In a constellation of the world's opera stars, one shines brighter than all the rest. But it's not merely her ravishingly beautiful voice and physical glamour that make Renée Fleming special. In person, she makes an extraordinarily intelligent and articulate interviewee. And it comes as no surprise, since as a probing interpreter of the works that she performs, she has few equals and no superiors.
Though Fleming appeared in concert performances of Thaïs at Covent Garden in 2007, she hasn't done a staged opera here since an Otello in 2005. So her return for a revival of Sir Richard Eyre's acclaimed 1994 production of Verdi's La traviata this month is a major event, surely made more so by her excellent co-stars, Thomas Hampson and Joseph Calleja. It's not just a London event, either: the performance on 30 June will be broadcast live to free big screen relays around the country and to cinemas around the UK and the world.
This was to have been Fleming's final run of performances as Violetta, but things have changed since that announcement was made. 'I said I'm saying goodbye to it,' she acknowledges, 'and it looked on the calendar like that would be the case, because my opera appearances are scheduled so far in advance. But I'm actually now singing it next summer in Zurich for two festival performances.'
Of the character of Violetta, Fleming comments that 'She's great. It's such a beautiful role, but it's extremely challenging.' With characteristic wisdom, the soprano delayed adding the role to her repertoire until only about six years ago, when she felt fully prepared. 'I waited because she's so completely iconic,' she explains, 'and the list of legends who made their name by singing her is so long that it's daunting. Anthony Tomassini wrote an article a few years ago about the fact that many singers of my generation have hesitated to sing these iconic roles – Tosca, Butterfly, Violetta. There are so many classic recordings of them, and there are big shoes to fill. When we do sing them, people are very quick to be harsh. People don't necessary want to make room for the new generation.
'Where we've succeeded is in Mozart and baroque opera – repertoire that wasn't so well represented in the past, whereas the bread-and-butter Italian repertoire was incredibly well sung in the 1950s and '60s. I think now people are starting to say, OK, it's been a long time now, we'd really like to hear this music again!'
Fleming takes her cue from the verismo acting of the great Italian soprano Magda Olivero when playing this role. 'I met her in Milan, and she said that Violetta plays best if you can get to her through the acting. That's what I try to do, but it's not easy because it's also vocally very challenging.
'Audiences love this character. Violetta is really the best person in the show – she behaves better than everyone else, and is a very noble character, which is not what everyone expects because she's the courtesan.'
The soprano is impressively well-informed when it comes to the background of the opera, and in particular about Marie Duplessis, the real-life courtesan on whom the character of Violetta is based. She was roughly 14 years old when she first became a courtesan, and died at 23. 'Imagine what she learned in those years' says Fleming emphatically. 'She learned languages and became extraordinarily cultured. She learned how to play the piano – Liszt gave her piano lessons. She would have been the CEO of a company today, to have accomplished all that in so short a time. And she was the toast of Paris. She must have been very talented and very bright.'
Does that have a bearing on the opera, though? 'I think it's important to understand what a courtesan was in that period. If we don't have that context, we imagine her to be what we would call today a prostitute, and it's not the same thing at all. These women actually had lives that were far more interesting than their married counterparts. They were socially with the greatest men of their time, whereas the married women were at home. So if they were wise, and if they saved their money and were healthy enough, they could retire and live quite well. They lived by their wits, and they were independent.
'It was a very unique period of time. Some of the women also travelled around a lot. One of my favourite stories is about a courtesan who went to St Petersburg and offended the Kaiserin by dressing better than she did at an event. She was exiled! And she did it on purpose: she was trying to win over a man. They were very colourful women. It's no accident that Violetta's book was Manon Lescaut; the stories all feed into each other, and these are characters that I really love to play.'
Fleming has sung only three Verdi roles: Desdemona in Otello, Amelia Grimaldi in Simon Boccanegra, and Violetta. Why so few? 'The early Verdi roles are too heroic, in terms of tessitura. They sit too high and require a kind of singing that I would find uncomfortable. I always wanted to sing I vespri siciliani, for instance, because I think the music is so glorious, but it would really have taken its toll on my voice. I was asked to do it here a long time ago, in fact, in French – I would love to have done it in French! But it would have to have been cut, and they wanted to do an uncut version, so I couldn't do it.
