Alec Baldwin: Renée Fleming as a powerful effect on people. Conductor Sir Georg Solti described the opera singer’s voice as "double cream." Garrison Keillor said she made his nostrils twitch. New York chef Daniel Boulud created a signature dessert to honor her, but Renée Fleming is down to earth. When the “people’s diva,” as she’s been called, went to Paris to rehearse Handel’s Alcina, one of her favorite roles, she spent most of the first week looking for playgrounds for her two young daughters.
Renée grew up in Rochester, New York, where both her parents were high school music teachers. During the first two years of her life, while in her playpen, Renée would listen while her mother gave singing lessons. A few years later Renée organized a barber shop trio with her younger sister and brother. One might say Renée Fleming was born into music.
Renée Fleming: I often refer to myself as an indentured servant because we grew up with it. My parents were both – we all sang all the time. We’d take a family cross country trip and be singing the road signs and in harmony, and I thought everybody did that. We’re just like, 'Oh, this is what families do.'
Alec Baldwin: Or your friends would get in the car with your family and it was like, 'Oh, I’m with these crazy Flemings?'
Renée Fleming: Exactly.
Alec Baldwin: 'Those Flemings, they sing to the trees and they sing to exit signs and –'
Renée Fleming: And we talked about singing.
Alec Baldwin: Did you feel like this was your way to communicate with your own parents?
Renée Fleming: Well, interestingly, my dad was a big jazz fan. My mother didn’t bring music home much at all. She wanted a break from it when she came home. Other than when we performed, she prepared us. I think her idea was that we would be the next Von Trapps. My father, thank God, put the kibosh and said, 'No. I don’t think so.'
Alec Baldwin: Let me guess. Your mother was the competitive one.
Renée Fleming: She was very Type A. She’s Czech and my grandmother and my aunts were all like this. They would come over and they just – the work ethic was unbelievable. I think I work hard. No, no, no, no. They used to look at me and say, 'Renée, you really need to step it up,' and I see myself doing the same thing with my two daughters. So I sort of can’t help it, but the music thing, it was just so natural for us, and my way of rebelling against it was to find my own music. So I became a composer. In middle school I started writing songs and then –
Alec Baldwin: You played piano?
Renée Fleming: I played piano. I played guitar.
Alec Baldwin: And what kind of music did you write? Were like Joni Mitchell music or were you writing –
Renée Fleming: Yeah. It was singer – what we call now singer/songwriter, but I also wrote art songs that I actually notated and wrote out that other people sang. In that time women weren’t particularly encouraged to be composers. In a different setting that might have been the direction I would have gone in ‘cause I loved it and it suited my temperament much better than performing. I was so shy. Performing was so far away from who I really was.
Alec Baldwin: A specific opera – the first opera – if you can recall, ‘cause I remember the first movie I went to see in a movie theater. What was the first opera that you became aware of?
Renée Fleming: I would say – gosh – Suor Angelica is what I remember because my mother performed it and we were in the first row, and this is the Eastman Theater. So first of all I was incredibly impressed by the theater – this massive chandelier, all the velvet – I took a violin because of the velvet in the case. So we were nothing if not superficial, I guess. I didn’t really know anything about the story, but she was crying, and she was crying because she was singing about her dead baby and wanting to be joined with her baby again, and just looking at her three children in front of her. Somehow, I think that really impressed me.
Alec Baldwin: Did you ever imagine at that time, in middle school and you’re seeing this piece, that that would be a path for you that you would end up where you are now?
Renée Fleming: Gosh. No. Nobody really asked kids in those days 'What do you want? What would you like to do?' You just went along. I know so many people in my generation who applied to three colleges and never gave it much thought and really – the way we raise children now is worlds apart from how we were raised.
Alec Baldwin: 'How do you feel,' we say. 'How do you feel?' My parents couldn’t give a damn how I felt, really.
Renée Fleming: No. The only thing I thought that I wanted to be was the president. So there was, I’d say, a kernel of ambition there [laughs].
