chicago, has written for major opera companies, international recording companies, and a wide variety of American and British music publications.