Tribute to Renée Fleming Part 2

Gerald Perman, our beloved Founder, subscribed to the theory that Washington audiences had short memories; if a singer therefore presented a notably successful debut recital here, his oft-repeated mantra was, “We have to bring them back right away,” ideally intended to mean no more than two years out. But Renée Fleming’s already blossoming status in 1992 was well on its way to full flourish by the time he was able to schedule her return in late May of 1996. Within those few short years, Renée found herself almost at warp speed juggling a major international career that included seemingly every leading opera house and orchestra vying for her favors, recording contracts, and young parenthood. While she had made her solo New York recital debut to critical acclaim and solid attendance at Alice Tully Hall (capacity: 1,086) in 1993, her return to that venue in 1996 with the same program she had previewed here a few days earlier required added seating onstage to accommodate spillover from all her fans who were determined to be present. Keenly aware that Renée had become A Thing, Gerry Perman booked GWU Lisner Auditorium (capacity: 1,495) for her May 22 Vocal Arts DC recital; as with her 1992 debut program, her 1996 collaborative accompanist again both here and in New York was Helen Yorke.

Fleming’s Recital Program
As she had four years earlier, Renée dedicated the first half of her program to Lieder, this time following an opening Schubert set with a smattering of Richard Strauss songs that, between them, could have been written to showcase her rare ability to float and sustain long lines (Schubert’s “Du bist die Ruh” and “Nacht und Träume,” Strauss’ “Befreit” and “Waldseligkeit). The second half included a performance of Poulenc’s Fiançailles pour rire redolent of sophisticated wit and charm, and a fully inhabited Tres Poemas of Joaquín Turina, smoldering and aching by turn. The icing on the cake was that she introduced three American composers then all in their 30s and 40s—Jake Heggie, Ricky Ian Gordon, and Robert Beaser—to Washington audiences through a set of songs they’d written for her to poems by Emily Dickinson (Heggie’s “I shall not live in vain” is Renée’s contribution to a starry compilation of the composer’s songs that marked his first such album for the RCA Red Seal label in 1999). The audience was on our feet by the final chord of the Turina that concluded the printed program; Renée granted us three stellar encores: Duke Ellington’s “It don’t mean a thing” (which her roots as a successful jazz vocalist gave her the right to sing), the sure-fire Rusalka “Song to the Moon,” and “Lean Away,” a wistful, nostalgic song by Gene Scheer (b. 1958). Once a classmate of Renée’s at SUNY Potsdam, Scheer is now known as both a composer (his other songs include “American Anthem,” made famous by the likes of Denyce Graves and Norah Jones) and librettist (for operas by Jake Heggie, Tobias Picker, and Jennifer Higdon, among others). Tim Page, in his Washington Post review, concluded that this “recital was one of the great musical events of the season. Fleming would seem to have everything – a sumptuous soprano voice, a quick and sensitive intelligence, dramatic understanding, a sure command of line and a fluency in a wide variety of idioms.”

Fleming’s Recital Career Soars
In January 1994, the great American mezzo-soprano Marilyn Horne officially launched the Foundation bearing her name with a gala concert at Carnegie Hall. The evening featured some of the most illustrious singers of the era in song to raise money for Horne’s pet project of supporting the continuation of song recitals by the next generation of American singers. Alongside such giants as sopranos Montserrat Caballé and Helen Donath, mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade and bass-baritone Samuel Ramey, not to mention Horne herself, Renée represented the younger generation and performed selections by Britten, Strauss, and John Kander both in the live concert and on the RCA Red Seal live recording of the event. (In its heyday, the Marilyn Horne Foundation collaborated nationwide with many presenters, including Vocal Arts DC: several singers who went on to impressive careers, including soprano Christine Goerke, mezzo-sopranos Jamie Barton and Stephanie Blythe, and baritone Quinn Kelsey all made their area recital debuts under our banner in collaboration with the Marilyn Horne Foundation). By the time of her New York recital in the winter of 1999, Renée was ready for a change of venue, making her solo recital debut at Stern Auditorium in Carnegie Hall (capacity: 2,790) in collaboration with pianist Steven Blier. She sold out the house and she has continued to wear the mantle of Classical American Vocalist of Note with extraordinary grace ever since. Let us toast her achievements, and hope she continues to inspire a new generation of fledgling singers.


P.S. I have heard Renée, when asked what advice to offer young singers, opine that they should be prepared for the musical world around them to be changing constantly. I think she is not only spot-on, but the industry may be changing today in even faster cycles than it did when her career began.