'I've been looking at Il trovatore, and I would love to sing it, but I think that expectation today from an audience point of view is for a more of a Ballo-style voice. And there's a lot of bel canto in it. Elizabeth de Valois would have been fine, but I never got round to it. I don't do so much opera now, and I'm very focussed on Strauss. Don Carlos is really an ensemble opera: she doesn't shine the way Violetta does, and if I had to choose, I would sing Violetta. The new repertoire I have in the future is Strauss and Wagner. Obviously, I can't sing the heavier Verdi roles.
'It's very dangerous, Verdi. It has elements of bel canto, and the big range, but it's not as florid, and it's very dramatic. It has ruined many young voices, as we know.'
For the first time since the production was new in 1994, Richard Eyre is back to direct his staging of La traviata. 'Thank God!' Fleming exclaims. 'Sir Richard Eyre! He's a god of the theatre.'
She explains that it makes a huge difference having him to direct. 'In a revival, the assistant's job is to recreate the premiere. But because Sir Richard has come back, he's said he's not interested in recreating what they did before: we're doing this anew with the main three characters. He's known as an actor's director, and I met him through my friend Laura Linney. He told me he enjoyed opera, and periodically I'd say to him, "I'll come back and sing Violetta at Covent Garden if you'll come back and direct it". Eventually, he said yes.
'Having Tony Pappano here to conduct this piece is also an incredible luxury, because most opera companies think that a piece like Traviata just conducts itself, and that you don't need to have the Music Director. I don't want to speak too soon, but the two of them in combination with a wonderful cast have created something very special.
'What Richard Eyre does is to be so disciplined; he's what I call "quietly stimulating". He encourages us to be creative ourselves, to be free to have ideas. And then he guides. It's amazing the things I'm doing this time round that I've never done before. It's much more physical; it's more dramatic; it's more physically tiring; and it's wonderful. If this were the last time, I'd say it was going out with a bang.
'I've only sung with Joseph Calleja in concert before. What a gift! I love his singing. He has a very interesting, unusual technique. Tom Hampson remarked that Calleja's voice is from the top down, so you don't hear any adjustment – he's not pushing weight into the high voice. His voice is naturally weighted. It's so beautiful, too, because he has an enormous dynamic range and a lot of colour in his sound. I also love his vibrato. And Tom is terrific in this role. He has such stature, and he's so imposing.'
A happy diva, then. 'I have to say, I've had the best year of my career this season. It's been five operas from strength to strength. It's got to be downhill from here because I could never top this season: from opening night at the Met, to Thaïs, to Capriccio in Vienna, to the Baden-Baden Rosenkavalier – which was the best ever, with Thielemann – and then Rusalka at the Met, and now this. I've loved everything. When do you ever hear singers not complaining about something?!'
It's twenty years since Fleming first sang here, yet her appearances have been comparatively few. I ask her whether it's because she doesn't like us, but she replies: 'Oh God, no; I've wondered if the opposite were true, quite often. If truth be told, to engage me requires a bit of effort: the scheduling is hard, the repertoire has to be right. It's not so easy; therefore it would require the house to really want me to come. Part of the problem was that after the success of Boccanegra I was booked up for a long time, so I missed the long period of the renovation.
'Singers don't always know what goes on, so I'm not sure I can even tell you why I haven't been more often. But it truly hasn't been from me not wanting to be here.' There are, however, no plans for her to return again at the moment.
Fleming's previous appearance in a staged opera at Covent Garden was in a revival of Verdi's Otello in 2005. Her performance was one of the finest I have ever seen, but the circumstances were complicated. 'It was a bit doomed between me missing the first few performances because of my mother's illness and then the bombing in the subway. But I love that role. Violetta is a stretch for me – and indeed for anyone, because no one person has all three of those voices – but Desdemona is perfect.'
She explains her approach to the role. 'I finally figured out that if she doesn't have strength in the confrontation scene, she begins to look a bit daft. If you read the Shakespeare, she's very strong. She defies her family in order to marry this guy. Today she would have been in tattoos and lots of piercings: this is not the lily-white, perfect child.
