x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 22 July 2017

An opera star with an indie-rock album, here’s what Renée Fleming has in store for her Abu Dhabi Festival show

As part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, Renee Flemming makes her UAE debut.

The American soprano Renne Fleming. Andrew Eccles / Decca
The American soprano Renne Fleming. Andrew Eccles / Decca

Renée Fleming may be one of the world’s most sought-after sopranos, but even she isn’t above the occasional spot of nerves. When we talk before the American singer’s Abu Dhabi debut, Fleming is fresh from her biggest gig yet — singing the American national anthem at the Super Bowl.

“I performed in front of 111 million people, which is just really hard to comprehend,” she says, breaking into a laugh. “The sense of expectation was enormous, especially because the performance was just two minutes long. I see people competing in short, intense events at the Olympics and it felt a little like that. I was thrilled afterwards, though. It seems the sleepless nights paid off.”

That Fleming has achieved a level of stardom to make such performances possible isn’t hard to understand when you know her career.

At 54, the Pennsylvania native is one of the best ambassadors of opera. Known for a powerful, remarkably versatile voice that can make technically complex music sound easy and also convey a powerful sense of longing, she is a regular at the world’s main opera houses and increasingly famous for her flawless concert recitals, all the while remaining an approachable, friendly figure who blows the usual diva clichés out of the water.

Now UAE residents will get to hear live just why Fleming is so admired.

As part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, she is performing for the first time at the Emirates Palace on March 23. She hopes her debut, a gala evening with the tenor Michael Schade and the Dresden Philharmonic, will help dispel some common misconceptions about opera. And while her chosen genre has a long history, she nonetheless believes people want it more than ever.

“So many are afraid of the formality of opera or worry they won’t have enough knowledge. They might also fear that singers will just stand stock still and bellow, while for a long time now, singers move and act, and the performers tend to be quite beautiful. I really appreciate people coming because I know how we are all so hard-pressed to find time to do anything. In fact, I think the desire for culture is even stronger now — we’re hooked to this electronic life and many people want a rest from all that, to experience music as a community of listeners.”

Fleming’s desire to break out of the musical box is something that has defined her career. Initially famous for her exquisite performances of Mozart, she has since moved into territory that demands a weightier voice, focusing primarily on the German composer Richard Strauss. Indeed, her haunting performance of Strauss’s Four Last Songs, written just before the composer’s death, are close to being perfect in their delicate melancholy.

But Fleming has also charted waters that most classical singers fear or ridicule. In 2010, she released Dark Hope, an album of indie-rock covers of songs by Duffy, Leonard Cohen and The Mars Volta. What could have been an excruciating mismatch actually produced an album of offbeat charm, with Fleming lowering her pitch and volume to produce an unlikely success.

“I was worried it would be poorly received but people have actually been very nice about the album. I was taken aback by the success. Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah is now my biggest-selling track. A man who wrote a book about only that one song interviewed me about it, which wasn’t an experience I ever expected to have.”

The music choices for Fleming’s Abu Dhabi debut are slightly less unusual but equally eclectic. Choosing her own programmes, she explains that she has tried to make the music choice as broad as possible.

“The gala is almost a history of opera. There will be music by Mozart and Handel, some arias from [Giuseppe Verdi’s] La Traviata and [Jules Massenet’s] Manon. Then I’m taking it on into operetta, with some songs by Gershwin and Berlin.

As it’s my debut here, I really wanted to make sure there is plenty of variety.”

Onstage, Fleming has a noble, elegant presence that makes her seem quite the grande dame, but she is known for being down-to-earth yet ever-professional offstage — a fact confirmed during our interview by her polite, ego-free filling in of my knowledge gaps about her work. Rather than taking sole personal credit for her reputation, she believes that it is changes in the opera world that have led to fewer singers being loaded with the diva tag.

“When I was first starting out, there was a higher tolerance of that sort of behaviour; people were keen to write about the lives of singers within that frame. Now, however, the business is so fractured that that kind of behaviour is no longer rewarded. I’m really biggest here [in the United States] and I think people respond to me because I’m approachable, I haven’t changed with success.”

• Renée Fleming performs at Emirates Palace on March 23 as part of the Abu Dhabi Festival, which runs until April 4

artslife@thenational.ae