Alec Baldwin: In the world I was in it was doctor, lawyer, or if you were of a more working class background a job that just gave you security and a pension – the Long Island Rail Road, the police department, the fire department. You learn very quickly to choose from a menu. Actor was not on the menu –
Renée Fleming: On the menu. Right.
Alec Baldwin: – that I was – that was submitted to me.
Renée Fleming: Well, I went into music ed., like my parents. So that’s another thing you did. You followed your parents ‘cause you couldn’t think of anything else to do and then when those singing became more interesting, in particularly jazz, when I really found myself in – through singing with – in a club every weekend for two and a half years. Then my parents got nervous. 'Oh, it’s so hard. It’s too competitive.'
Alec Baldwin: Then what happens when you’re writing songs – popular music or whatever – you said singer/songwriter – whether it’s Carol King or what have you, and you’re singing in jazz in night clubs in Rochester? Clubs there?
Renée Fleming: No. In Potsdam where I went to undergraduate school.
Alec Baldwin: Is Potsdam a hot bed of jazz nightclubs?
Renée Fleming: No. It’s a college hot bed and the drinking age was 21, so we –
Alec Baldwin: Clubs.
Renée Fleming: Yes. So we all spent a lot of time in clubs and this particular Alger’s Pub had very high quality jazz all the time and the guys that I worked with are all working musicians. It was an extraordinary education for me in many, many ways. That’s how I learned – it’s how I was able to embrace performing because Illinois Jacquet heard me sing in Potsdam and said, 'Why don’t you come on the road? We’ll come to New York and really do –'
Alec Baldwin: Illinois Jacquet?
Renée Fleming: Yes. Yes. A great tenor saxophone player was really gonna put me on the map as a jazz singer and I just knew I didn’t have the courage.
Alec Baldwin: You could have been a popular singer. You could have – where do you take the turn where you’re saying, 'I’m gonna – opera is it now?' What happened?
Renée Fleming: Had I grown up in New York City, the singer/songwriter thing might have opened – doors might have opened. I sang on television in high school winning some talent show literally playing a song that I wrote. Making the decision to go into graduate school that solidified my path.
Alec Baldwin: Graduate school was where?
Renée Fleming: At Eastman.
Alec Baldwin: So you went from Potsdam –
Renée Fleming: I went back home.
Alec Baldwin: – you went back home.
Renée Fleming: Yeah. I went back home for two years.
Alec Baldwin: You’re still a little shy. You’re still coming out of your shell.
Renée Fleming: Yeah. Then I tried to pursue jazz then and that didn’t work despite the fact that Eastman had a phenomenal jazz department. I just couldn’t get in. I couldn’t break in. So it was really circumstance that pushed me towards classical music and eventually I really embraced it, and the other thing is I realized it was much more suited to my temperament. I liked being in the practice room. I liked studying. I enjoyed wrestling with this instrument alone.
Alec Baldwin: It was harder.
Renée Fleming: I don’t know that it was harder, but it was more internal cerebral work. The interesting thing about jazz or anything popular – you see it was very personality driven and I just didn’t have that. I think I do now. Interestingly, I’ve come out of my shell. When I tell people I was extremely shy nobody believes me now.
Alec Baldwin: That’s a thing that people have to overcome.
Renée Fleming: Yes. Exactly. I found a lot of comedians to be –
Alec Baldwin: It’s therapeutic.
Renée Fleming: – extraordinarily serious and –
Alec Baldwin: And dry.
Renée Fleming: – and almost withdrawn sometimes, so yeah. I think sometimes we overcome things by going after the very thing that really eludes us. So certainly in my case that was it. I would observe friends who were comfortable at performing and I would just try to act like them. So that was – that worked.
Alec Baldwin: It’s interesting you say that. It’s an impersonation. Someone said to me, 'Well, how do you perform in the theater? Why is the theater so soothing to you,' and I say, 'Because I know that for two and a half hours I know exactly where I’m gonna be, exactly what I’m going to say, exactly what you’re going to say, and exactly how a room full of people is going to react to what I say.'
Renée Fleming: Huh, and you don’t feel performance pressure? ‘Cause I had terrible stage fright.
