La Diva Ren_e

Classic Arts Features   La Diva Ren_e
Ren_e Fleming has been called "the people's diva," which may sound like a contradiction in terms. "Diva," at least in the United States, elicits connotations of a regal disdain for "the people."


Demanding, volatile, impossible, imperious: the Diva strikes fear in the underlings who must serve her. The Diva's hysteria is as legendary as her performances.

Fleming, even if she is costumed in a Galliano gown, has never conformed to the Diva stereotype. She was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania, the same birthplace as Jimmy Stewart, and grew up in Churchville, New York, a suburb of Rochester. Her parents were high-school music teachers; her upbringing was distinctly middle class. If Fleming is often described as "the girl next door," it's because that's who she was.

Fleming was a girl who loved horses, and she recognizes her own path to stardom as not unlike the narratives she read as a child: the story of the neglected filly that goes on to become a champion. In her touching memoir as singer's guidebook, The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer, Fleming acknowledges the many teachers and mentors who helped her along: a very un-Diva-like thing to do.

A central theme in Fleming's story, a theme that keeps her less the Diva and more like the rest of us, is how she continually achieved even as she was rewarded with the runners-up trophy. Although Fleming was accepted into the prestigious Oberlin College music school, she failed to receive sufficient financial aid to attend. Instead, Fleming enrolled at Crane School of Music, a state school in Potsdam, New York. And with admirable pluck and perseverance, she found in the "lesser" school the education and nurturance she needed. She calls the circumstances that led her to Crane "the first great break of my career."

Fleming was not a natural, and possessed an endearing habit of failure. She was a soprano without high notes. A walking disaster in auditions, Fleming stubbornly chose repertoire unsuitable for her, and suffered horrible episodes of stage fright. But somewhere within her was a powerful ambition. Hers was not the ambition to conquer the competition: she admits she felt at home in second place: but the ambition to learn, to explore, to experience the unimaginable.

Another aspect of Fleming's appeal is her open appreciation of music outside the opera hall. Joni Mitchell is an idol, and Fleming recently recorded a CD of pop songs by artists such as Death Cab for Cutie, Arcade Fire, the Jefferson Airplane, and Leonard Cohen. She has referred to the CD Dark Hope as "a visit to a new, parallel universe."

During her schooling at Crane, Fleming became the singer for a local jazz band playing in a Potsdam nightclub. Fleming was such an impressive jazz singer: and still is: that the renowned saxophonist Illinois Jacquet invited her to join his band in New York City.

But she returned to what she knew, or at least was trying to know, training her voice, "the only instrument that can't be returned," she writes.

A Fulbright scholarship allowed her to study in Germany, where she took part in master classes with the indomitable Elisabeth Schwarzkopf. Schwarzkopf was a force that could be both inspiring and terrifying, yet Fleming acknowledges that those lessons were to lead her toward the high notes.

Fleming would go on to study at Juilliard. She was so excited when she received her acceptance call she dropped the phone and screamed the news to her family, leaving the head of the Juilliard opera department waiting, not amused, on the line.

It is episodes such as this that make Fleming's career path so compelling. But her long apprenticeship would not be so remarkable without the enormous successes that have followed it. Her memoir, as those successes come, turns into a cascade of dazzling characters who contributed to her evolution. Renata Scotto tells her "Have children," so there will be more in her life than the concert hall (Fleming is a devoted mother of two daughters). Joan Sutherland, the great star who is a grandmother surrounded by her needlepoint when Fleming meets her, tells how she hit the high notes, and also recommends motherhood. Leontyne Price takes Fleming into her Greenwich Village apartment and tells Fleming, on the cusp of stardom, "This is all that matters," as Price gestures, tapping her own throat. When Fleming fills in as Desdemona for an Otello rehearsal, Placido Domingo sets her knees to shaking in fear as he portrays the jealous Moor, and then politely introduces himself to her afterward. After Fleming is booed at La Scala, she learns she has joined noble company: Luciano Pavarotti, Leyla Gencer, Renata Scotto, Mirella Freni, to name a few, all experienced the catcalls of La Scala, and some of them congratulate her on her "achievement." Sir Georg Solti describes her voice as "double crme," a nickname that has stayed.

In the last decade Fleming has emerged as the go-to soprano: the only non-Russian to perform for the 300th-anniversary celebration of St. Petersburg; the first woman in the Metropolitan Opera's 125-year history to headline its opening-night. She performed at the 20th-anniversary celebration of the Velvet Revolution in Prague, at the invitation of former president Vaclav Havel, singing arias in Czech and a duet with Lou Reed. She sang Handel on Letterman; she sang "Amazing Grace" at Ground Zero.

"It's impossible...," Fleming writes, "not to stop and wonder how I got here." It is that wonderment, a sense of mystery surrounding her own accomplishments, which makes her the one the people pull for, the one who became a champion.

Ren_e Fleming headlines the St. Louis Symphony's 2010 Gala at 7 p.m., October 2 at Powell Hall. Dining and dancing follow at the atrium of Wells Fargo Advisors. For more information visit

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