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MUSIC

The Diva Departs: Rene Flemings Farewell to Opera


By CHARLES McGRATH APRIL 5, 2017
Richard Strausss opera Der Rosenkavalier is about the passage of time. Its the story of a wealthy married woman, the
Marschallin, who is having an affair with a much younger man, and who realizes that she is getting older and that he will sooner or
later move on. Her most famous aria, at the end of the first act, is about wanting to stop the clocks. At the end of the opera, to music
so full of feeling Strauss wanted it played at his own funeral, she accepts the inevitable and graciously surrenders her lover to a
younger woman.

Robert Carsens new staging of Rosenkavalier, which had its debut in London this winter and opens at the Metropolitan Opera
on Thursday, April 13, emphasizes the theme of change and upheaval by moving the setting from 18th-century Vienna to the
moment when the piece was written, at the twilight of the Hapsburg Empire and the eve of World War I. It becomes an opera about
the end of an era, or even the end of the world.

For Rene Fleming, the superstar soprano who will sing the Marschallin at the Met, and for music, this really is the end of an
era: This Rosenkavalier may well be her farewell to staged opera. She will sing her final performance on the afternoon of Saturday,
May 13.

People who know Ms. Fleming, 58, say that she has been planning this moment for years. The novelist Ann Patchett, who
became friends with her after finishing Bel Canto, about a diva with many Fleming-like traits, said recently: For as long as Ive
known Rene, the thing she always talks about is the fact that its all going to end. She has always had this feeling: Im a carton of
yogurt with an expiration date stamped on it, and that day will come and Ill be thrown out.

So Ms. Fleming is trying to say goodbye on her own terms. You dont want people to be saying, Oh my God, please stop, she said
in London as she prepared to finish the Rosenkavalier run there. Or, I heard her when.

Her departure is a watershed moment for her extravagant, expensive art form, which is always imagining itself in trouble
what is opera about except crises? but may really be in peril this time. Not only is opera more divorced than ever from
mainstream culture, but also its core audience, the people who buy subscriptions, is literally dying off. The Met has had some luck
attracting new operagoers through social media, collaborations with theater and visual artists, and fresher branding, but the most
reliable way of ensuring attendance is still by casting big international stars, and one of Ms. Flemings magnitude is almost
impossible to replace. Plcido Domingo, the only singer on her level still performing, is 76, and, though he keeps defying time, cant
go on forever; younger artists like Anna Netrebko and Jonas Kaufmann may be opera-famous, but are hardly household names.

A superstar is that intangible thing, said Mary Lou Falcone, the publicist who in 1998 helped guide Ms. Fleming through a
crisis of confidence so severe she almost quit opera after being booed in Milan. Nothing can explain it. After all the projections and
trajectories, the public either latches on or it doesnt.

Drawn to Ms. Flemings combination of glamour and accessibility she became known as the peoples diva the public did
latch on. Invited to sing David Lettermans Top 10 list, and to record, in the original Elvish, some of the soundtrack for the third
Lord of the Rings movie, she gained a following among people who, strictly speaking, werent opera buffs at all. In many cases, Ms.
Fleming was the first and only opera singer theyd ever paid attention to. She has sold over two million records, a huge number for
opera, and won four Grammy Awards. In 2014, she became the first opera singer to deliver the national anthem at the Super Bowl.
In 2015, she made the jump from Lincoln Center to Broadway to appear (as a tetchy diva) in the play Living on Love.

Her huge ambition was not just to be an opera star, said Matthew Epstein, Ms. Flemings manager from 1995 to 1999. She
wanted to be Beyonc. She still does.
Like Beyonc, and unlike many of her opera colleagues, Ms. Fleming has gone about her stage career and, now, her plans for
after with unusual deliberation. Rene is not like other singers, said Peter Gelb, the general manager of the Met. Im not saying
shes the only one whos nice. But shes very calm. Whatever fears or horrors she has are well hidden.

