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Renée Fleming on Bel Canto and All Those Musicals at the Lyric

The superstar soprano has just renewed her creative consultancy with the opera company for two more years.

Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Renée Fleming, one of the world’s top operatic sopranos and the first opera singer to sing the national anthem at a Super Bowl, last week re-upped as the first-ever creative consultant at Lyric Opera of Chicago, committing to two more years on top of her initial five-year term. During her tenure, she launched the project to commission the new opera Bel Canto, which premieres in December; expanded Lyric’s commitment to musical theater; and loosened a few cravats by partnering with the Second City. Chicago sat down with her to discuss (some) of her thoughts on her time thus far and hint at what her next two years hold.

One of the hallmarks of the past few years at Lyric has been the hugely successful musicals, presented through a grand-opera lens. What role do you see for musicals in Lyric’s vision?

First of all, it’s been hugely successful for us to be able to present, even in a short number of weeks, this sort of eight-show-a-week Broadway style of performance with full orchestra and chorus. I saw An American in Paris [on Broadway] the other night, which was so beautiful, but you did miss the full orchestra.

I think there needs to be a home for artistically aspirational musicals that aren’t commercial enough for Broadway. I think opera companies should add that to the roster as well. Because all opera is music and theater set to music. Historically, what’s happened in the 20th century with musical theater is an offshoot of that, an offshoot of operetta, so I think there’s an argument to be made for expanding.

There are plenty of opera traditionalists who don’t think musical theater deserves the same treatment as opera. How do you respond to them?

I believe in labeling. You can present a season of programming to the public so it’s clear: some of them are more grand opera in the traditional realm, and some are more cutting-edge or off the beaten track.

Why do musicals at all?

You want to bring more people to the house. People who have never been here walk in and look at the theater. It’s one of the most beautiful art deco theaters in the world. I think they’ll want to come back. I just did an experiment along those lines—this play that Kathleen Marshall directed in New York [Living on Love, Fleming’s Broadway debut], which was really ridiculously silly, and at the same time kind of a love letter to opera. We closed in a hot minute, but a lot of people outside said, “I never heard singing [like that] before,” because I sang quite a bit in it, in this small, little, tiny house. “It’s amazing, I think I’m going to buy a ticket and go to the Met.” Cha-ching!

I’ve read that you’re cutting back on singing in operas. How do you see yourself spending your time in the next few years?

I have a new production of Rosenkavalier in a couple of years that will be in two cities. I’m always interested in new opera. I’m loving my concertizing more. I’m loving this work [the creative consultant position] and the opportunity to contribute to problem-solving phase of singing, the art form, the classical art in general. It’s not that we’re not thriving—certainly in Chicago, I think we definitely are—it’s that there is so much competition for our time.

I lost my phone two days ago. A revelation to me! I haven’t had to worry about getting around because this past 24 hours I’ve known there would be someone at the other end, so I haven’t had that horrible inconvenience of not having the phone, but, oh my gosh, to realize that every time I got on an escalator or got in a taxi I was doing this [she mimes taking out her phone]. I was crossing the street. A lot of us do this and don’t realize it how much it takes over our free moments. To have those back and just be able to daydream again, or really think—I really missed that.

So it’s true that singing roles aren’t necessarily your first priority now?

I am so pleased with my opera career. It’s been rich. There’s been tremendous variety, something like 55 roles. I don’t feel the need to keep flogging it.

Frankly, my repertoire is reduced now. There aren’t great operas for lyric sopranos who are older. If my voice had gotten deeper or more dramatic, yes, there would be repertoire, but it hasn’t really. I’m not a big repeater. I’m not a person who wants to sing the same thing 100 times. Rosenkavalier has been the exception because it’s so interesting.

How did the Bel Canto project start?

Ann Patchett [the author of the book] is a friend of mine. We were introduced because everybody thinks that the lead character was based on me and musically, she was a little bit, because my recordings were factored into it. But we never met. We met after the book came out and became friends.

For a commissioned opera, typically a company will hire a composer, and the composer puts together his creative team in a way and also identifies the story or the idea he wants to set. I felt so strongly that Bel Canto would make a great opera that I said, “Why don’t we do it the other way around, say we’re going to produce Bel Canto and find a composer who says, ‘Wow, I love that. I would die to do that.’”

Why did you decide not to play the lead?

Everybody assumed I would play the part, and I said, “That’s a little much, to say, ‘Let’s do Bel Canto so I can be the star.’ Why don’t you let me be the den mother, and it’s going to be a great vehicle for Danielle de Niese.”

Do you foresee moving more toward the kind of administrative role you have at Lyric?

I do like it, but I can’t say right now in this moment. Plus, I’m still singing. I could concertize for a long time. My template is Leontyne Price. She sat me down, she said, “Here’s what you do. You stop singing opera at a certain point, and then you concertize and tour.” She said she loved it. She said it was the best time of her career.

How do people talk about Lyric in other parts of the world that you travel to?

It’s a great buzz right now. Everybody feels like we are on top of the world and ahead of the curve. And selling tickets. Lyric has always been very strong [financially]. It’s just a wonderful community here—people who are the foundation of patronage for the major arts institutions care about the city. They do it out of a sense of . . . that kind of loyalty . . .

Civic pride?

Yeah. Civic pride, exactly. In other places, that doesn’t exist to that degree. There’s a sense that if you’re here you don’t even need to go around the world saying Chicago’s great. There’s a kind of civic mental health here, overall, about the richness of the city and what it offers. I wish that any [Chicago] advertising campaign would focus more on culture. This should be the American Vienna, in my opinion. Vienna has it right. You go to Vienna, and it is like Disneyland for culture. Chicago offers so much.

Is there anything that you look back on in your time with Lyric so far where you wish you’d done something differently?

I don’t look back. First of all, I’m too busy. You have to kind of have to sit and reflect.

Well, now that you’ve lost your phone . . .

Ha. I’ll think of that in the airplane on the way home. Gosh, I don’t know the answer. Truthfully, we’ve done a lot. We’ve really changed a lot about the company, and frankly, there’s a lot more we could do.

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