World-renowned soprano Renée Fleming, a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, is currently making her Broadway debut in Joe DiPietro's Living on Love, now in previews at the Longacre Theatre prior to an official opening April 20. One might have thought this four-time Grammy nominee, who has performed in virtually all of the world's greatest opera houses, would have chosen a musical for her Main Stem outing, but she instead was lured by the sounds of laughter when this new comedy — based on Garson Kanin's Peccadillo — premiered last summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival. It's been a busy year for Fleming, who, in February, became the first classical singer ever to perform "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl and was also seen with Broadway favorite Kelli O'Hara in The Metropolitan Opera's new production of The Merry Widow. And, now, Fleming is cast as celebrated diva Raquel De Angelis opposite Douglas Sills (as her larger-than-life maestro husband Vito) in Living on Love, which boasts direction by three-time Tony winner Kathleen Marshall. I recently had the great pleasure of chatting with this down-to-earth, charming diva, who spoke about her Broadway debut, which does offer audiences a glimpse of Fleming's gorgeous vocals, as well as her thoughts about singing in a Broadway musical and her preparation for delivering the National Anthem in front of millions of watchers this past winter.
Question: How did this role come to you?
Renee Fleming: It's kind of interesting because it came out of the blue. Kathleen [Marshall] and [producer] Scott [Landis], somebody had told them about the original Garson Kanin play, and they looked at it and were interested enough to have a reading. I participated in the reading, although I said, "Listen, I could never do this because there would never be enough time in my schedule." But I wanted to try the reading just to see if I could do Love Letters with Alec Baldwin, which was scheduled for a few months after that as a benefit for Carnegie Hall. So the reading was fine, and they said, "If you are interested, we will try and put this together for you." After a lot of discussion, I made time in my schedule, which took about three years! [Laughs.] It's just the way my business works — everything is scheduled from two to five years in advance typically. So that's how it came about. I thought it would be a wonderful, fun adventure, which it has been so far.
Question: What attracted you to the part once you did that reading. What went into your decision to say, "I'll give this a shot"?
Renee Fleming: I'm just a person who has always wanted [and] enjoyed new experiences, whether it was a rock album or Broadway or jazz or music theatre, just wanting to expand my horizons, shall we say...And this was a hugely new experience, and the other thing is, the original play was not funny like this. It wasn't farcical. It was more of a Noel Coward property — it was quite sophisticated, and it had darkness in it as well. When Joe took it over and really rewrote it, it turned into a different thing. I've always wanted to do comedy and never had the chance. I sang all the heroines who died or were murdered — you name it — I never had a light moment in opera. In fact, the only happy moments of characters I've done are in about the first five minutes of the opera, and then it's all downhill. [Laughs.]
Question: What was the experience like for you at Williamstown getting laughs?
Renee Fleming: Williamstown was perfect because you just feel like you're in a nice, isolated cushiony place to try something new. The laughter was immediately addictive for me; it's like a drug. Also, what's so different about this experience in opera, or in, frankly, the kind of singing I do, whether it's song literature or concert literature, the composer has created all the timing, all the sense of space and pitch and everything. There's so much freedom in theatre, but it's also far more frightening because you don't have the prompt of music.
Question: Was Broadway a goal or did it just seem like a different world that maybe you wouldn't do?
Renee Fleming: It really was not on my radar. When it came up, people assumed if I ever did anything, it would be music theatre, and I just knew that I could not sing eight shows a week. My training is so different. We're sort of much more about power because we're unamplified, and I just couldn't imagine making that transition, so I never thought in a million years I would be asked to do a play.
Question: Now that you've played Williamstown and you're in rehearsal for Broadway now, how would you describe Raquel?
Renee Fleming: Raquel is an expression of my inner diva. [Laughs.] All opera singers have an inner diva, whether she's expressed or not, and trust me, there are a lot of singers who aren't afraid to express it. Those type of characters still exist, they're still alive and well. But I haven't had that opportunity [to play one]. We always make fun of them...[Raquel] and her husband, they're both volatile, narcissistic, pampered musicians, but this game of one-upsmanship in the play is quite interesting. She's clever in the way she handles it. It's a wonderful cast, it's a small cast. I suppose if I had really been thinking, I would have picked a very small role to try...something theatrical, and this is anything but that. Also, farce requires a timing, which is very musical. You build to a climax, you have highs and lows. There are a lot of similarities really, in a sense, between comedy and music.
