Over the course of her remarkable 16-year career at the Met, Ren_e Fleming has sung 18 different roles at the house, but just two Verdi heroines: Violetta in La traviata and Desdemona in Otello. She'll recreate both characters this season, starting as Violetta opposite Matthew Polenzani on November 3. "I'm proud to be first and foremost a Strauss specialist," the soprano says. "But as a lyric soprano not afraid to learn new roles, the possibilities are endless. I really love the music I sing."
At the Met alone, Fleming's wide-ranging repertory includes the expected Mozart and Strauss roles like the Countess, Donna Anna, the Marschallin, and Arabella, but also such diverse fare as Imogene in Bellini's Il pirata, Ellen Orford in Britten's Peter Grimes, and the title roles of Dvoršk's Rusalka, Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, and Handel's Rodelinda. Last season she sang her first Met Tatianas in Tchaikovsky's Eugene Onegin to tremendous acclaim from critics and audiences — both at the Met and in movie theaters around the world when the production was transmitted live as part of the company's Live in HD series.
Whatever Fleming sings — and whenever she chooses to sing it — she does so with careful consideration and forethought. Her first Met Violettas came in 2003, because before that, "it wouldn't have been right," explains the soprano, who postponed her originally scheduled debut in the role to ensure she was fully prepared. "It took enormous time to get to the right point. The tessitura would have been too high for me earlier, because my technique wasn't advanced enough. If you don't choose wisely, you can really harm your voice."
That's one of the reasons her performances of this challenging role, with its mix of Verdian heft and rapid-fire coloratura, have appeared only sparingly on Fleming's calendar. Desdemona, on the other hand, is a part she's had thoroughly in her voice since early in her career. She first sang the role at the Met back in 1994 opposite the renowned Otello of Plšcido Domingo. With that role well-suited to her voice, even in the soprano's early days, why has she not performed it more often?
"Part of the problem is that there aren't that many Otellos!" jokes Fleming, who has called Domingo "the greatest Otello for 30 years." "A lot of people can sing Desdemona, but who's going to sing Otello?"
At the Met this season, that task falls to Johan Botha, whose performances of Radams in Aida and the title role of Don Carlo in 2006 marked his own first forays into Verdi territory at the Met. The clarion-voiced tenor will be fortunate to have an experienced Desdemona opposite him in the fabulous Fleming.