Alec Baldwin: I do feel the pressure in rehearsal. I feel the pressure to unearth, to get down to it, and get the work done, and if I feel that we got the work done then it’s orgasmic. I go out there in front of the audience and I’m like, 'Well, how’s everybody doing?' I’m really – I’m very happy.
Renée Fleming: Comfortable.
Alec Baldwin: Yeah. I think they’re gonna like it, but if I go out there and I’m a little bit hesitant ‘cause I’m thinking, 'I don’t think we got it.' But um, you do two years at Eastman and get a graduate degree there. Then what happens?
Renée Fleming: Then I went to Juilliard. I did post – listen –
Alec Baldwin: How did that work?
Renée Fleming: – I could be a doctor or a lawyer as long as I was in school.
Alec Baldwin: Right. I was gonna say, how does that work and why Juilliard?
Renée Fleming: Juilliard – at the time the American Opera Center is now the Juilliard Opera Center, I believe. It was a post graduate program. I was cast as Musetta in La Boheme. So I came here to sing a role. You get free lessons, coaching, all this support that we couldn’t otherwise afford. You’re a beginner and I worked in Rockefeller Plaza for a law firm – pay my rent and everything – and it was a great year. It was a phenomenal year.
Alec Baldwin: Did you say to yourself, 'Why didn’t I do this sooner?'
Renée Fleming: Yeah. Yes, ‘cause I was so happy. It was running around the city like a maniac –
Alec Baldwin: New York is fun.
Renée Fleming: – so active, and then I took a Fulbright grant and studied in Germany and that was hard.
Alec Baldwin: How long were you there?
Renée Fleming: A year.
Alec Baldwin: Where in Germany?
Renée Fleming: In Frankfurt.
Alec Baldwin: How was that?
Renée Fleming: It was important. It was probably one of the most crucial pieces in my education because it was so challenging, number one.
Alec Baldwin: Challenging how?
Renée Fleming: I didn’t speak a word of German when I went there. I was in Hochschule fur Musik and was not accepted into the opera department which was very disappointing to me. I cried the whole way there, literally sobbing.
Alec Baldwin: To Germany?
Renée Fleming: Yes, and my boyfriend at the time, who became my husband said, 'Well, don’t not go because of me,' and I remember thinking, 'God, that would be the furthest thing from my mind.' I was so self-possessed, but also clueless about the choices I was making. That’s why I wrote a book for young singers because if young singers or anyone of them like I was you just don’t know what you’re getting into, but I was also very lucky because that year turned out to be a very formative experience learning to speak fluent German.
Alec Baldwin: How many languages do you speak fluently?
Renée Fleming: Well, I studied French in high school like many of us did. That was the language. Paris is my second home and I sang there every year for a long time. So my French is – when I’m there – it picks up again and it’s good, but German is even more fluent and consistent.
Alec Baldwin: During that year you learned to speak fluently in that one year? You were forced to?
Renée Fleming: Well, I love the study of learning and of memory because what I’ve discovered is that at the end of the day my German was okay, was good, but every year, every time I go back it gets better, and I don’t have to speak a word of German in between. So the brain – those neurons – keep firing.
Alec Baldwin: Then you come back to Juilliard?
Renée Fleming: Yes, and I come back to Juilliard. I tried to stay in Germany. I tried to stay there and get work. No one would have me. So I came back and my career started here then.
Alec Baldwin: How?
Renée Fleming: Well, I had a rough couple of years of no man’s land which is very common with singers between education and the start of career. It’s very common for all of us really – all musicians – and there’s this Catch 22 where you can’t get management unless they can go hear you perform, but you can’t get a job if you don’t manage –
Alec Baldwin: Same in the acting world. Yeah. “Call me when you’re in a show and I’ll come see you.”
Renée Fleming: Yes. Yeah. That’s the manager you’re trying to get. So competitions were the things that helped me. I won the Met competition –
Alec Baldwin: Like showcases almost –
Renée Fleming: Exactly.
Alec Baldwin: – in the theater. Yeah.
Renée Fleming: For me it was the Met competition. It took me three times, but I finally won. All of sudden the doors opened, but it took about a year and a half, I’d say. Things went slowly, but steadily.
