Renée Fleming uses her soprano to amplify the healing power of music

Renée Fleming uses her soprano to amplify the healing power of music

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On a recent evening, Renée Fleming joined the Fairfax Symphony Orchestra to sing some Strauss — one of her favorite things to do.

The acclaimed soprano and 2023 Kennedy Center honoree has recorded Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” twice, and she has performed them countless times. But carried along atop maestro Christopher Zimmerman’s deeply engaged and emotionally attentive orchestra, Fleming somehow made Strauss’s well-worn songs feel fresh, new and alive — a gift that just keeps on giving.

The “Last Songs” were only the beginning. From there, Fleming jukeboxed her way through an effervescent aria from Leoncavallo’s “La Bohème,” a sensational account of Puccini’s crowd-pleasing “O mio babbino caro” from “Gianni Schicchi,” a sweetly sentimental take on “Till There Was You” from “The Music Man,” and a joyous run-through of “I Could Have Danced All Night” from “My Fair Lady,” buoyed by the voices of the audience. And lest you leave with your heart intact, she encored with more Strauss — the devastating sucker punch of “Morgen!”

For the opera singer, versatility is everything: It’s having a talent for singing and acting; for channeling one character after the next; for drifting effortlessly between the opera stage and the concert hall; and for mixing, say, Strauss, Puccini, and Lerner and Loewe in the same program. If you can’t do it all, you can’t do it at all.

Renée Fleming takes this edict to new heights.

When Fleming, 64, joins Barry Gibb, Dionne Warwick, Queen Latifah and Billy Crystal on Sunday to receive her Kennedy Center Honors, it won’t be exclusively in tribute to her superior instrument — a radiant, signature soprano, celebrated for decades on the world’s grandest stages. It will be well-earned recognition for a legacy that extends well beyond the opera stage.

From her fledgling start in New York City in the 1980s (at 29, she won the 1988 Metropolitan Opera National Council Audition competition) to the highly active performing career she maintains today, Fleming has also distinguished herself as one of the most influential musicians of her time, as well as a powerful advocate for the healing powers of music.

For what it’s worth, the Kennedy Center Honors join her growing collection of fancy medals. In 2012, Fleming received the National Medal of Arts (where President Barack Obama referred to her as “the people’s diva”). This was after receiving honorary membership in the Royal Academy of Music (2003) and France’s Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur (2005), and before she was granted Germany’s Cross of the Order of Merit (2015) and the Crystal Award at this year’s World Economic Forum in Davos.

Add these distinctions to her five Grammy wins (and 18 nominations), a Tony nomination for her 2018 Broadway turn in “Carousel,” a Fulbright lifetime achievement award (her 1984 fellowship led her to studies with renowned sopranos Arleen Augér and Elisabeth Schwarzkopf), and a bouquet of honorary doctorates from eight schools and universities (including Yale, Harvard, Carnegie Mellon, Eastman and Juilliard) and you begin to register the seismic force and global scale of Fleming’s artistic impact. The woman has her own asteroid.

Still, Fleming was shocked to get the phone call with the honors news from Kennedy Center President Deborah F. Rutter, who rang as the singer was making her way through traffic after an unsuccessful trip to Lowe’s. Fleming has appeared onstage at the Kennedy Center Honors five times to pay tribute to winners André Previn (1998), Van Cliburn (2001), Warren Beatty (2004), Seiji Ozawa (2015) and Wayne Shorter (2018).

“That was not the call I was expecting to get,” Fleming says from her home in McLean, Va., where she was recovering from a second go-round with covid.

“That was not the call I was expecting to get.”

— Renée Fleming

Typically, if Rutter calls Fleming at midday, it has to do with one of the singer’s many ongoing projects with the Kennedy Center. If it weren’t for the singer’s extraordinary career on the global stage, the Kennedy Center Honors could be read as an Employee of the Year Award.

Fleming has an extensive history of collaboration with the Kennedy Center. In 2013, she created and hosted its “American Voices” festival. In 2016, she was appointed the center’s artistic adviser-at-large and launched the genre-hopping “Voices” recital series. In 2020, she confronted the pandemic shutdowns head-on, launching the “On Stage at the Opera House” series of live-streamed performances.

