Soprano Renee Fleming has enjoyed one of the highest-flying careers of any singer in American operatic history, earning four Grammy Awards and performing with Lyric Opera of Chicago and dozens other premier companies and festivals around the world.
Through crossover albums, movie soundtracks, television talk shows and appearances at the Super Bowl and major international events like the Diamond Jubilee Concert for Queen Elizabeth II in 2012, she has built a superstar profile that extends far beyond the classical realm.
“There have been very few people who have been able to do that type of thing, and Renee is definitely one of those people,” said James Robinson, artistic director of the Opera Theatre of Saint Louis, one of this country’s top summer companies.
But like professional athletes and dancers, Fleming’s performing career can’t go on forever. Although voices age at varying rates, most singers face retirement by the time they reach their 60s. “It’s never a situation where someone says, ‘if I stop singing.’ It’s ‘when,’” said soprano Patricia Racette.
Fleming, 58, has recognized this reality and carefully paced her career accordingly. She switched to mostly concerts and recitals some years ago, appearing in just seven performances of a staged opera in 2015-2016.
One of the soprano’s biggest career transitions will come May 13 at New York’s Metropolitan Opera, when she sings her final performance as the Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier,” one of her most celebrated roles. (It will be broadcast to more than 2,000 movie theaters in 70 countries as part of the Met’s “Live in HD” series.)
Despite suggestions to the contrary in a recent New York Times article, Fleming insists that this departure does not mean she is giving up staged opera entirely. After all, she is still in fine vocal form and her “Rosenkavalier” performance has drawn abundant praise.
“I’m still interested in taking on roles I haven’t performed before,” she said via e-mail, “though having sung more than 55, there are only a few extant ones that really suit my voice. Newly composed work is definitely something I’m looking at.”
In addition, she has concerts in cities like Vienna, Beijing and Tokyo listed through the end of the year on her website, and it was announced in April that Fleming will take part next spring in a Broadway revival of the classic musical, “Carousel.”
Besides performing, the soprano has taken on a range other projects, including mentoring young singers, serving on several boards, including that of Carnegie Hall, and becoming artist adviser-at-large in 2016 to the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
She has reserved a substantial portion of her time for Lyric Opera, where she has served as a creative consultant since 2010. She has been the catalyst for a wide-range of important, often-collaborative activities, including the world premiere of Jimmy López’s “Bel Canto” in 2015-16 and the realization of “Chicago Voices,” a two-year, multifaceted celebration of the city’s vocal-music world.
Fleming points out that her offstage activities were never intended as stepping stones to a second phase of her career after performing but rather a way to satisfy her interests in arts advocacy, audience development and young-artist development. But, she acknowledges, “Anyone, in any career, is wise to try to map out their future.”
“She’s a chameleon,” said soprano Sondra Radvanovsky, who appeared this year in the title role of Lyric Opera’s production of “Norma.” “She can wear all these different hats. She can juggle it, and she does it with ease.”
These supplementary pursuits provide Fleming with valuable knowledge and experience that singers cannot get by simply performing, said John DeMain, who was music director of the Houston Grand Opera when she made her debut there in 1988. He now serves as artistic director of the Madison (Wis.) Opera and guest conducts nationally.
“I think she is doing it in the right way,” he said. “She can do this and still sing as much as she wants to sing but begin to be on the other side of the table and to see what it’s really like to work within a budget, what’s it’s like to hire people – the problems we face.”
F. Paul Driscoll, editor in chief of Opera News magazine, describes the multifaceted onstage and offstage approach Fleming has taken to her career as unique – one that would only have been possible because of her position as the greatest female opera star of her generation.
“She had the talent but she also had the discipline, the application and the ambition to create a brand which is unassailable,” he said. And he believes that well-earned brand will continue wherever she ultimately goes in her career.
So, what does the future hold for Fleming whenever she decides to leave the stage for good?
Many singers go on to teach young singers either as college professors or via masterclasses and one-on-one coachings.
Racette, who will appear in Chicago Opera Theater’s November production of Gian Carlo Menotti’s “The Consul,” hopes to turn to directing when she retires. She is putting a toe into those waters for the first time in 2018, when she stages “La traviata” at Opera Theatre of St. Louis.
Some people in the field see Fleming going on to be general director of a major opera company. An oft-cited model is famed soprano Beverly Sills who led New York City Opera in 1979-1989 and later became chairwoman of Lincoln Center and the Met. “I think she could and I hope she does,” Radvanovsky said.
Asked about this possibility, Fleming demurred. “As long as I’m singing well and loving performing,” she said, “I prefer to have a ‘30,000-foot view’ of the world in an advisory capacity rather than shouldering the year-round responsibility for a major company. However, it’s impossible to know precisely what the future will bring.”
Whatever direction she ultimately takes, those interviewed said her drive, intelligence, charisma and down-to-earth manner will serve her well. “She could do any of it,” Radvanovsky said. “It’s just choosing what she wants to do. The world truly is her oyster.”
As for Fleming’s future at Lyric Opera, she and its leaders appear close to agreement that she remain as creative consultant, and she mentioned an interest in further iterations of “Chicago Voices.” “We’re in very active and very energized discussions about her role continuing,” said general director Anthony Freud.
In addition, the 2018-19 season will mark her 25th anniversary as a performer with the company. Freud acknowledged that a celebration of the milestone is planned, but he is not saying what that might be yet.
Whenever Fleming does choose to stop singing, what is sure is that opera will lose one of its biggest stars. And given the changes the field has undergone and its seemingly growing distance from the cultural mainstream, it’s unclear whether anyone could rise to take her place.
“Whether someone is going to break out like (Luciano) Pavarotti did or to a certain extent like (Placido)Domingo did and Renée Fleming,” DeMain said, “whether that’s going to happen in the future, we just don’t know.”
Kyle MacMillan is a local freelance writer.