As a reigning superstar soprano, Renée Fleming has had a lot on her plate lately: live appearances in America and Europe, a "greatest hits" CD release, her first Metropolitan Opera performance of La Traviata, and the soundtrack of the third Lord of the Rings movie. But her weeklong residency, as part of the Kennedy Center's Festival of France, is at the top of her list.
"When they first approached me, I was thrilled," Fleming says. "I was asked if I'd curate this series, and I immediately decided on French music. I've done a lot of it, and I'm very excited about performing it at the Kennedy Center."
The series, "Renée Fleming and Friends" (January 30-February 3), is a journey into the world of French music by Fleming and several of her closest professional collaborators‹mezzo Susan Graham, pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet, and, of course, conductor Leonard Slatkin and the National Symphony Orchestra.
"It's definitely about the concept of collaboration," says the soprano. "I made suggestions for the solo repertoire, Leonard suggested the orchestral repertoire. And Jean-Yves is French and a great collaborator of mine, so it just made a lot of sense to invite him aboard also."
The residency, which encompasses chamber music, orchestral concerts, and master classes, is made possible by the Catherine B. Reynolds Foundation Series for Artistic Excellence. "She's been extremely generous to the Kennedy Center," notes Fleming of Reynolds, "which is exciting and gratifying to see as an artist."
The Orchestra concerts on January 30 and 31 are anchored by Ravel's ravishing song cycle Shéhérazade, which Fleming has been pining to return to her repertoire for years. "I sang Shéhérazade once in Carnegie Hall at the very beginning of my career," she explains. "I just love to sing it‹it's really wonderful music, very exotic and compelling."
Both concerts also include Fleming singing two arias from one of her signature roles, Massenet's Manon, and the orchestra performing Eduardo Lalo's overture to his unjustly neglected opera Le Roi d'Ys. From there, the two programs diverge. Thibaudet joins Fleming on January 30 for two Debussy songs and also plays Ravel's D major concerto for the left hand. The following night, the orchestra will play Boulez's Rituel, Debussy's Prelude to The Afternoon of a Faun, and excerpts from Berlioz's The Damnation of Faust.
Fleming will team up with Graham and pianist Steven Blier on February 3 for "The Art of the French Song," a duo recital of French melodies. The two will conduct three master classes together on February 1 and 2. "Susan and I are going to focus on singing in the French style," says Fleming. "We also will discuss pants roles, since we've shared the stage many times playing men and women in Le Nozze di Figaro and Der Rosenkavalier. We have a great relationship, so it should be fun and instructive for everyone…even us."
When asked about the value of master classes Fleming is engagingly candid. "I've done a fair amount of master classes now, and I must say that some teachers can be destructive," she says. "The danger is that the students, who already have to stand on their hands and twirl three times, must also deal with someone who comes in for a couple of hours and tells them what to do, and the students become completely confused after they leave.
"The danger," she continues, "is that the person giving the class is no longer there to make sure the student gets it right afterwards. I try in my master classes to be less insistent. If my teaching helps, great; if it doesn't, throw it away! A master class teacher can come in and get real results, but it's the everyday teaching that's most important."
As a veteran of master classes from her student days, Fleming is unusually aware of how the student feels, especially if the teacher becomes a diva in front of everybody. "I admit there's a little bit of a show aspect to it," she says. "But I try very hard to be mindful that there's another human being onstage who is vulnerable to criticism, especially when the artist leading the class 'performs' at the student's expense."
With her newest Decca CD, By Request, out now‹and, as its title indicates, it's a collection of Fleming's favorite and best-loved material‹Fleming felt it was time to do something completely different from her usual schedule of stage appearances and teaching. So she agreed to sing on the soundtrack for The Return of the King, the final part in the hugely popular Lord of the Rings trilogy.
"It was 20 hours of work for about six minutes of music, which will be played during different scenes in the movie," Fleming explains. "Working with composer Howard Shore was eye-opening, really, because in film they can take their time, something we cannot afford in the classical world. It was a really great experience that led me in a direction I normally don't go."
But the residency with the Kennedy Center during the Festival of France has the soprano most enthralled, not least because she feels such an affinity for this music and the land it comes from. "It's true," she cheerfully admits. "I'm in Paris pretty much every year, so much so that I call it my second home. I was honored this past summer with the Commander of Arts and Letters (from the French Ministry of Culture), which just floored me. They've been really wonderful to me over there."
Kevin Filipski is a frequent contributor to Playbill.