Mr. Epstein recalled a period in the 1990s when Ms. Fleming was making a specialty of Der Rosenkavalier. She said to me: I
think Im going to stop now, and this is something I can come back to at the end, he said. The arc of a career is complicated. Its
hard to start a career, and its even harder to end one elegantly. So I think this is a very smart and considered decision on her part.
Its called going out at the top.

Mr. Carsen, who has also directed Ms. Fleming in some of her most acclaimed productions, including Handels Alcina and
Tchaikovskys Eugene Onegin, said: Rene has been one of the most glamorous and really beautiful singers. A beautiful woman in
every respect. It was never in the cards that as the years moved on she was going to start playing peoples mothers.

Ms. Fleming turned 58 in February. Her friend and mentor Leontyne Price was the same age when she retired from the opera
stage in 1985, and there is a famous YouTube video of her struggling to keep it together as she receives an endless ovation. Its hard
to believe that Ms. Fleming wont puddle up a little at her last performance. But in London in January, on the morning after her
second-to-last Rosenkavalier at the Royal Opera House, she was anything but nostalgic. Sitting in the kitchen of her flat on one of
the citys most posh streets, she seemed less a forlorn diva than the very organized and energetic, very American chief executive of a
small company: Lets call it Renee Fleming Inc.

My guide to this whole process, when I was thinking about what to do, was Leontyne Price, she said in her surprisingly deep
speaking voice so low she once saw a speech therapist, fearing it might be bad for her singing. She said that her concertizing
afterward was when she had the most fun, and she also said something to the effect that she felt she was no longer surrounded by
her colleagues. That becomes true very quickly pretty soon your colleagues are of another generation.

Ms. Fleming insisted that she wouldnt stop singing entirely but that she was just changing her focus. She plans to give more
concerts (which, though she didnt say so, are both easier and far more lucrative than singing staged opera), make more records, find
new music to sing, and spend more time at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, where she was named creative consultant in 2010. (Some
have speculated that position might be a steppingstone to running an opera company herself.) She said she was even thinking of
getting involved in an internet start-up for streaming arts programs.

Some of Ms. Flemings fame is a result of arriving at the right moment, when there were still powerful management and record
companies to promote her career. Some is a result of calculation and astute self-management. Following the advice of Ms. Falcone,
whom she hired in 1995, she lost weight and started paying more attention to her hair and wardrobe. (Nowadays, according to Ms.
Patchett, she dresses up even to go to Kinkos at 8 in the morning.)

But it couldnt have happened without her voice shimmering and lustrous. Her detractors sometimes claim that Ms.
Flemings voice is actually too much of a good thing: too lush, too creamy. She has been called the June Cleaver of opera singers
too bland, in other words and her voice has been described as Botoxed, so plump and seamless that it lacks dramatic
expressiveness. Ms. Flemings sound hasnt darkened with age, as often happens to sopranos. (If it had, she might have ended up
with a wider choice of roles in her 50s). Shes not as virtuosic as she once was, but whether you like her voice or not, she still sounds
much the way she did 25 years ago.

It hasnt hurt her career that, as Mr. Carsen pointed out, Ms. Fleming is also very beautiful, with a heart-shaped face, high
cheekbones and unusually large eyes, which onstage are as expressive as a silent film stars: a balcony-dwellers ideal of what an
opera singer should look like. And unlike some earlier divas, for whom the job description seemed to include being as difficult
offstage as was humanly possible, she is, for a superstar, almost unnaturally normal and unaffected. She loves to interact with her
most devoted fans and even makes a point of remembering their names.

Sue Schardt, a friend of hers since college, said Ms. Fleming hasnt changed much since they shared a dorm room. Renes not
just humble, she said. Shes chronically humble.

Ms. Fleming grew up outside of Rochester, where her parents were both music teachers. She was gifted, but not a prodigy, and
there wasnt enough money to send her to a fancy conservatory like Oberlin College, her first choice. So she enrolled in the Crane
School of Music at the State University of New York at Potsdam, where she majored not in performance but in music education,
assuming shed follow in her parents footsteps.

