Feb. 20 2013 12:00 AM

Renée Fleming to give rare recital at Wharton Center

Photo courtesy of Andrew Eccles

The voice of Renée Fleming inevitably causes music lovers to wheel out a pastry cart of adjectives like “creamy” and “honeyed.”

But don’t reach for the dessert too fast. Last week, the music world got a reminder that Fleming is a meaty, mighty diva. “That was a surprise, actually,” Fleming said of her latest Grammy award in a phone interview last week. “It’s a wonderful validation for doing a program of challenging music.”

Fleming comes to the Wharton Center Wednesday for a rare solo recital.

Having conquered nearly the entire opera and classical song repertoire, Fleming won Best Classical Vocal Solo for “Poèmes,” a risky venture packed with fiercely sung modern songs, including a spanking-raw blast of elemental joy by mystic polytonalist Olivier Messiaen. Also on the CD is a new work written for her by 90-year-old French composer laureate Henri Dutilleux, an ardent Fleming admirer. 

Fleming said there are many rewards for the hard work of premiering new music.

“There are no other performances to compare you with,” she said with a laugh. “That’s a real gift. I rather love being the first person. Now everyone who performs something after me — they’re the ones who have to try to fit in.”

When she’s not gunning her uvula into new sonic realms, Fleming takes pains to stay down to earth, clowning with the Second City comedy troupe, playing the semi-fictional diva Renata Flambé  in “A Prairie Home Companion” and, every once in a while, performing a solo concert punctuated with informal chat.

Fleming, who turned 54 last week, doesn’t do recitals often, but she says she looks forward to taking a break from a spate of heavy projects.

“For this program, I tried to make something really fun,” she said. “I just came off of a super-highbrow look at Vienna 100 years ago.” For “Vienna: Window to Modernity,” Fleming assembled a dense program of songs by turn-of-the-20th-century titans like Mahler, Schoenberg and the connoisseur’s master of art song, Hugo Wolf. Just ahead is her new Carnegie Hall series, “Perspectives,” including a major world premiere by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg with the New York Philharmonic, and another turn as Blanche DuBois in a semi-staged concert version of Andre Previn’s 1997 opera, “A Streetcar Named Desire.” 

“It’s a tremendous amount of work, and it’s off the beaten path,” Fleming said. “For this tour, I just thought, let me give a wide variety of things I absolutely love.”

That still doesn’t narrow the field much. The Wharton recital will have to be a brisk trot across Fleming’s varied vocal dominions, from baroque opera (represented by Handel) to the heady songs of Richard Strauss to dreamy stuff by French composers like Canteloube and Debussy, whose 150th birthday falls this year. She’ll end with a plate of red-sauced, red-blooded Italian arias.

“It’s a meaty but hopefully very entertaining program,” she said. Mozart, Verdi and Slavic opera — all Fleming specialties — didn’t make the cut, let alone her beloved American musical theater and recent husky-voiced excursions into jazz (Fleming´s first vocal love) and indie rock.

Fleming is as serious a singer as they come, but she doesn’t go in for waxworks recitals.

“I communicate with the audience,” Fleming said. “I’m trying to make the whole art form a little bit more accessible.” She enjoys watching TV shows like “American Idol,” “Glee” and “The Voice” with her teenaged daughters. People are as fascinated with singing as ever, she said, but they need to feel at ease with it.

“People have an interactive expectation with culture,” she said. “To some degree, audiences expect to be a part of it now, to be able to contribute in a chat room afterwards, to vote on it, or something.”

To that end, one of the first things Fleming did as the first creative consultant at the Chicago Lyric Opera was to haul the company down the street and submit to an opera-skewering evening with the Second City comedy troupe last month. In one skit, Fleming played an annoying office worker who sings, opera-style, through the retirement party of a cranky co-worker, played by Patrick Stewart. (“Sing like a normal person,” a co-worker moans.)

“They wrote it well,” Fleming said of the Second City troupe. “They even sang well. Patrick Stewart was brilliant. It was such a blast.”

Melanie Helton, Michigan State University’s director of opera studies — and a formidable diva in her own right — began her career about the same time as Fleming and has substituted for her several times. Helton will give the pre-recital talk. 

“She is just lovely and has not been spoiled by this fame,” Helton said. She called Fleming’s voice “a stunningly beautiful instrument you recognize immediately,” unlike the homogenized “bright” sound she has noticed taking hold in the opera world. The variety and stretch of Fleming’s many projects also impresses Helton.

“She could easily park herself in Vienna, Berlin or Paris for six months and sing two productions, but instead, she has been a champion of new music,” Helton said.

For a shock, check out Fleming’s incandescent Messiaen performance on YouTube, with the New York Philharmonic and its new music director, Alan Gilbert. “She didn’t learn those in a day,” Helton said. “They’re absolutely stunning, but man, are they hard. They’re polytonal, polytextural.”

Fleming sensed the time was right for “Poèmes” and welcomes the Grammy as a sign that she was right.

“A lot of pieces are hard to grasp on first hearing,” Fleming said. “I’m sure that was true of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony. The Messiaen, which was written 60 years ago, is so fresh. It’s interesting, to me, how pieces can have a specified time when audiences can really hear them — and it might not necessarily be when they were written.”

Renée Fleming
Feb. 27
7:30 p.m.
Wharton Center