Alec Baldwin: And the first paid legit, professional job you had was doing what?
Renée Fleming: The first real engagement was in 1988 in the Houston Grand Opera and it was Marriage of Figaro, and that really put me on the map, and that was so important.
Alec Baldwin: Describe that.
Renée Fleming: I had never sung the opera in Italian. I’d sung it in English. So I went to rehearse with really seasoned professionals, people who were big opera stars already, and I was a beginner. The first day at rehearsal, Thomas Allen – particular Sir Thomas Allen – who’s got such an intelligence and a sophistication about his portrayal of all of these Mozart heroes. He’s still performing, I think, at the Royal Opera.
I was just jelly at the end of the first rehearsal because I thought, “I can’t even keep up with him.” Mozart recitative is really hard. Imagine doing very quick dialogue in a foreign language that you don’t speak, really, and I learned when you’re young you just learn.
Alec Baldwin: You’re doing it ‘cause you’re not thinking.
Renée Fleming: You do what you have to do – yeah – to keep up.
Alec Baldwin: I lifted the car off my baby because I had to lift the car off my baby to save my baby.
Renée Fleming: Exactly. Exactly, and when you get these opportunities you have to rise to the occasion and take a risk and get out there and really make it work or you don’t get the opportunity again. It’s so competitive – the field. I think all my horseback riding and doing horse shows as a kid really prepared me for that.
Alec Baldwin: And when the curtain – I don’t mean to be so melodramatic – but the world you live in, that lends itself to this – when the curtain comes down and the first show is over how did you feel?
Renée Fleming: Well, it’s unfortunately too long ago for me to remotely remember that, but I can tell you there was a euphoria in those early experiences, a sense of happiness and relief when I would go from one engagement to the other. Our world – we never stop. So there’s no you do a project and then you take a break.
Alec Baldwin: It’s all a big blur.
Renée Fleming: It’s just – after that – it’s a blur and –
Alec Baldwin: I say that to people. I say it’s all one big episode of a TV show to me now.
Renée Fleming: Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: And they’ll say, 'What was it like doing' – I’ll go, 'God. I don’t' – and I when I watch a film I remember events in my life at that time. A scene will come on and I’ll go, 'I remember that day. That was the day my contractor called me and told me a pipe burst at my house in Easthampton.' I don’t really dwell on the work.
Renée Fleming: Have you ever felt your roles and experiences somehow if they didn’t parallel your life they were helpful in some way?
Alec Baldwin: Two things. One is more tangible than the other. Someone – Melanie Griffith – years ago said to me that every role you play is the chance to bury that part of yourself that you don’t like, and the other thing I find is when God wants to make fun of me and to mock me I’ll get a script and what’s going on with that character is exactly what’s going on in real life. And I’ll the script and it’s almost God is saying to me, 'See. See. See how stupid it looks when it’s on paper?'
Renée Fleming: I have felt that a lot of times when I’ve been in any kind of conflict or struggle. Somehow the repertoire that I’m performing has just coincidently mirrored it in a way that’s been healing – let’s say healing.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin and I’m talking with singer Renée Fleming. More in a minute. This podcast is supported by Lincoln, presenting its new MKS. The 2013 Lincoln MKS uses censors to constantly monitor the vehicles suspension motion, body movement, steering and braking, adjusting the suspension to help keep the body of the vehicle quiet and on track. Lincoln’s sink technology with My Lincoln Touch was developed for customizable interaction.
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This is Alec Baldwin and you’re listening to Here’s the Thing today with Renée Fleming. In your work – because in my work it’s not this way – you can’t do what you do unless you summon up some reservoir of the deepest, deepest passion to sing these roles effectively. Think of a role you’ve performed where even you’ve sat there and go, 'God, this is killing me.'
Renée Fleming: Well –
Alec Baldwin: It just came out of you like you couldn’t believe it came out of you.
Renée Fleming: Well, there are two sides of it. One is the vocal. One is the feeling that, 'I’m in the right place at the right time to be singing this,' and the voice –
Alec Baldwin: What’s one of those?
