From Leading Lady of the Met to Broadway: La Diva Renée Fleming Finds Her Funny Side

News   From Leading Lady of the Met to Broadway: La Diva Renée Fleming Finds Her Funny Side
 
We've all heard people called divas, but what does the word actually mean? The cast of Living On Love, the new comedy about an opera singer and a maestro, weigh in.

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If rehearsals run long at Living On Love, the new comedy set to begin previews on Broadway April 1, the company can blame Jerry O'Connell.

The actor, known for his comedic film roles, is returning to Broadway in the role of Robert Samson, a young man chronicling the life of Raquel De Angelis, played by Renée Fleming. A renowned opera singer, Fleming makes her Broadway debut in Living On Love; but to O'Connell, she is no novice and he insists on addressing her as such.

"That's how I refer to her: La Diva Renee. Every morning: 'Good Morning, La Diva Renee,'" O'Connell said. "I mean, when am I ever going to work with someone who you can legitimately, without weirdness, call La Diva? So I call her La Diva. How often can you call someone [that] when they're actually considered La Diva?"

Renée Fleming in <i>Living on Love</i>
Renée Fleming in Living on Love

An update of Garson Kanin's 1985 play Peccadillo, Living On Love, which is written by Tony Award winner Joe DiPietro (Memphis, Nice Work If You Can Get It), follows the madcap escapades of the long-married couple Vito De Angelis (Douglas Sills) and Raquel De Angelis (Fleming), a larger-than-life pair whose marriage has become stale. When they hire Robert Samson (O'Connell) and Iris Peabody (Anna Chlumsky) to write their biographies and the attractive young pair are ensconced in their opulent home, egos swell and romantic entanglements arise. (And a great deal of silverware is thrown.) Kathleen Marshall (Anything Goes, Nice Work If You Can Get It) directs. "It's glamorous people acting like children," DiPietro said, adding that the characters' egos were inspired by the habits of actual opera stars he had seen at performances.

"Opera bows say it all. I've seen them come out at intermission to bow. I'm like, 'Is it over?' 'No, it's intermission bows!' Can you imagine in the theatre? They'd stone you to death. So I'm like, 'These people are right for this.'"

While the word "diva" may carry a negative connotation for some, referring to people behaving entitled or demanding, the word is actually derived from the Italian noun diva, a female deity.

The title "La Diva" is a fitting one for Fleming, who is widely considered one of the most acclaimed singers alive. A recipient of the National Medal of the Arts, she was the first classical singer ever to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl. She is a recipient of the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal, the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur and numerous honorary doctorates. Last seen in the Metropolitan Opera's production of The Merry Widow, Fleming weighed in on the word "diva" with her own experience, offering insight into the lifestyle of an opera singer.

"Raquel De Angelis is a completely narcissistic opera diva, and that is a personality type that still exists in our world," she said. "Sometimes I think it's almost necessary because it's such a tough lifestyle and we have to be pampered to protect this instrument that's so fragile."

Renée Fleming
Renée Fleming Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

"It's like a prima ballerina. We use the word 'diva' in a derogatory way — someone with a lot of attitude or someone who's very self-involved," Marshall added. "A true diva — what it takes, the training and the artistry of what it takes to be a true diva — the study and the technique to sing a three-and-a-half hour opera at the Metropolitan Opera House unamplified — that's a lot of effort. There's actually something to be proud of."

Some credit famed opera singer Adelina Patti as the first performer to be called a diva. The successful 19th-century performer reportedly required top billing and charged a performance fee of $5,000 a night in gold at the height of her fame; she is also a great-grand aunt of Tony Award-winning leading lady Patti LuPone.

Despite O'Connell's addressing of Fleming, the singer has, according to the cast, been a welcome — and entertaining — addition to the company and not a diva. "She is a classic comedian. I think she's been surprised by how funny she is," DiPietro said. "I remember in Williamstown, she wasn't terrified of being onstage but she was terrified of having to say things that she assumed was funny in rehearsal hall that she'd have to get laughs with. The first time she got laughs she was taken aback — 'What do I do now? Do I keep going? Do I look at them?'

"About two or three days after our first preview, she came to me and said, 'Comedy is a drug, isn't it?' She's hooked! That's it. She'll be doing 'Dumb and Dumber 2' next time."

(Carey Purcell is the Features Editor of Playbill.com. Her work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow her on Twitter @PlaybillCarey.)

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