Question: Tell me a little bit about working with Kathleen Marshall. Had you ever worked with her before?
Renee Fleming: No, I hadn't. She is a dream. She is so supportive and warm, and for me, a lot of it is about feeling that I'm in a collaborative environment. It's also about building confidence, especially in something new like this, and she's been really perfect that way. Her sense of choreography, obviously because of her background, is perfect for a piece like this. It's very clever all of the things that she does.
Question: I know you haven't started the Broadway run yet, but what are your thoughts about doing eight shows a week?
Renee Fleming: I'm very nervous about it. I am nervous about...the commitment, you know, that's a lot. But, secondly, I'm thrilled to be home for five months. That's the first time in my entire adult life that I have been anywhere for more than two months.
Renee Fleming: Yes. Our lifestyle is incredibly demanding, and I'm ecstatic about having spring time in my own home. And summer for that matter. [Laughs.]
Question: You mentioned before about the opera diva. I wonder, was there any worry about taking this part that people might confuse you with the character you're playing?
Renee Fleming: Gosh, I wish they would. I always wanted to be a temperamental diva. [Laughs.] People would take me more seriously, I think. I'm too nice. I'm sort of hopeful that I can walk into a rehearsal space now, and people will say, "Here Ms. Fleming, here's your coffee." [Laughs.]
Question: Has much changed since Williamstown or is it pretty much the same script?
Renee Fleming: It's quite different. Raquel's relationship with Vito is much better established. I have more depth now because there are places where I talk about things that everyone will be able to relate to: not having children, what aging means. There are a lot more vulnerable moments for her, which give her more humanity, so it's been improved upon. The pacing is quicker. It's been tightened up and so I would say there have probably been changes in 30% of the script.
Question: If you could do a musical for four performances a week or for a limited run, are there any that you've wanted to do over the years? Any parts you've seen that you've thought, "Oh, I wouldn't mind giving this a try"?
Renee Fleming: You know, I haven't really thought about it. I'm going to see On the Twentieth Century tonight, and I'm really looking forward to it. I look at my friends like Kristin [Chenoweth], and I did American Voices with Sutton Foster recently and...Kelli [O'Hara] is unbelievably well-schooled and disciplined and intelligent about how she uses her voice, but I can't imagine doing it. You know, I just think I would have to re-learn how to sing to be able to sing a musical I think.
Question: I'm always curious about people who have famously sung the National Anthem. What is that experience like, just before you're about to do it, knowing it's in front of so many people?
Renee Fleming: The three weeks before, when I kind of had to produce the whole segment and do it quietly, that was terrifying. That was a really challenging period. I was also rehearsing [an opera] at the Met, so it wasn't like I was just sitting at home thinking about the National Anthem [Laughs.] What happens is if you do that mental preparation and the total preparation and Vera Wang [creates] this dress — which is now in the Smithsonian Museum — when you then go on, you're ready and excited and focused. What we do has so much to do with your mental preparation, and I've found, when I've had terrible stage fright in the past, that's when I really learned how important that is.
Question: To just be as prepared as possible...
Renee Fleming: Yes. It's about imagining yourself going through the thing. It's about internal rehearsal, a type of performance visualization I have found very useful.
Question: How long will you be staying with Living on Love?
Renee Fleming: We have until the beginning of August, and then I tour in Australia.
Question: Tell me a little bit about that.
Renee Fleming: I just go back on tour. Australia and then I have U.S. orchestral opening concerts, a series of them, and then I'm singing The Merry Widow in Chicago, so it's a nice fall.
[Tickets are available through Telecharge.com, by calling (212) 239-6200 and at the Longacre Theatre box office (220 West 48th Street).]
Well, that's all for now. Happy diva-watching! E-mail questions or comments to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Diva Talk runs every other week on Playbill.com. Senior editor Andrew Gans also pens the weekly columns Their Favorite Things and Stage Views.