Renée Fleming: Well, the voice is such an evolving instrument. So when I sang Thais, for instance, at the Met some years ago and had these spectacular costumes from Christian Lacroix, you just thought, 'The stars have lined to make this role suit me perfectly right now.' I love singing in French. I love massenet, the way it lies, the character, the fact that the psychological drama in this opera where these two people completely change places with each other, that was a case certainly where I just thought – and I was gonna do it again. And somebody stopped and said, 'Do you wanna sing it again in five years if it’s not as good as it was this time?' I said, 'You’re right. I’m not gonna risk that.'
Alec Baldwin: You felt it was good? You enjoyed it?
Renée Fleming: Oh, it was perfect. It was – I couldn’t do it better. So it’s not very often I can say that. I couldn’t do it better. Someone else maybe could do it better.
Alec Baldwin: Sure. Different.
Renée Fleming: But it was the best that I could do.
Alec Baldwin: But you said there was two things. The voice and what else?
Renée Fleming: The voice and then also what you bring artistically to anything. For instance, the Marschallin right now in Rosenkavalier evolves all the time for me. It’s not a vocal issue. It’s an artistic issue. It’s who she is, what’s she grappling with. Is she manic-depressive? Is she simply lonely?
She’s one of the most interesting characters in all of opera for women. How she was created by two men, I don’t know, but I’m grateful to have her. The other thing – I don’t know if you feel this squeeze, but you may. We’re squeezed between what’s commercial and popular, opera hits, and –
Alec Baldwin: Well, how has that changed? I was gonna ask you –
Renée Fleming: – and what’s artistic.
Alec Baldwin: How has that changed in the opera world during your career?
Renée Fleming: Well, there are two parts to it, ‘cause there’s one – there’s the titles. And I wasn’t born to sing, unfortunately, Madame Butterfly, Tosca –
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Renée Fleming: – Boheme. My voice isn’t – I’m not a lyrical spinto. I’m a lyric soprano. So my voice is too light for those parts unfortunately – if I could sing those roles then the success I’ve had with the public with have transferred over to the repertoire.
Alec Baldwin: Did you try to do them?
Renée Fleming: No.
Alec Baldwin: That kind of assignation happens in your world. People that are experts – who are technical experts – tell you that’s not your repertoire. They do.
Renée Fleming: Right. Well, and in trying to sing that repertoire it would have harmed my voice.
Alec Baldwin: I understand.
Renée Fleming: Or at the very least just not been heard. We’re not amplified. That’s a very important distinction between what we do and what everyone else does. So to try and build a career on titles that aren’t at the heart of the operas that people love is more challenging. On the other hand, the trend that I’ve seen since I started singing 20 years ago plus, is that people have been more interested in learning about pieces they didn’t know and experiencing pieces they didn’t know as opposed to going to the umpteenth Aida, for instance.
The other squeeze that I feel is virtuosity versus artistry, because people go to opera – the three tenors, case and point – for thrills, for vocal, for the thrill of what the human voice is capable of producing, and for tenors and sopranos it’s really, 'This is tenors and sopranos territory.' For us it’s the high note. It’s all about the high note. Are you gonna break glass? Are you gonna – is it gonna give us shivers? Are we gonna cry because you’ve just throbbed on that high C?
To figure out how to program so that one gets some of that without you really using up your principle and using up what it is that you have an/or interesting them in music that doesn’t have that, the music that’s more about poetry and prose and turning a phrase, that’s more subtle. I have gone back and forth between those two things my whole career.
Alec Baldwin: What’s one of the more popular, in your mind, in your range?
Renée Fleming: Oh, Traviata by far, by far. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: So Traviata’s that’s in the greatest hits category?
Renée Fleming: Exactly.
Alec Baldwin: And what is one that you might have been doubtful about or at the very least indifferent about that was – you were approached – and it turned out to be a wonderful experience where it was more esoteric?
Renée Fleming: I think Rodelinda – Handel’s Rodelinda. I was drawn to her because of the character, the story. She’s a mother; she’s courageous; she’s strong. It’s a masterpiece, this opera. It wasn’t known. It had never been done at the Met. So some of these titles, in a way, being given this place that I’ve had at the met for some time also give me the opportunity to say, 'What about this,' having done a lot of the standard repertory that I could sing. I’ve sung 54 roles. I’ve been saying 51. I was wrong. I recounted.
