Opera singer Renée Fleming performs song recital

by Joyce Lee | 10/27/15 7:01pm

Celebrated soprano Renée Fleming performed a song recital at the Hopkins Center on Tuesday. Fleming is a four-time Grammy award winning artist who was also the recipient of the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest honor for an individual artist, and has hosted various television and radio broadcast events, including the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series.

Despite her busy schedule and prestige as an artist, Fleming became available for a performance at Dartmouth, director of programming at Hopkins Center, Margaret Lawrence said. It had taken three years to schedule this specific engagement, Lawrence continued.

“It wasn’t so much a difficult negotiation as it was finding a moment when Ms. Fleming is available, and for someone of her career, that means there’s large blocks of time when she’s in a metro opera itself, or when she’s only performing with symphonies,” Lawrence said. “So her agent and I had to look for a time when she was able to perform with a pianist, and we were fortunate enough to find one.”

Her performance at the Hop featured a diverse repertoire of the works of Robert Schumann, Sergei Rachmaninoff, Richard Strauss, Joseph Canteloube, and Patricia Barber. She performed Schuman’s “Frauenline und-leden,” a song-cycle that is based on a series of poems by Adelbert von Chamisso. The song-cycle tells the story of a female protagonist’s life.

Selecting the program was a challenging and time-consuming process, Fleming said, because she had to account for the audience and the specific format of the performance.

“I had to make sure there’s something for everyone, and I’m also exploring repertoire for myself as well,” Fleming said. “This famous song cycle by Schumann hasn’t been done at all during my career by almost anyone, and it just went out of fashion, having been sung all the time in the decades before. I thought it was time to revive it— it’s very beautiful, and we can enjoy it in its historic context and not think of it as anti-feminist.”

The Schumann song cycle is a well-known set of songs that are especially appropriate for a soprano to sing, music department chair Steve Swayne said.

“The life and the love of a woman is what it means, and it’s specifically the kind of thing one would expect someone of her caliber to sing,” Swayne said.

Unlike the song-cycle by Schumann, the works by Rachmaninoff and Strauss will be separate pieces, followed by a collection of folk songs from the Auvergne region of France, arranged by Canteloube in the local language Occitan. Fleming also performed with the Patricia Barber quartet, a contemporary jazz band with whom Fleming is involved in a joint program that will perform in Chicago and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.

“The Strauss songs are my bread-and-butter repertoire, and the Rachmaninoff songs are just absolutely beautiful,” Fleming said. “The Patricia Barber group is interesting— it’s the premiere for them tonight, and she’s just a wonderful jazz musician, songwriter and singer.”

The repertoire focuses on a range of Romantic pieces.

“You’ll see three different flavors of Romanticism in the performance, with the Schumann, Rachmaninoff and Strauss,” Swayne said. “The Canteloube is an interesting beast, because in some ways, he’s a contemporary of Strauss, but it’s also an exotic set of songs.”

Fleming’s work with Barber is an example of her generic cross-over work, Swayne said.

“It’s not atypical for operatic singers reaching the end of their careers to do cross-over work, and Fleming has been doing more of that. [Cross-over work] is part and parcel of what happens at this point in her career. I believe she’s doing less and less stage performances and more recitals such as this one at Dartmouth, as well as working with Chicago Lyric Opera,” Swayne said.

Fleming’s cross-over work is an indication not only of her transition in her career but also of her work as a musical ambassador helping expose audiences to the complexities of professional song. A large part of Fleming’s decisions in her program at Dartmouth was centered around exposing student audience members to certain kinds of music, Fleming said.

“The idea is to have exposure to this art form, the song recital, that’s so spectacular and intimate. The song recital has been the mainstay for the singer for a couple of centuries now. They’ve gone from being parlor songs, because everyone was an amateur musician at one point in history,[to being public events],” Fleming said. “While things have changed, I still think there’s so much pleasure to be gained from this— the marriage of music and poetry.”

In order to better help her audience understand the music, Fleming requested projected supertitles translating her songs during the performance, Lawrence said.

“It’s amazing not only because she’s so extraordinarily talented, but because she has a great passion for really helping people understand the music. [Her request for supertitles] is just a great insight into her communicating her passion,” Lawrence said.

Jordana Composto ’16, a music major, also emphasized Fleming’s role in helping ground classical and operatic music for modern audiences.

“She’s an incredible vocalist who really embodies the idea that knowing how to sing and knowing how to sing well can be applied to any different genre,” Composto said. “She very much brings the opera classic world down to earth a little bit, even though it tends hold itself separate.”

Most people who are trained as classical singers and pursuing opera as a career can find it difficult to figure out how to sing different types of music after their voices have been trained to sing in a certain way, Composto said. Fleming’s ability to sing various genres of music and her work on cross-over music, while also being well-established at such a place as Metropolitan Opera, helps make the opera world very accessible, Composto said.

“There is a perception that opera, and classical music in general, is snotty and unattainable, but none of that is true because it was all written for contemporary public of that time— similar to how Shakespeare was written for the public, and he’s now perceived as some high brow, hyper-intellectual brand,” Composto said. “She’s incredibly talented, but you can really get into anything she sings, and for her to come to Dartmouth is an incredible experience. Having the opportunity to hear her is an amazing door to classical music for this campus.”

Fleming performed for a sold-out show and conducted a question and answer session after her performance.