Here’s a new one for my résumé: I caused Renée Fleming to burst into elated song.
Fleming is the world’s most famous full lyric soprano, a four-time Grammy-winning artist who sang at the World Trade Center 9/11 Memorial, the 2014 Super Bowl, the White House, a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee. Why did she warble for li’l ol’ me?
I noted she and Mobile Symphony Orchestra (MSO) Music Director Scott Speck were in Germany as Fulbright Scholars at the same time. The 59-year-old Fleming told me Speck’s photo didn’t look old enough for him to have been there when she was.
“Well, if I had to approximate your age, I’d guess you looked to be in your early 40s,” I offered.
“Ah, sweet mystery of life, at last I’ve found thee,” Fleming rapturously serenaded in playful adoration. The rich voice that poured from my phone was unmistakable.
Fleming will reunite with her old Fulbright colleague on Wednesday, Sept. 12, at 7:30 p.m. onstage at the Saenger Theatre (6 S. Joachim St.) when she joins MSO for a gala performance. She will be the seventh National Medal of Arts recipient to perform in Mobile’s most elegant hall. Two of the others — Itzhak Perlman and Yo-Yo Ma — also performed with MSO.
The soprano might be the most versatile of the aforementioned prestigious pack. A titan of the classical world, Fleming’s recordings also span jazz and pop. Her Broadway run in “Carousel” ended Sept. 2, an experience she called “wonderful.”
“The discipline of the doing the same thing, eight times a week, was really an interesting challenge,” Fleming said. “Getting to know the kind of young performer that inhabits the world of Broadway was extremely fascinating.”
She confessed there was little of opera’s vocal pressure thanks to electronic amplification. Her indulgence in classics of the American songbook like “June Is Bustin’ Out All Over” and “You’ll Never Walk Alone” — the latter a number she performed at the 9/11 Concert for America — was a treat.
“This is Rodgers and Hammerstein. This music was premiered and sung for a long time by people who were trained just like [opera singers],” Fleming said.
One of the best benefits of the Broadway stint? Being in familiar surroundings since January.
“It’s the first time in my adult life I’ve been home that long. It was absolutely incredible to sleep in my same bed so many nights a week,” Fleming said.
In addition to music by Richard Strauss, Fleming will bring a bit of the Great White Way to Mobile’s grandest venue when she runs through numbers from a trio of Rodgers and Hammerstein works and “Light in the Piazza.” There’s also a smattering of her film soundtrack work, one hitting screens just days before the Mobile show.
“I’ve just had a really extraordinary year to be in ‘The Shape of Water,’ ‘Three Billboards (Outside Ebbing, Missouri)’ and now ‘Bel Canto,’ which comes out Sept. 7,” Fleming said. It’s the same day her new Broadway album debuts.
The “Shape of Water” number “You’ll Never Know” fully reveals Fleming’s deep love for jazz. Its smokiness illustrates the chops that wowed Illinois Jacquet when he offered a college-aged Fleming a big-band gig. She declined in favor of an academic track.
So what about jazz does the Sarah Vaughan fan carry to opera?
“The freedom, the phrasing, absolutely the phrasing, it’s just a lot of influence. I think it’s one of the things that made me unique. It distinguished me,” Fleming said.
She readily cites jazz artists — pianist Brad Mehldau and vocalist Kurt Elling — as musical accompaniment on her regular Hudson River bicycle rides. The hour-long routine allows her to unwind and reload between shows. No naps needed.
“I get to go out on the river and enjoy the closest thing to nature in New York. It’s right there,” Fleming said.
So what about growing prognostications that opera is on its way out? New York City Opera has flirted with extinction. Sales at The Met have flagged.
“Same is true for sports. People aren’t going out, they’re not buying tickets. I do think it’s an issue for any kind of live performance or any kind of live event,” Fleming said.
The Mobile playlist sports some fervent Weber to match the reverie of Fleming’s Strauss. There’s also a bit of Bernstein in honor of Lenny’s 100th birthday. The program will sweep wide through truly world-class music, both in mood and style.
Tickets cost $30 to $125 and are available by phone at 251-432-2010, online at mobilesymphony.org or at the MSO box office (257 Dauphin St.).
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