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Deft pivots of a daring diva

Renee Fleming brings eclectic recital to Wharton


It was tempting to hear a coded message in Renee Fleming’s time-stopping rendition of “Danny Boy” at Sen. John McCain’s Sept. 2 funeral. Something like this: “We may not agree on much, but we’re all going to die, and that’s a start.”

Fleming, who comes to the Wharton Center for a rare solo recital Tuesday, is not fooling around these days.

Whether it’s a Super Bowl, President Obama’s inauguration, the Olympics, opera’s reigning diva is always up for a mass experiment in neuroscience.

“Music goes back in evolution, millions of years before modern history, and it contributed to social cohesion, whether it was drumming or vocalizing,” she said in a phone interview last week.

“There’s no question that it’s very powerful. I’m always honored when I’m asked to do something like John McCain’s funeral. It brings us together.”

The night before we talked, Fleming teamed up with Audra McDonald for Carnegie Hall’s opening night gala with conductor Michael Tilson Thomas and the San Francisco Symphony.

“We had a wonderful time,” she said. “It was smart of them to program something with two people who never sing together. It made it more of an event.”

Fleming’s recent career, and Tuesday’s recital, reflects an era of glorious, matter-offact eclecticism in music.

“One of my daughters got interested in 1940s big band music when she was about 12,” Fleming said. “I said, ‘Where are you getting this?’ ‘YouTube.’ She wanted to talk to me about Dakota Staton and Nina Simone and I thought, ‘That’s so sophisticated.’ Kids have everything at their fingertips.”

Tuesday’s recital will showcase the silvery, luminous voice that conquered opera houses around the world, but the evening will also demonstrate the diva’s deft pivots to Broadway, film soundtracks, jazz and new music.

That’s Fleming’s husky, dusky voice trailing like black lace on a satin pillow on the soundtrack of “The Shape of Water.” To deliver her sultry take on the standard “You’ll Never Know,” she left the vibrato in the vanity drawer.

“I’ve never sung in that style before,” she said. “I like the challenge. I love all things voice.”

To frame the intense drama “Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri,” Fleming reverted to full-on operatic drama and diction, singing “Last Rose of Summer” with almost intimidating authority.

Fleming will sing both songs Tuesday.

She’ll also remind her fans that this was the year she stormed Broadway, with a Tonywinning run in “Carousel” and a Broadway album on Decca.

She found it to be a “discipline, but not a challenge.”

“I thought it would be hard for me, but it wasn’t,” she said. “I never got bored. If you’re in classical music, you learn that art of being professional is to consistently try to find something better, even in a piece you’ve performed for a long time.”

The wordless, ravishing counterpoint of Heitor Villa-Lobos’s “Bachianas Brasilieras,” one of the pieces Fleming sang at the Carnegie Hall gala last week, will also be in the mix Tuesday, along with florid Italian arias and intimate songs by the master of the art, Franz Schubert.

New music has long been a vital part of Fleming’s career. Tuesday’s recital will also feature excerpts from “Letters from Georgia,” a song cycle by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts, setting the letters of artist Georgia O’Keefe to music. Puts wrote the piece for Fleming, who sang the world premiere of the cycle in 2011.

“She led an incredible life, a very original life, at a time when women did not have these opportunities, and I’ve fallen in love with that world, and he evokes it beautifully,” she said.

People often ask Fleming if there are any more career boxes she feels the need to check.

“I did have a sense of urgency in the last five or six years, but I don’t anymore,” said Flemming, 59. “In classical music, I hit most of them. I’m so satisfied with where I am. I love touring.”

She takes her cue from the iconic soprano Leontyne Price, whom she still considers a mentor.

“She told me she enjoyed most the years that she toured,” Fleming said. “I remember seeing a couple of her concerts when I was a young singer and just going crazy, because she was still so glorious.”

Fleming was scheduled to work with another vocal legend she has long admired, Aretha Franklin, on a big gala at the Kennedy Center before Franklin fell ill and died this year.

To her delight, Fleming learned that she and Franklin were mutual fans.

“She had a great success with ‘Nessun Dorma’ at the Grammys and started studying to familiarize herself with classical singing,” she said. “I was thrilled to get that acknowledgment from her, because, what an icon, what a great singer, an historic singer.”

Fleming may have few boxes left to check, but she is always open to new experiences, and a doozy is in store for her early next year.

The Shed, a high-concept Manhattan arts center scheduled to open in 2019, recruited Fleming for its first production, “Norma Jeane Baker of Troy.” It’s a reinvention of Euripides’ tragedy “Helen” in the form of a “melalogue” — partly spoken, partly sung.

Poet Anne Carson wrote it specifically for Fleming and actor Ben Whishaw.

A new experimental theater, dangling like a steel-and-Teflon worm over the Hudson Yards on the far west side of Manhattan, is about as off-off-off-Broadway as you can get.

“That’s going to be a completely new experience,” Fleming said. “So if you’re open-minded and you stay in shape as a performer, then really interesting things continue to come your way.”

Renee Fleming 7:30 p.m.

Tuesday, Oct. 16 Wharton Center Cobb Great Hall $29 and up 750 E. Shaw Lane, East Lansing (517) 432-2000 www.whartoncenter.com

Does "Love Never Dies," now playing at the Wharton Center, live up to "The Phantom of the Opera"?

Check out www.lansingcitypulse.com to read our review.


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