R enée Fleming may be best known for possessing "The Beautiful Voice," but in recent seasons, she's been equally applauded for the variety and range of music she's chosen to sing with that voice.
Case in point: Over the past year, America's most celebrated soprano released a critically acclaimed recording of Handel arias, only to follow it up with an album of popular songs and standards with jazz guitarist Bill Frissell and jazz pianist-composer Fred Hersch. Now the Decca recording artist is once more showing off her vocal versatility, with two new September releases: Richard Strauss's rarely performed opera Daphne, and Sacred Songs, a CD that Fleming describes as "a lot of the greatest hits of the soprano oratorio repertoire," featuring beloved classical sacred works by Handel, Mozart, Bach, and others.
This month Fleming takes her "Sacred Songs" on tour, in a six-city concert series that comes to Houston on December 6. "I love coming back to Houston," says the soprano. "I love the public there and I love the city. And certainly, above all, I love the opera company." HGO Music Director Patrick Summers conducts the HGO Orchestra for her Houston appearance.
Fleming certainly has good reasons to feel this way, as HGO was where she got her first big break close to 20 years ago. In 1988, after a difficult year of auditions, Fleming auditioned for Houston Grand Opera's Studio program‹a training ground for young artists. Fleming was turned down by the program simply because she was already too advanced. But then-HGO General Director David Gockley promised the young singer a chance to perform on the main stage as soon as an opportunity arose; and in the fall of that year, when the company had a cancellation for the role of the Countess in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Fleming was the one they called.
The production marked her first major role with a major American opera company, and her performance proved to be a big success, opening doors to other important venues and setting her career in motion. To this day, Fleming continues to enjoy a strong relationship with the company, making her role debut as Violetta in Verdi's La Traviata at HGO in 2003, and, more recently, performing in the company's 50th anniversary gala last spring.
Prior to embarking on her professional career, Renée Fleming was actually singing much of the same oratorio music that's featured on Sacred Songs. "My father conducted church choirs all through my childhood," she explains. "So I grew up doing it‹it was part of my upbringing." Fleming first sang in a children's choir and in high school joined her mother, as well as other singers from the distinguished Eastman School of Music, as a soloist with a church in Rochester‹which, aptly enough, is the final stop on her tour. "We sang something every Sunday," she recalls, "so as you might imagine I learned a lot of music."
Although she sang this music throughout her childhood and young adulthood, Fleming found herself with little opportunity to perform it during the early stages of her operatic career. "My first manager was very much hooked into the opera world," she says, "so I didn't do any oratorio, and very little concert work."
Since then, of course, she's performed most of the standard oratorio repertoire. But there's been one notable exception. "Believe it or not, I haven't sung a professional Messiah," she admits, adding that it was one of her favorite works to sing as a kid. "It's the only thing that's kind of gotten away. I was supposed to do one this year, actually, with Bryn Terfel and this amazing cast of people. It was a BBC project in London and we were going to reproduce, as authentically as possible, the first performance‹including being in costume. But it fell through. And I was very disappointed."
Fans of both Fleming and Handel's masterwork will be pleased to know that the new CD includes excerpts from Messiah, along with other classics of the European oratorio tradition, such as Mozart's "Laudate Dominum," Franck's "Panis Angelicus," and Schubert's "Ave Maria." The operatic repertoire is represented, as well‹Fleming is joined by another HGO favorite, Susan Graham, in the prayer from Humperdinck's Hansel and Gretel.
In addition, Sacred Songs offers more unusual musical fare, including two comparatively modern American works: the beloved gospel hymn "Amazing Grace" and Leonard Bernstein's "Simple Song." Unlike the other selections on the album, which are set to timeless, traditional arrangements, these last two works have a decidedly contemporary flavor. "Simple Song" is performed with electric guitar and drums, and "Amazing Grace" features famed bluegrass violinist Mark O'Connor. "That's a real favorite of mine," says Fleming of the latter arrangement. "It's just so beautiful and so unique."
While the concert tour for Sacred Songs is timed for the Christmas season, and will likely feature a few Christmas carols in the program, Fleming is quick to stress that the new album should not be thought of as a "seasonal" CD. "This is not a Christmas record," she states. "This is music that can be played all year. It's been culled from everything composed over hundreds of years. It's great music and it's timeless music. And it's music that we still love to perform."
Stacey Kors, a New York City-based classical music critic and features writer, has written for the New York Times, Financial Times, Newsday, San Francisco Chronicle, and Playbill. This article originally appeared in the 2005-2006 edition of Opera Cues.