She has said that back then she had no idea how to sing and sounded like a buzzing insect, which isnt quite true. Ms. Schardt
shared an ancient tape recording of Ms. Fleming singing in the student union, and she sounds not unlike a young Joni Mitchell, her
idol at the time.

Rene was always doing surprising things, Ms. Schardt recalled. So does it surprise me, the career she has now and what
shes developed into? No. Is it something we were thinking about when we graduated in 1981? No. It all goes back to being a
working-class girl from central New York. At the core, thats who she is. Shes a working singer, and these are gigs. What grounds her
is her friends, her family, her girls. (Ms. Fleming has two daughters by her first marriage which ended in 1998, around the time
she was heckled in Milan and three stepchildren with her second husband, Tim Jessel, a corporate lawyer Ms. Patchett fixed her
up with on a blind date.)

If Ms. Fleming had a noticeable talent back then, it was for jazz, still one of her great loves. She was good enough that Illinois
Jacquet, the jazz saxophonist, urged her to drop out and tour with his group. She declined, she says, because she was too much of a
nerd and afraid of that much freedom. Instead she stayed in school and, always an overachiever, kept applying for and winning
fellowships: ones from the Eastman School of Music and the Juilliard School, and a Fulbright that took her to Germany. Fortunate
in her teachers, among them Beverley Johnson and the imperious Elisabeth Schwarzkopf, she acquired a formidable mastery of the
mechanics of singing. Even now, listening to her talk about breath control, tongue tension and laryngeal placement is enough to
make you wonder how anyone ever learned to sing at all.

But even with all her technique or maybe because of it Ms. Fleming was a late bloomer. She suffered from stage fright,
from poor audition choices and from finding a certain psychological comfort in finishing second rather than first place in
competitions. For a while, she sang practically anything: for example, 10 brand-new roles in a 14-month stretch starting in 1995.

But in the period after that, guided by Mr. Epstein and Ms. Falcone, she made the crucial decision to be more selective and
focus on parts that particularly suited her voice. As it happened, many of them were roles in which she wouldnt have to do battle
with the looming legacy of Maria Callas and other great divas of the past: Massenets Thas and Manon; Desdemona in Verdis
Otello; the title role in Dvoraks Rusalka (an opera that was practically unheard-of until Ms. Fleming brought it back into the
repertory); Tatiana in Eugene Onegin; and the Marschallin.

She has been so affecting in these last two that you begin to suspect some deep personal connection to the parts: the shy,
spurned lover who never gets over her youthful passion, and the aging mistress. Ms. Fleming has said that its unlikely she will ever
be poisoned or strangled to death in real life (or become a Rusalka-like mermaid, for that matter) but that playing out the
Marschallins grief, her fears and finally, her heartbreaking dignity those are the moments when I feel most exposed.

If Ms. Fleming has a model besides Leontyne Price, its surely Beverly Sills. Her popularity, at its peak even greater than Ms.
Flemings, was based on the same formula humble roots, hard work, unaffected approachability, the kind of voice you didnt need
to know a thing about opera to love and after her retirement from the stage, she went on to become a hugely influential arts
administrator and cultural ambassador. As comfortable sitting on panels as standing onstage, Ms. Fleming has lobbied for arts
education in schools and is collaborating with the National Institutes of Health on a project to study the effects of music on the
brains of people with autism, Alzheimers disease, Parkinsons disease and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Her creative consultancy with the Lyric Opera of Chicago, originally intended as a sort of open-ended experiment that might
bring Ms. Fleming to that city more often, has grown into something far deeper. The companys well-received 2015 premiere
production of Bel Canto, based on Ms. Patchetts novel, came about mostly through her energy and determination: She proposed
the project and then, acting more like an impresario than a diva, lined up all the talent, at one point bringing in a spreadsheet listing
some 60 possible composers. (The Peruvian composer Jimmy Lpez eventually got the nod, and the playwright Nilo Cruz wrote the
libretto.) She has worked on audience development efforts and has encouraged the company to leaven its operatic offerings with
classic musicals. Every couple of months, she spends a week or so in Chicago, attending meetings and giving master classes.

