Tribute to Renée Fleming, Part 1

Let us pay tribute to Renée Fleming on the occasion of her well-deserved 2023 Kennedy Center Honors Award by traveling back over three decades to her first Vocal Arts DC recital at an exciting moment in the soprano’s burgeoning career. In January 1992, Fleming gave what was only the second recital in our inaugural season at the historic Sumner School and Museum on 17th St. NW. She had already taken the nation’s capital by storm four months earlier, making a sensational September 1991 area debut with Washington Concert Opera in her first performance as Jules Massenet’s Thaïs. (Even though it was a concert performance, opera savant Francis Rizzo exclaimed to me afterward, “Of course, she sang it beautifully, but she made it work by looking gorgeous while somehow signaling insecurity just below the surface: that’s what makes sex workers such perfect low-hanging fruit and so devastating in these ‘come to Jesus’ stories.”)

Early as it still was in her career, Renée was already several rungs up the ladder to success by that point: after winning the 1988 Metropolitan Opera Laffont Competition she had been on a steady trajectory that further included winning the prestigious Richard Tucker Award in 1990 (once dubbed the “Nobel Prize for Classical Singing”). She also made noteworthy 1991 debuts at both the Met and San Francisco Opera in what would be an early signature role, Countess Almaviva in Mozart’s Le nozze di Figaro. She’d also made her first national television appearance in a 1990 Live from Lincoln Center concert performing the “Cherry Duet” from Mascagni’s L’Amico Fritz with Luciano Pavarotti.

Fleming’s Recital Program
Even in these critically important “building block” years, however, Renée had begun crafting a widely diversified professional portfolio made possible only by extraordinary musicianship, technique, intellectual curiosity, and sheer hard work. Recitals were therefore only one important part of her multifaceted brand from the beginning. Her program with pianist Helen Yorke for our organization that year (then doing business as “Vocal Arts Society”) already spoke to her pedigree, affinities, and commitments. The talent that had won her a Fulbright Scholarship for study in Austria with sopranos Arleen Augér and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf lent her the “authenticity bona fides” to lead with unhackneyed Lieder by Franz Schubert and Hugo Wolf. A pair of soulful songs by Sergei Rachmaninoff with long, arching lines concluded the first half and a set of elegant Gabriel Fauré melodies welcomed us back from intermission. The printed program ended with a group of four songs by 20th-century American composers: Samuel Barber (his whimsical “Nuvoletta,” set to James Joyce), Charles Griffes, Aaron Copland, and Dominick Argento.

Renée has always been an eloquent and tireless advocate for works by 20th-century and living American composers. Several months following this recital, The Richard Tucker Music Foundation dedicated its entire annual New York gala concert to “A Salute to American Music,” later shown nationwide in a delayed PBS telecast and released on RCA as an audio CD. Renée’s solo contribution to that all-star occasion was the same Charles Griffes selection, “The Lament of Ian the Proud,” she had sung so hauntingly as part of the concluding group on that first recital for us. Her two encores to cap that first program, both exquisite, provided a pair of contrasting opera arias that further established her artistic identity. “Steal me, Sweet Thief,” from Gian Carlo Menotti’s The Old Maid and the Thief paid tribute to a beloved composer, stage director and impresario who had been one of Renée’s influential champions. (She had so impressed him as the female lead in a production he’d staged of his opera Tamu-Tamu at Juilliard while she was a student there that he’d chosen her to star in his 1989 production of Le nozze di Figaro at the Spoleto USA Festival in Charleston, an important early career boost). Her second encore, “The Song to the Moon” from Antonín Dvořák’s Rusalka, gave notice that this operatic version of The Little Mermaid suited both her voice and her gift for pathos extraordinarily well. This character would become one of her true signatures, including a complete recording on the Decca label, a Met “Live in HD” telecast, and major productions mounted for her worldwide (and, yes, a pair of performances in 1993 with Washington Concert Opera).

Critical Acclaim 
It was a given in those years that each recital we presented, including this one, would be reviewed and even covered in advance by articles in the “Style” section of The Washington Post, often by the paper’s chief music critic. Indeed, Joseph McLellan in that capacity gave Renée’s recital a “rave.” I dare say, however, that no music-loving Washingtonian had any inkling that Gian Carlo Menotti, then nearly ubiquitous in a late-career Renaissance, especially at Washington National Opera as stage director for his entire oeuvre as well as for operas by other composers, would seemingly take all his once popular music with him to the grave upon his death in 2007. And, as difficult as it was 30 years ago for singers several rungs below Renée Fleming on the ladder to success in developing a recital program and having an opportunity to perform it, there was someone on the horizon with the name recognition, clout, and determination to give young American artists an incentive to become recitalists, along with a plan in development to make it happen.

In part 2, learn about Renée Fleming’s role in the Marilyn Horne Foundation’s launch and Fleming’s return to Vocal Arts DC for a second recital in 1996. Read part 2>