'In order to make it work, I started to think, why is she not getting it? I believe it's because she trusts him and she trusts in their love so much that it simply never occurs to her that she could be the problem. But that doesn't mean that when he starts acting strangely towards her, she doesn't stand up for herself. And then in the final scene, she knows that whatever's going on with him, she's the scapegoat.
'It's such a beautiful opera – I love it. I'd say that Otello and Falstaff were my two favourite Verdi operas to go to. I'd consider doing Alice Ford, just to be in the opera. It's like I did Ellen Orford just to be in Peter Grimes. There are a couple of pieces where you think that the roles might not be all that grateful but you want to be around that music.'
Fleming is back in London on 3 November for a concert at the Royal Festival Hall with Charles Dutoit. 'I'm doing the Letter Scene from Onegin and some selections from my next recording, which is called Verismo. There are some famous Puccini arias on it, but it's mostly unusual music.
'I looked at my discography and thought, what's missing? Drama. So I looked at this period and found so much material. There's Mascagni, Catalani, Cilea and Zandonai. There are some laughable stories – high drama – which we wouldn't necessarily want to see produced, given our modern sensibilities, but some of the arias are glorious. I do a ten-minute-long scene from Zaza, for instance, with a child – a little girl – who has dialogue. It's really heart-breaking. My favourite has got to be Lodoletta – it just kills me! And I discovered lots of great singers from the period too. I had such a great time doing this project. There's also the Leoncavallo Bohème, an aria from Conchita, something from Siberia, the second aria from Rondine, the second aria from La Wally, the whole scene of 'Tu che di gel', and Suor Angelica. So I'll be doing some of these pieces in the concert, and the disc is out around September.'
Beyond that, the soprano hasn't yet decided on the themes of her future recordings. 'I'm releasing a new album every two years. There's been a tremendous amount of upheaval in the recording industry, but everything seems to be settling down now and nothing seems to have changed for me at Decca, fortunately.'
Last autumn, Renée Fleming released a new recording of Strauss' Four Last Songs with Christian Thielemann – the second time she had put the piece on disc. The performances on the new version were markedly different to her previous account. 'Those pieces are always shaped by the conductor. I had worked with Thielemann before, so I knew it would be a different point of view. He said to me that these songs are not sad and shouldn't be too sentimental. It's more of an existential take on the moment: the people in Im Abendrot aren't saying "We're dying", they're saying "Wouldn't it be nice if death was like this?". Thielemann has a fluidity about the way he does things. We recorded the Rosenkavalier we did in Baden-Baden in January on DVD, and it's so spectacular what he does with the orchestra. It's his orchestra, so they know him well: he makes the tiniest movements with his left hand and creates the most remarkable sounds. We have a lot of projects together in the future and I think it's going to be very exciting.'
Though she could easily be ten years younger, given her physical appearance, Fleming has just passed her fiftieth birthday, and it's clear that there are only a few more new operas she's planning to learn. 'I've done fifty-one roles. I'm looking forward to going back to Armida this next season at the Met: it's a very low part, but it's extremely florid, so it will be good for my voice to oil everything up. Then I have Ariadne. I wouldn't sing it at the Met, but to sing it at a small European house would be fun. It's written for a chamber orchestra. More importantly, it has to be the right tenor, because of the final duet. So it has to be Jonas Kaufmann, or someone like Johan Botha. He sings in a very refined way: when we did Otello together at the Met, he didn't overpower me, and he's a very good musician.
'So there's that, and then Elsa in Lohengrin. I was very surprised when I really looked at it. It's very Mozartian. In the whole first scene, the orchestra is hardly playing, and it's very sustained, high, clarion singing. It's beautiful. There are a few dramatic moments in the end, but it's important to remember that a lot of these roles would have been sung by brighter voices eighty years ago. They were not quite so fat and thick in terms of sound, and that's my preference for this repertoire. I was listening to Lisa Della Casa singing some of this music recently, and it was amazingly beautiful. Another one is Margaret Price, who sang Isolde on record. In fact, Solti asked me to record that with him. I was very young at the time, and although it wasn't something I felt right for, it was a wonderful tribute.'
