Sign up to The American magazine's newsletters (below) to receive more regular news, articles and updates on America in the UK.
Renée Fleming Interview
International opera star Renée Fleming returns to London ...to appear in a musical! Or is it an opera? The world famous soprano tells us about The Light in the Piazza
Renée, we’re thrilled to be having you back in London. You’ve performed all over the world; when you’re abroad is there anything you miss about the USA?
I spend a lot of time away so I would say friends and family. I have two daughters and to have the career that I had, as a mother, was definitely a challenge.
Do you do anything to make your hotel rooms feel like home?
When you’re traveling you have a limited amount of things with you and that’s kind of a relief, it’s a much simpler existence. But I have to have my little office set up, I have a fabulous stand that I put my laptop on and set up my travel office.
What do you most like about London?
Theater! I am a theater fanatic, and my first time singing in London I went to the Half Price Ticket Booth almost every day, by myself, and fell in love.
You’re coming back in June to star in The Light in the Piazza at the Royal Festival Hall. Can you tell us about it?
Well, it premiered in New York fourteen years ago and it’s an absolutely wonderful show. It won all the awards at the time and it’s had a following ever since. Adam Guettel, who wrote the music and lyrics, is royalty in musical theater because his grandfather was Richard Rogers. It’s a brilliant story, and it’s an opportunity to play a character much closer to who I actually am. She’s a mother, she’s in a very difficult situation to deal with - her daughter had a traumatic brain injury as a teen - and how she manages all of that in Italy in 1953 makes for a very compelling story.
It is unusual in several ways, so many modern musicals have pop music, or they’re juke box musicals, or they’re revivals of things from decades ago, but this is something different. Is it classical or operatic?
I would say it’s rapturous. I mean really beautiful, sweeping. I wouldn’t call it classical, it’s more cinematic.
Have you had to change your singing technique for it at all?
No! This is a really terrific fit, in fact on my Broadway album I recorded the final piece from this called ‘Fable’ and loved it, it was an instant fit for my voice. What is a challenge for me though is that my character’s from Winston-Salem in North Carolina so I’ve had to really get down and try to figure out the accent. What I’m learning is that the Southern accent changes from generation to generation, so at 53, as a woman in her socioeconomic strata, it would be quite different than today.
That’s quite funny, when you’re used to singing in Italian or German or French.
I know! [laughs] I’ve had a whole career of singing in foreign languages but not accents and that’s a whole new challenge.
You’ve done so many different sorts of operatic and classical work, is the acting different in this?
Well it’s not per se different but there’s a lot of dialogue and that is absolutely something I’m not used to. It always is alarming to me that if I don’t say my lines there’s silence, whereas in a whole career of opera there’s music, underneath there’s a constant prompt, so it is very different. But I’m performing with Ben Whishaw right now so I’m really learning about acting from a master!
The Light in the Piazza is also a little bit unusual because one of the lead characters is disabled. That’s quite ‘now’ isn’t it, when we’re able to talk about things like disability and mental illness?
Sadly it’s always timely but people are willing to talk about it now and be open about it, and also we have a much greater understanding about what a traumatic brain injury is and what it does. It’s based on a novella by Elizabeth Spencer and it’s powerful because it’s so complex. We have an amazing cast, it’s kind of an ensemble show. I’ve gotten emails from people saying ’You’ve got Alex Jennings in this! Wow! How lucky!’ And I’m looking forward to working with Daniel Evans, who’s directing, and Rob Houchen and Dove Cameron, who’s a household name with young girls... I’m very excited about it.
Are you and Dove on stage together a lot of the time?
We are, in the scenes she has with me but she also has a lot of scenes with her love interest, a young Italian man. There are stories for young people in it, about their relationships, and there are stories for my generation as well because there is a flirtation between my character and the young man’s father.
Your character Margaret seems quite sad, until perhaps the end of the show. How do you see her as a character?
It’s interesting because Victoria Clark’s performance in it, in the States, was not sad, she was quite funny in fact. But if you watch the film that’s a completely different mood. I think she’s presented in the novella as being quite sad. I mean, imagine the guilt that she feels – obviously she isn’t responsible for her daughter’s injury, but she feels that she could have somehow prevented it. Being in Italy changes her life as well because she realizes what the state of her marriage is, and she sees her daughter blossom and fall in love. It’s a fantastically layered piece.
She’s having to let her daughter go free after protecting her for a long time?
Yes, which also removes from her the role that she’s carried all these years. This has been her function in life, to care for her daughter. It’s a beautifully crafted musical that not only tells a great story, but has fabulous music in it - a jewel.
You’re doing it in London for about six weeks then going to LA in October and Chicago in December. You’re in all those productions?
Yes. And there are a couple of other performances too but they haven’t been announced yet.
On a personal note, you won a Fulbright Scholarship back in the day. How important was that to your career?
Oh, very important! It seemed to be destiny to me because I ended up in Germany. It was probably easiest to get a Fulbright in music, at the time, and little did I know that I would become a Strauss specialist, so learning to speak German fluently was incredibly important.
Which was the chicken and which was the egg?
I don’t even know! But Strauss just turned out to be a perfect fit for my voice. When you’re that young you don’t really know how your voice is going to develop so it just seemed to be fate that I would end up there. I think it’s wonderful for all young people to study abroad, to travel and get your sense of the world.
Finally, a question we always ask at the end of our interviews – what’s the best thing about being Renée Fleming?
Oh gosh, there’s no best thing. It’s been a wonderful ride. I would say having choices is a really important aspect. I’ve been lucky enough to be able to choose the roles that I wanted to sing and I’ve also been able to expand a little bit into other activities, you know, I’m a creative consultant for the Kennedy Center and also the Lyric Opera of Chicago and also I’ve been doing a lot in neuroscience in music with the National Institute of Health, that is something that is really exciting to me.
The Light in the Piazza runs from June 14 to July 5 at the Royal Festival Hall, a limited run of 20 performances. For tickets go to www.southbankcentre.co.uk