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Hold Up! Renée Fleming Is Not Retiring From Opera

Soprano Renée Fleming is looking forward to many more years performing opera.
Angela Weiss
AFP/Getty Images
Soprano Renée Fleming is looking forward to many more years performing opera.

The opera firmament was shaken yesterday when a New York Times article, headlined "The Diva Departs: Renée Fleming's Farewell to Opera," landed online.

The lengthy piece gave the impression that Fleming, a beloved star of classical music and one of the most successful sopranos of her generation, was ready to call it quits as far as opera was concerned. Her ostensible final performance would come on May 13 in Richard Strauss' Der Rosenkavalierat New York's Metropolitan Opera.

The 3,000-word article begins with a wistful prelude probing Rosenkavalier's themes of farewell and letting go. What follows are phrases such as "Her departure is a watershed moment for her extravagant, expensive art form ... " and "So Ms. Fleming is trying to say goodbye on her own terms," and "She isn't temperamentally inclined to share her regrets, but on the eve of her farewell she offered a few." But also this: "Rosenkavalier may well be her farewell to staged opera. She will sing her final performance on the afternoon of Saturday, May 13."

The key word here is "may." Truth be told, Fleming has no plans to quit opera at all.

"I never said that I was stepping away from the opera stage for good. Never, never, never did I say that to anybody," Fleming insisted in a phone conversation from her home in New York City earlier today.

"I think it misleads people," she added. "They sort of imagine that I'm an opera singer and I'm now retiring. So I just want to make sure that gets cleared up." Fleming said she told the newspaper she was interested in pursuing new operas and had received proposals from composers.

What Fleming is also clear about are her plans to shelve a number of roles she's practically owned over the last decades, including Rosenkavalier's Marschallin, the title role in Dvořák's Rusalka and Desdemona in Verdi's Otello. Her schedule, she says, is booked for the next two years, including appearances at the Met in 2019, and she's "in talks" with the Los Angeles Opera about a new role and a new production.

"As long as you're singing well, there's no reason to stop. I just sang a sold-out show with Plácido [Domingo] in Tokyo," she said.

Rumors about Fleming's retirement from opera have circulating for some time. That's why opera mavens, seeing the Times' article, might have thought that now the curtain was finally falling. That sentiment was evident in many of readers' comments, where fans lamented her farewell.

"There's been press about this now for last couple of years floating around," Fleming says. "I think it started with some paper in London, but it's inaccurate."

Fleming has guarded her vocal resources carefully, singing roles that fit her creamy, lyric soprano as well as her designer gowns suit her elegance. Critics have complained of vocal mannerisms cropping up, but her instrument has remained remarkably intact.

"My voice has not gotten lower," she says. "In some ways I wish it had, then it would open other kinds of roles to me. It's really just the same."

Although she's excited about much new opera being written today, Fleming laments that standard repertoire roles for a lyric soprano of a certain age are few. She's also concerned about her looks in front of high-definition cameras.

"Unfortunately, the repertoire for my voice is mostly young girls. And it's really important at this point, in the day of HD, to make sure that you're not too far away from that ideal," she observes. "I can still sing Rusalka and a lot of the Massenet repertoire. But would I? No, at this point."

Given the demands of opera, which Fleming calls "an Olympian sport," she has slowly been cutting back on her staged performances, doing a couple per year. Instead she's focused on concerts, recitals and recordings. Last November, she premiered Letters from Georgia, a new song cycle written for her by Pulitzer-winning composer Kevin Puts, which may be getting an operatic expansion. She's also just released Distant Light, an album featuring another new song cycle composed for her and three songs by Björk.

"I don't understand the focus on opera," she says about the thrust of the Times story, especially the headline. "I guess it's because it's the New York Times and the Metropolitan Opera is here, it becomes very, sort of, myopic." But overall she liked the article: "I'm not upset. I think the profile is wonderful. It's one of the more balanced portrayals in that [writer Charles McGrath] sort of got who I am."

"I don't know why they insisted on that headline," she concludes. "I guess it's more controversial."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Tom Huizenga is a producer for NPR Music. He contributes a wide range of stories about classical music to NPR's news programs and is the classical music reviewer for All Things Considered. He appears regularly on NPR Music podcasts and founded NPR's classical music blog Deceptive Cadence in 2010.