In previous interviews, Fleming has talked about how difficult it is to maintain the balance between work and rest. And, she confesses, 'I still work too much. The difficulty for us as singers is that if you do opera, concerts and recitals, the operas are booked six years in advance, then the concerts come in about two years in advance, and you think, OK, the calendar looks good. Then you add the recordings, then suddenly you have all this press, and then I have the HD presenting, and pretty soon I'm completely swamped. Even programming takes a long time for me: I spent two hours last night polishing programmes for this summer, and finalising a programme for Berlin with Christian Thielemann in 2011. It's non-stop. And I have two teenagers. I never seem to get on top of my calendar in a way that allows me to breathe.
'This summer, however, I'm going to Ecuador and South Africa, and on both of those trips I'm combining my singing with touristy things so that I can have a break with my daughters. But generally speaking, what happens when I have time off is that I'm learning things. My next big learn is for Alan Gilbert's opening concert at the New York Philharmonic. Although I'm a fixture in New York, it's an honour for me because he wants me to do Messiaen's Poèmes pour Mi, which is mostly done by dramatic sopranos, and I can't do it like that. I wasn't sure about it at first, but he said that we can do a beautiful lyric rendering of it. Yet it's a thirty-minute song cycle and a huge challenge, so I'm trying to do it bit by bit. I've also got the Rossini, but I've done that before. It's funny: I picked up the score a couple of weeks ago, and I really remembered it. I'm going to use that as a vocalise all season, just to get it all back. You can't just pick up that music at the last minute, because it really has to sparkle.'
As one of the finest singers of all time and now at the peak of her career, what ambitions are left for Renée Fleming? 'I just want to keep getting better at what I'm doing,' she says, simply. 'There's nothing new per se. I want to give deeper, more layered performances with people I enjoy working with and who challenge me. There aren't any huge mountains to climb, just little ones. The main one is longevity, and in fact that's an enormous challenge – maintaining the voice. In some ways, these challenges are greater than climbing, because climbing is exciting. These sorts of things require a tremendous amount of vigilance every day. It's very easy not to pay attention and then find that you've lost something.
'And at this point, I really don't know. When am I going to stop? I don't know. What am I going to do when I stop? I have no idea. I just have to take it a day at a time.'
One new strand in her portfolio in recent years is presenting the live HD broadcasts from the Met and interviewing the stars backstage. 'I love doing that!' she exclaims. 'I have natural intellectual curiosity, which makes it easier to do the interviewing. It might be fun to do more. My take on it is that anything is easier than singing. If it were my real job, I would probably find it much more difficult, because at the moment it's just a fun distraction from the pressure of the stage. And it's with my colleagues and people I know, in a house that I'm comfortable with.
'I love the HD broadcasts, and I'm delighted that they're broadcasting this Traviata. It means that the performance will be saved in digital perpetuity – somewhere, somehow. I've just been to Scandinavia for two weeks, and so many people came back and said "I loved your Thaïs!". And I thought, that's kind of miraculous: someone in Gothenburg, Sweden, saw my Thaïs from the Met. The hosting part of it means we have a personality, not just a disembodied voice. There's a nice affable person behind this wall called classical music, in a foreign language. It makes it that much more accessible. So I would say that if I had a goal, it would be to further the cause of classical music.'
Photo credits: Andrew Eccles/Decca
La traviata opens at the Royal Opera House on 18 June 2009.
The performance on 30 June will be broadcast live to the big screens in London, Trafalgar Square; London, Canary Wharf; Aberdeen, Duthie Park; Bradford, Centenary Square; Bristol, Millennium Square; Cardiff, The Hayes; Derby, Market Place; Ipswich, Christchurch Park; Leeds, Millennium Square; Manchester, Exchange Square; Middlesbrough, Centre Square; Plymouth, The Piazza; Rotherham, All Saints’ Square; BP Sunbury Business Park; Swansea, Castle Square.
It will also be broadcast live to cinemas in the UK, Austria, Belgium, Denmark, Germany, The Netherlands and Spain. For more details, visit http://www.roh.org.uk/cinemas/latraviata/index.aspx.
Opera Review: Renée Fleming performs Dvorak's Rusalka at the Met (March 09)
Opera Review: Renée Fleming in Strauss' Rosenkavalier at Baden-Baden (Jan 09)
DVD Review: Renée Fleming as Violetta in Traviata from Los Angeles
DVD Review: Renée Fleming in Eugene Onegin from the Met
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