“I think performing arts venues should begin to think of themselves as community centers,” Fleming says. “As places where people don’t just buy a ticket, sit down and go back home, but where they can gather, share and exchange ideas, and be social in an environment supported by the art we love.”

The soprano also has been essential to the Kennedy Center’s “Sound Health,” a partnership begun in 2016 with the National Institutes of Health dedicated to exploring the mental and physical health benefits of music.

“I believe the arts should be embedded in health care, across the board,” Fleming says. “Doctors need it, health-care providers need it. When you bring in people who are doing this work, everybody gets lifted.”

The initiative has included “Renew/Remix,” panels and performances geared toward cultural recovery from the pandemic, and “Music and Mind,” a 19-episode web series featuring Fleming in conversation with “scientists and practitioners working at the intersection of music, neuroscience, and healthcare.” (A comprehensive anthology, “Music and Mind: Harnessing the Arts for Health and Wellness,” will be published by Viking in April.) And in a partnership with Google Arts & Culture, Fleming created the Kennedy Center’s “Healing Breath,” a video series featuring “breathing exercises for better health” from an all-star cast of singers.

Francis Collins, the former director of the National Institutes of Health and Fleming’s primary partner in developing Sound Health, met her in June 2015 at a dinner party at the Inn at Little Washington in Virginia. It was a memorable night for several reasons: One, a handful of U.S. Supreme Court justices were among the guests: Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Anthony M. Kennedy and Antonin Scalia. Two, because earlier that day, the court had released decisions on a number of contentious cases, including on the right of gay couples to marry.

“I guess you could say that there was a little bit of tension in the air,” Collins says. “It didn’t feel like people were completely relaxed.” In an effort to lighten the mood, Collins, who plays the guitar, asked to join the bluegrass outfit performing at the party. They got through a few numbers well enough.

“And then this stunning woman came up and said, ‘Why don’t we sing something?’” recalls Collins. “It took me a minute to realize, ‘Oh, my God, this is Renée Fleming.’ I had this immediate sense of panic.”

“I didn’t ever expect that somebody who is the world’s best-known operatic soprano could be so wonderfully humble, friendly, relaxed and great to talk to.”

— Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health

Luckily for Collins, Fleming wasn’t looking for a soloist to accompany an aria. She just wanted to jam.

The diva-enhanced band quickly drew a crowd with vocally supercharged versions of “The Water Is Wide” and “The Times They Are A-Changin’,” and by the time they had reached “Shenandoah,” Scalia, brandy and cigar in hand, was singing along — and hollering to Fleming that she had wasted her time with opera.

“It was just a transformative moment,” says Collins, who found himself hitting it off with Fleming. “I didn’t ever expect that somebody who is the world’s best-known operatic soprano could be so wonderfully humble, friendly, relaxed and great to talk to.”

Fleming was especially interested in talking to Collins about neuroscience, in which she had recently taken a deep interest, in the wake of a pair of personal threads.

“One was the terrible bouts of stage fright I was having,” she says. Around 1998, as Fleming’s career was skyrocketing, she began experiencing severe panic attacks and prolonged battles with anxiety — one stretch lasted nearly eight months and drove her “close to quitting.”

In her 2004 memoir, “The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer,” Fleming recalled the terror she had felt as a teenager when preparing to ride in a horse show at the state fair. “It’s funny to think that my first inklings of stage fright came not on a stage,” she writes, “but in a dusty corral, surrounded by horses and people in cowboy boots.”

The other impetus to talk to Collins was more unusual — and felt more urgent. For years, Fleming has suffered from somatic pain. “It’s pain that your brain and body are making up so that you can be distracted from what’s distressing you,” she says, “which in my case was performance pressure.”

Fleming’s efforts to address her anxiety led to intensive reading about the link between the brain and music, and she wondered whether Collins could help expand this interest into a more organized pursuit. The two would end up assembling about 20 scientists to participate in intensive workshops addressing ways to increase engagement between neuroscientists and music therapists.

Fleming even spent more than an hour in an MRI machine, singing and imagining the act of singing, to analyze which parts of the brain are activated by music.

“She’s just remarkable, and she has a profound, impressive ability to absorb information that’s well outside of her own experience.”