Early in February, she was the host of a two-day event called Chicago Voices, which included classes for young singers on social
media, self-promotion and marketing. Ms. Fleming taught a session to a group of aspiring high school students, not just
encouraging them but also bending over volunteers and squeezing their backs to improve their breathing. Afterward, she presided
over a panel discussion, delving into details about the larynx, the importance of hydration and perhaps more about the vocal mucosa
than nonsingers really need to know.

A little more than 24 hours later, as if to prove the soundness of her theories and her own breathing apparatus, Ms. Fleming
took part in a big concert celebrating Chicago singing in all its variety. She was the only one on the bill without roots in the city, and
also because this is what opera stars do the only one to appear in three different outfits. She sang a Debussy art song, a
full-throated operatic version of Summertime, a Sarah Vaughn jazz tune in a duet with Kurt Elling, and, with John Prine, a gently
twanging version of the Nashville song (Were Not) the Jet Set.

That Ms. Fleming sang more than any of the other performers doubtless had something to do with the fact that she was the
organizer and headliner. But unlike a lot of singers, she also has the range to perform in that many styles. She can sing practically
anything, and in about six languages not just opera and art songs, but jazz, pop and standards. Her 2010 rock album, Dark
Hope, including songs by indie bands like Arcade Fire and Death Cab for Cutie, was an experiment that pleased almost no one. The
indie crowd resented her poaching on their turf, while Ms. Flemings opera fans complained that, singing more huskily and about
two octaves lower than usual, she sounded so little like herself that they couldnt recognize her.

But the album has a certain oddball integrity, and, if nothing else, demonstrated Ms. Flemings fearlessness. Her very eclectic
most recent record, Distant Light, which came out in January, includes Samuel Barbers Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a lovely old
chestnut with a text by James Agee; some arty Anders Hillborg settings of poems by Mark Strand, who was a friend of Ms.
Flemings; and three Bjrk songs. These last numbers might be thought an odd choice for an opera singer, but Ms. Fleming pointed
out that even her mother, the former music teacher, loves Bjrk: Shes so creative, like Lady Gaga even before Lady Gaga.

Ms. Fleming doesnt have much interest in becoming a figure like Adelina Patti, the hugely popular 19th- and early-
20th-century opera star who went around, like Cher, giving farewell concerts for 20 years after she retired. What she wants is to
keep on singing, a reasonable amount for a reasonable amount of time, and to be a part of whatever happens next. While the
prognosis is not particularly good for the grand-opera landscape she dominated, she sounded determined and upbeat about the
future. On several occasions, she has brought up her fascination with American Idol, which she used to watch with her daughter,
and said that she wished opera singers were among the contestants.

I feel like weve been left out of the conversation, and we have a lot to offer technically, she said recently. I guess its the ivory
tower and all that, but Im trying to open the door again. I think my contribution now is to think about audience development, about
supporting young artists, and the development of the art form.

She isnt temperamentally inclined to share her regrets, but on the eve of her farewell she offered a few. I would have loved to
have sung a lot of the heavier repertoire, she said. I once had a manager who said Youre never going to make it otherwise. Mim,
Butterfly, Tosca, Salome, Elektra: It would have been exciting, but it simply wasnt for my voice.

After pausing a moment, she quickly changed the subject to her work at the Lyric Opera. That opportunity came as a shock,
sort of, seven years ago, when the last thing I was thinking about was slowing down, she said. Right now I feel like Im doing
everything singing, concertizing, touring, creating new work. I just kind of love doing all these different things. Time will tell. I
may never choose to focus more.

A version of this article appears in print on April 9, 2017, on Page AR1 of the New York edition with the headline: The Diva Departs.

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