Alec Baldwin: Come out of your shell, Renée.
Renée Fleming: It was a miscount.
Alec Baldwin: Come out of your shell.
Renée Fleming: [Laughs] Yeah. I know.
Alec Baldwin: Leave the Algier Pub. Get out of the Algier Pub and start opening up.
Renée Fleming: It’s enough.
Alec Baldwin: You’re so unproductive. You’re so lazy.
Renée Fleming: I know. Exactly.
Alec Baldwin: You speak German. You speak French. How have opera audiences changed during your career, if at all?
Renée Fleming: I think the challenge we face in opera in general, and I would say forget opera and classical music. It’s really exposure. It used to be that we had exposure, obviously in schools. We had exposure through churches and through our families. Every socially climbing family got a piano and felt that a musical education was part – an arts education – was part of their children’s – the betterment of their lives, and that – it is what it is. It is gone. It’s simply – people don’t feel it’s relevant anymore.
Alec Baldwin: That breaks my heart when you say that, but it’s true. But in the 30 plus years – 33 years now – I’ve lived in Manhattan I’ve never seen anything like the world of opera in terms of the devotion, and they don’t have the money for these tickets. They don’t have $200.00, $250.00, $375.00, because opera costs money. The sets, the symphony, the orchestra, the music –
Renée Fleming: It’s the most expensive art form. Yeah.
Alec Baldwin: It’s the most expensive arts ticket that there is, and yet you see these people that are teachers. They put all their chips on this. They’re like, 'Oh, I have to come see Renée.' How do you feel about that?
Renée Fleming: I know you’re right.
Alec Baldwin: Do you feel a comparable thing from opera audience as unique to you?
Renée Fleming: Listen, the bloggers, the amount of investment, the emotional investment that people make in this art form is just – it’s way beyond anything else.
Alec Baldwin: And the criticism by no doubt I’m sure.
Renée Fleming: Yeah. Well, that’s what I mean. It’s off the charts, the passion, for better or for worse.
Alec Baldwin: Exactly.
Renée Fleming: I think it’s phenomenal. It’s funny because I can’t understand it. I’m too close and I’m too critical, obviously, because it’s my work. So when I go to the opera I wanna be swept away and sometimes I am. I’ve gone to the opera a couple times where I have literally been sobbing at the end and just have to pull myself together before –
Alec Baldwin: Can you say when?
Renée Fleming: Oh, yeah. Pique Dame. Pique Dame kills me. Queen of Spades. I am always shocked by that a cappella men’s course at the end. The way that opera is composed, the music, and Tchaikovsky’s final phrases. It just does something amazing to me.
Alec Baldwin: You still like living in New York?
Renée Fleming: Yeah, I guess.
Alec Baldwin: Or has your relationship to that changed over time?
Renée Fleming: Do you know, I’m – it’s funny. I have never felt like New York is my home, but it’s because we’re nomads. We – we’re – I’m very adaptable that way. I’m home where ever I am.
Alec Baldwin: You guys travel – in the classical music world, the symphonic as well as the opera – you guys travel more than anybody.
Renée Fleming: All the time. Yeah. All the time, and so when I am home I’m also inundated when I’m – because I’m gone so much.
Alec Baldwin: Catching up.
Renée Fleming: Yeah. So it’s not so much fun to be here. It will be when I get some rest.
Alec Baldwin: When you do a show, when you’re performing a piece, what’s the day like for you? Do you have a ritual?
Renée Fleming: I have a ritual. I do.
Alec Baldwin: And then – but how do you have a ritual when you have little children? That’s what I was really interested.
Renée Fleming: Well, my rituals –
Alec Baldwin: What’s Mommy’s ritual?
Renée Fleming: My – yes. I am really consistent about getting up with my kids no matter how late I’ve been up. So at 7:00 AM I’m up and 7:00 –
Alec Baldwin: Your kids are how old?