— Francis Collins, former director of the National Institutes of Health

“She’s just remarkable, and she has a profound, impressive ability to absorb information that’s well outside of her own experience,” Collins says. “I mean, she’s also become a pretty good neuroscientist in the lab over the last six years.”

Their work on Sound Health has led to more than $20 million in research into music and children’s disorders, along with Alzheimer’s, Parkinson’s and other neurological conditions. But it has also helped Fleming sing from a sturdier foundation.

“It hasn’t completely gone away,” Fleming says of her stage fright. “But at least I have a much better understanding of it. … Learning about the intersection of health and the arts has been an incredible journey for me.”

It’s also one she has been eager to share. In May, Fleming was named a goodwill ambassador for arts and health by the World Health Organization, along with the South African soprano Pretty Yende.

Even with her other passions and pursuits, Fleming is still best known as a star of the stage. A recent two-CD set of live recordings, “Renée Fleming: Greatest Moments at the Met,” offers a cross-section of her long career at that New York company, starting with the 1991 debut as the Countess in Mozart’s “Le nozze di Figaro” and including such title roles as Handel’s “Rodelinda,” Rossini’s “Armida,” Dvořák’s “Rusalka,” Strauss’s “Arabella” and Carlisle Floyd’s “Susannah.”

Most recently at the Met, Fleming sang the role of Clarissa Vaughan in Kevin Puts’s adaptation of the Michael Cunningham novel “The Hours,” the latest example of her abiding commitment to new music and living composers.

“I remember in sixth grade saying, ‘I don’t want to hear Tchaikovsky, I want to hear Stravinsky!’” Fleming says, recalling her childhood in Churchville, N.Y., as the daughter of two music teachers. “I’m not a person who wants to keep seeing the same titles over and over again. I’m a person who wants the new.”

Her 2021 album with conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin, “Voice of Nature: The Anthropocene,” put this preference into practice, featuring recordings of new works by Puts, Nico Muhly and Caroline Shaw alongside familiar selections by Grieg, Liszt, Fauré and Reynaldo Hahn.

“Renée is unbelievably courageous,” says Anthony Freud, the outgoing general director of the Lyric Opera of Chicago, whose tenure overlapped with Fleming’s as the company’s creative consultant. “She’s someone who doesn’t play safe and has never played safe. And that, I think, is to her huge credit.”

Freud met Fleming shortly before taking the helm at the Lyric in 2011 and was instantly enamored by the depth of her musical knowledge and breadth of interests. Fleming connected the company with music schools, community groups, even comedy troupes. She worked on new operas and commissions (“Proximity”) and mentored young artists, including composer Jimmy López, whose “Bel Canto,” based on the novel by Ann Patchett, premiered at the Lyric.

Freud also praises the boldness of Fleming’s artistic efforts outside the opera world — such as her appearance in 2019 with Ben Whishaw in Anne Carson’s spoken and sung “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy” and her performance of the national anthem at the 2014 Super Bowl.

“I constantly have been inspired by her,” Freud says. “Her brilliance, her brainpower, her imagination, her integrity, her warmth. With Renée, no conversation is superficial, no conversation is surface-deep. That adds to the value she brings to any organization she is involved with, any individual professional partnership that she has. It’s a relationship that transcends a professional association.”

Fleming’s commitment to fostering deep personal connection in her work is a reflection of the relationships that helped her to excel. She credits one idol turned mentor in particular for putting her on a sustainable path as a singer.

Fleming met legendary soprano Leontyne Price when, around age 12, her mother took her to a recital at the Eastman Theatre in Rochester, N.Y., where the young Renée waited to get her program signed. Decades later, as Fleming’s career was rising, it was Price who came looking for her.

“She came up to me and said, ‘You need me,’” Fleming recalls, “‘I want you to come over, and I’m going to talk to you.’ And within two minutes, I realized she was orating.” Fleming started taking notes.

It was Price — another masterful interpreter of Strauss — who empowered Fleming to prioritize her own well-being, to make choices that would give her the longest and most rewarding career, to firm up the relationship between her mind and the music.

“It was the greatest gift,” Fleming says — and one she would like to keep on giving.

The Kennedy Center Honors will be broadcast Dec. 27 at 9 p.m. Eastern time on CBS and stream on Paramount Plus.

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