Renée Fleming Did Not Faint

December 21, 2023 | Paul Richardson

How can one even begin to do In Depth justice to an artist like Renée Fleming? One of our country’s most acclaimed artist’s, she is a five-time Grammy winner (18 nominations), a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, a Kennedy Center Honor (just weeks ago), the Crystal Award from the WEF in Davos, France’s Chevalier de la Légion d'Honneur, Germany's Cross of the Order of Merit, Sweden's Polar Music Prize and honorary membership in England's Royal Academy of Music.

The head spins.

So let’s begin at the beginning, where many good stories begin this time of year: with Christmas.

Fleming was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, which bills itself as the Christmas Tree Capital of the World. Yet, interestingly, several other places in North America stake a claim to this Yuletide fame, including Eureka, MT, Luneburg County, NS, Estacada, OR, and West Jefferson, NC…

But we digress…

Fleming’s musical family (both her parents were music teachers) soon moved to Western New York, where she grew up and went to high school, then on to study at SUNY Potsdam.

“I was probably 16 or 17 when I heard Joni Mitchell,” Fleming said, “and thought, ‘That’s my voice.’ I played the guitar and went through a whole singer-songwriter era.” It was a rebellious period for a “good girl who wanted to be bad, to wear nylons and smoke in the bathroom.”

In fact, she nearly dropped out of college to go on a jazz tour with a big band after college, but thankfully changed her mind and instead did graduate music study at Eastman School of Music and at Julliard.

“Brave or crazy, I don’t know which, but I work a lot,” Fleming said in an interview with The Guardian, attributing her work ethic to her Czech ancestry. “I wanted to be the first lady president or a veterinarian.”

Her route to becoming the First Lady of Opera began with operatic roles and recitals in the mid-1980s. In her early 20s, she said, she failed a big audition. But she now regards that experience as a blessing. “My voice wasn’t worked out,” she said, “I had a lot of technical flaws.”

Fleming’s big break came when she won the Met Opera Auditions at 29 (in 1988). She debuted the same year at the Houston Grand Opera:

“I remember so well my first really major professional operatic experience,” Fleming recalled, “at Houston Grand Opera, and it was ‘The Marriage of Figaro.’ I had sung it in English, and this was the first time I had sung it in Italian. The problem was that my colleagues were so fabulous and so schooled and so experienced. I really just thought I was going to faint on stage.”

There was no fainting.  

For the full rundown on Fleming’s astoundingly impressive career biography, jump over here.

Meanwhile, let us offer up a series of interesting but lesser-known facts about Fleming that show the diversity and depth of her talent:

  • Fleming did the vocals for “Twilight and Shadow,” a song from The Lord of the Rings written in Sindarin, the tongue invented by JRR Tolkien to be spoken by the Immortal Elves of his Middle Earth. “I never could manage spoken accents,” Fleming said, “but I could sing in any language.”
  • She was the voice of Bianca Castafiore, the Captain Haddock-bothering opera singer in Steven Spielberg’s The Adventures of Tintin – her top C electronically ratcheted up to a glass-breaking top F.
  • She was the first woman in the 125-year history of the Met Opera to solo headline an opening night gala.
  • She sang on Guillermo del Toro’s Oscar-winning film The Shape of Water.
  • After many people mistakenly thought that Ann Patchett’s novel Bel Canto (about an opera diva taken hostage) was inspired by her, someone introduce her to the novelist. The two women later became close and Patchett introduced her to a lawyer friend, Tim Jessell, who in 2011 became Fleming’s second husband. Fleming later provided Julianne Moore’s singing voice the film adaptation of Bel Canto.
  • The Renée Fleming Iris
    The Renée Fleming Iris
    She has had both flowers and chocolates named for her. Specifically, The Renée Fleming Iris, an elegant Louisiana Iris created by award-winning Australian hybridizer Heather Pryor. It is described by The National Gardening Association as a lavender-violet flower with a “ruffled” flower form and “showy” flower form. The chocolate was designed by Master Chef Daniel Boulud, who with his pastry chef Thomas Hass, created the extremely decadent “La Diva Renée”: a sable cookie layered with hazelnut wafers, milk chocolate, champagne Chantilly, and a chocolate biscuit coated in bittersweet chocolate, then topped by a thin milk chocolate square silkscreened with sheet music from Richard Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.
  • In 2014, Fleming became the first-ever opera singer and classical artist to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl. She sang five-inch heels and 111 million viewers tuned in.
  • In addition to her performances, Fleming is actively involved in teaching the next generation of singers, and in promoting the arts. As such, the World Health Organization has appointed her a Goodwill Ambassador for Arts and Health.

Fleming’s performance at Festival Boca will be on Sunday, March 3. She performed at our inaugural Festival in 2007, and again in 2015, both times to sold-out, standing-room-only audiences. So you will want to reserve those tickets sooner rather than later. They would make a great holiday present for instance.

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