Renée Fleming: – 7:15. I only have one at home now. The other’s in college. So the one at home is 16 and –
Alec Baldwin: Good times. Right? Good times. I have a 16-year-old. It’s good times.
Renée Fleming: Yeah. It’s –
Alec Baldwin: We could write an opera about it.
Renée Fleming: Yes, yes, yes. It’s – okay. That’s another whole story, another whole story, mostly good. Mostly great.
Alec Baldwin: What does she wanna do? Does she wanna be in the biz?
Renée Fleming: She wants to sing pop music. That’s her real dream, and this kid sings all the time. So –
Alec Baldwin: What’s your older one doing?
Renée Fleming: She is in college in gender studies and she’s not exactly sure what she wants to do with that yet.
Alec Baldwin: Where’s she going?
Renée Fleming: She’s a very serious girl. She’s in Boston – very gifted and we’ll see.
Alec Baldwin: So what’s the routine then? Other than up at 7:00?
Renée Fleming: My routine is not to leave the apartment. Really, that’s it. I stay home. I stay off the phone. I’m phone phobic anyway. I almost never talk on the telephone and –
Alec Baldwin: Why?
Renée Fleming: My speaking voice is terrible for what I do. When you’re on a phone you automatically – you don’t hear your voice very often – and you automatically press just a little bit. It tires me. It’s fatiguing, and I get tense and – I don’t know. It’s all in my head really. It’s totally – it’s a made up one less pressure to have and the other thing I do – I get a lot of work done. I’m actually very productive on performance days ‘cause that’s when I sit there and I work.
Alec Baldwin: E-mail, whatever.
Renée Fleming: E-mail, study music, whatever.
Alec Baldwin: And then you go to the theater? And do you have a – do people in your field – do you have a warm up you do? I know nothing about that.
Renée Fleming: Well, I vocal – I try to vocalize earlier in the day ‘cause I find that it’s better for me a little bit just to see where it’s at. Some days –
Alec Baldwin: Do you avoid eating certain things, drinking certain things? Is –
Renée Fleming: I have to be careful about – I love caffeine. I would drink coffee all day and I have to be careful about that ‘cause it’s dehydrating. So I’ll have my typical – so and I – you have to force fluids a little bit, which I hate too. So all – these are the boring things.
Alec Baldwin: Well, not really ‘cause people I think are just interested in what kind of – the discipline. It’s complex. Most people can’t control what they eat and drink.
Renée Fleming: Yeah. There’s a little bit of that. Having the humidifier on. Making sure – it’s a lot about moisture. These are all mucus membranes. The vocal folds are very sensitive and you wanna go into the performance with them being super healthy and not dried out. We’re the Olympians of singers, really. You’ll have a three to five hour long performance and that takes a lot of physical stamina.
Alec Baldwin: You’re not at Fine Steins for an hour.
Renée Fleming: Yeah. It’s a lot of physical stamina, plus you’re emotionally all over the place. As you said it’s very –
Alec Baldwin: I can’t imagine.
Renée Fleming: But it’s mainly the amount of sound we have to produce to be heard over the orchestra and the chorus and a huge hall. That’s the thing that is different and if we sing well – if we sing technically well – we should be able to get up the next day and sound normal. People go to sports events and scream at the other team or even the people they like and they’re hoarse the next day. We can’t do that. We’re doing the same thing, but we’re doing it in a trained way, and it is a hard art form to get right. There are all these elements and it’s live, but when it’s right it’s amazing.
Alec Baldwin: Renée Fleming says she’s looking forward to getting some rest although it’s not clear when that will come. In addition to her busy performance schedule she recently became the creative consultant for the Lyric Opera in Chicago. They just announced an upcoming world premier opera based on the best seller Bel Canto and she’s been advocating for more arts education in schools.
Renée Fleming: It’s not just for people to be consumers of the arts. It’s for them to also participate, find their creative voices, and build confidence through participation.
Alec Baldwin: This is Alec Baldwin. Here’s the Thing is produced by WNYC radio. Special thanks this week to the Metropolitan Opera and the Houston Grand Opera for providing archival experts of Renée Fleming in performance.
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