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On a high note

Special to The Times

Backstage at Radio City Music Hall, Renee Fleming’s luxuriously beautiful face has just been airbrushed with foundation and painted to perfection. Then, at the soprano’s behest, her stylist teases and sprays her hair to an even greater degree of poof.

Meanwhile, on the dressing room monitor, Elton John is rocking the house. And in a couple of hours, Fleming will go out and join him onstage for a duet of “Your Song,” as the finale of a benefit for the Royal Academy of Music and the Juilliard School.

It’s not your average concert pairing, the opera star and the pop icon. But Fleming isn’t your average diva.

“Like everyone else in the world, I grew up on Elton John’s music and played it on the piano as a kid,” says the 45-year-old singer, who grew up near Rochester, N.Y., and attended Juilliard. “But this really feels like a huge stretch for me.”

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The celebrated American soprano, who performs at the Hollywood Bowl on Tuesday, has triumphed at the Metropolitan Opera and throughout Europe, earning comparisons to such greats as Maria Callas and raves from critics not known for gushing. She is widely hailed as one of opera’s biggest female stars today, although the praise has not been unanimous.

Fleming has provoked naysayers not only because of her glamour and slick marketing but also because she resists the pressure to specialize. She has gone from a bestselling “Bel Canto” album to a CD of show tunes with fellow opera singer Bryn Terfel. Up next is a Handel album, followed by a jazz CD.

“It’s risky to step outside of the mold,” she says. “We risk alienating people who appreciate what we do. Opera has a small niche audience anyway, a sometimes voraciously aficionado-style audience.”

Fleming may have alienated a few purists along the way, but she has certainly achieved fame beyond the opera house. People know her face from Rolex ads, and her voice from the 2003 movie “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King.” She inspired the main character in Ann Patchett’s 2002 novel “Bel Canto,” a dessert by master chef Daniel Boulud and a newly minted iris. She’s been featured in media outlets where opera singers are seldom seen, from People magazine and Vogue to “60 Minutes,” CNN and more.

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None of this happened by accident. From the concert with Elton John to the splashy magazine shoots, Fleming has taken a strong hand in shaping her career. She keeps tight control of her public image, has a small retinue of publicists and other handlers and is the sole opera singer represented by Hollywood power-publicist Pat Kingsley.

“Certainly since Pat Kingsley has gotten involved in the last year, a lot of doors have opened that were previously not opening,” Fleming says, seated in a favorite Upper West Side bistro the day after the Radio City concert. “It’s not that people aren’t making the effort or don’t want to do it, it’s that the media -- mass media, large media -- are not open to it. It’s taken a lot of snowballing effect for me to even be on the map.”

Fleming is not the only contemporary opera singer to attempt mainstream visibility. While a number of artists have made recordings or done projects aimed at a broader audience, it was the Three Tenors juggernaut that broke the mold for crossover of this kind.

Los Angeles Opera general director Placido Domingo, the only one of the three tenors still performing at a high level, has been doing crossover for decades. Back in the ‘70s, he appeared on “The Tonight Show Starring Johnny Carson” and was spotted by record producer Milton Okun. Okun, who now sits on the L.A. Opera board of directors, approached Domingo, and the result was the 1981 Domingo-John Denver duet and album “Perhaps Love.” Since then, Domingo has recorded many nonopera albums.

However, there is a distinction to be made between opera singers such as Fleming and Domingo singing one-shots with the likes of Elton John and John Denver, or even making whole albums of other types of music, and pop singers who perform opera -- so-called crossover artists, such as Andrea Bocelli.

As the market for the Bocellis of the world has grown, the music companies’ attitudes toward opera singers making nonopera recordings has changed.

“When I started recording, every opera singer had a crossover project: music theater or cabaret music,” Fleming says. “And in the years since then, we haven’t been encouraged to do that at all.”

Her much-delayed pet project is a jazz album that she expects to make in August, for release next year. “I just want to do this one jazz record, that’s all I want to do,” she says. “As a lyric soprano, I have a large repertoire that can be recorded: I’m not a specialist. It was hard to find time to do it, to make space in the schedule. But it’s finally happening. Unless it falls apart again.”

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If it does, it will not be for lack of an ever-growing, and surprisingly diverse, fan base. “Some of the most passionate letters I get are from firemen and people who not only are they not connected to the arts and not elitist, they’re just as surprised as I am that they love this so much,” Fleming says. “They came to it usually through, if not some personal trauma, then some kind of unexpected exposure to either my singing or to classical music in general and it just grabbed them.”

Part of the hope of courting the mass media is to reach these potential fans, but the strategizing doesn’t end there.

“There’s a new person who [management company] IMG has hired who’s a marketing specialist, who’s trying to make a bridge between a couple of us and the corporate world,” Fleming says. “In my case, she’s trying to put together an EPK -- electronic press kit. It’s introduced me to the whole new world of not even concepts but terminology: ‘branding’ and things like that.”

As any opera singer who wants to have a big career these days must, Fleming continues to pay close attention to the “branding” and the art. Particularly since she sang the 1998 debut of Andre Previn’s “A Streetcar Named Desire,” there has been consistent interest in Fleming. In addition, there was a surge of attention this past fall, when she opened the Met season with a widely lauded turn as Violetta in “La Traviata.”

She’s expecting another busy fall, with the release of her newest Decca CD, “Renee Fleming: Handel,” and a book, “The Inner Voice,” due out in November from Viking Penguin.

“It’s not an autobiography,” the singer says. “The framework is autobiographical in the sense that it tells my story, but it’s really a process-oriented book about how to learn how to sing, how to build a career.”

At the Met, she’ll star in a new production of Handel’s “Rodelinda.” Until then, she is continuing a tour of major American music festivals, including Tuesday’s Bowl appearance, where her program will likely include selections from “Rodelinda” along with a variety of other opera fare and some musical theater songs.

In January, she will return to the West Coast for a recital at Los Angeles Opera, where she will make her company debut the following season, 2005-06, in “La Traviata.”

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But the one thing she really longs to do is to return to new music.

“Really, all I want to do is develop a new opera again,” says Fleming, who has performed in the premieres of several operas. “That’s totally my first priority artistically. Being involved in bringing something to life has got to be the highest artistic goal that we, as interpretative artists, can achieve.”

Indeed, Fleming is currently developing a new opera with a company she will not name.

If she exerts half as much influence over that project as she does over a photo shoot, it’s bound to be a success.

Backstage at Radio City after the concert, Fleming returns to her dressing room for a quick change before having her picture taken for this article. Onstage, she has worn a sumptuous, crystal-covered blue gown, designed by Gianfranco Ferre. But since it’s also the gown she will wear at the Bowl, she doesn’t want the photo to “preview the dress.”

Fleming is extremely photogenic, and yet she never really relaxes in front of the camera. Finally, as the session nears conclusion, she gently asks the photographer to shoot her from above. “I find that’s my best shot,” she says, with a characteristic mix of savvy and self-consciousness. “It takes 20 pounds off my face.”

Such shoots are a familiar ritual, and one of the requirements of fame. But the soprano isn’t about to confuse this, or her occasional stints with the likes of Elton John, with her true calling.

“I love what I do so much, there’s nowhere to go other than sideways, and artistically to continue to grow,” Fleming says. “Other things can continue to happen, and it’s only an aside. My main work is in opera -- that’s the substantial, satisfying part of what I do. I don’t intend to give up my day job.”


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