Mother, Diva, Entrepreneur and More: A Conversation With Renée Fleming

Renee-Fleming-operaHistorically, great opera divas did one thing well — sing.

They struggled to juggle international success with other life opportunities. Renée Fleming has smashed this mold.

She is not only the world’s greatest soprano, Fleming is also a savvy entrepreneur, author, cross-over rock singer and creative consultant for the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Fleming’s most important roles though relate to family. She’s raised two great daughters, 17 and almost 20, and recently married a top lawyer in Washington, D.C.

Returning to NYC from a demanding summer abroad, which included performances in Paris, at Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee and recording songs in eight — count them eight— different languages, to a day filled with staff meetings, an acupuncture appointment for her ailing 13-year-old Cavalier King Charles spaniel, she spoke with Make It Better:

What is best and worst about being the world’s greatest soprano?

I feel incredibly fortunate to have come this far. The greatest luxury is being able to choose your projects.

Really, the travel is the most difficult. I spend 100 percent more time on the support required for my career — planning and programming, press, packing gowns and travel — than on singing.

Speaking of gowns, Oscar De La Renta designed the stunning one you wore for the Queen’s Jubilee. Who are your other favorite designers?

I’ve worked with some of the best; their imaginations are inspired by the concept of the Diva (which means Goddess on stage) and I get to play dress up for life!

For gowns, I wore Gianfranco Ferré for many years, and recently have focused more on Angel Sanchez and Douglas Hannant.  I’ve also had the honor of working with: Reem Acra, Vera Wang, John Galliano for Dior, Karl Lagerfeld for Chanel, Issey Miyake, Vivienne Westwood and Christian Lacroix.

And for less formal events, such as interviews and hosting, I wear the above designers plus: Damir Doma, Yohji Yamamoto, Akris and Escada.

My jewelry designer is Ann Ziff for Tamsen Z., and I’m pleased to be an ambassador for Rolex.

Raising two level-headed daughters in NYC, as a single mother who travels, can be very demanding. To what do you attribute this personal success? 

Renee-Fleming-daughters-operaOur great sacrifice was that I couldn’t be home every day though I sing very little opera during the school year so that I can be home as much as possible. However, we have always communicated extremely well and I’m incredibly fortunate to have such loving children.

As my daughters said to me recently — I am emotionally there for them in every way, despite the fact that my life is so demanding and unusual. We talk about absolutely everything.

Also, the girls have travelled with me to every continent and many countries, so this exposure has actually helped my children learn to be self-sufficient and poised. As long as they feel secure in our relationship, there are advantages to my work.

Was your mom, a music teacher, there for you too?

In every way, yes! We traveled together, performed together, and even had horses and briefly, a monkey. Both of my parents were public high school music teachers, I had a very rich childhood.

We’re so pleased that you’ve become Creative Consultant to the Lyric Opera of Chicago and strengthened your ties to our great city. Please tell us more about your goals. 

I have always loved Chicago and now working with Lyric brings me a new opportunity to embark on a fascinating journey behind the scenes, rather than on stage.

Our mission is really to help preserve the art form through stellar programming and outreach, among other things. The real imperative is to make sure that everyone has at least some exposure to the classical arts.

Lyric’s music theater initiative interests me because this is repertoire that has earned the right to be classical as well; meaning it has stood the test of time. I’m also particularly excited about playing Blanche Dubois in André Previn’s opera of Tennessee Williams’ “A Streetcar Named Desire” this season.

My other initiatives at Lyric seek to use our gorgeous Civic Opera house more on dark nights, find and support even more young talent as we’ve done with the Merit School of Music, and commission new works, as with the recent announcement of “Bel Canto” — a new opera based on the book by Ann Patchett.

And, I’m thrilled with the upcoming Second City collaboration! Other than professional sports, Second City is the best-known entertainment brand out of Chicago. With luck, this will encourage different audiences to try opera as well.

We yearn to know — how do you do it all so well? 

Honestly, I’m never on top of things any more — I’m behind on everything!

What I’m trying to accomplish takes multi-tasking to a new level. I can visualize it by saying that I have a line of little balls, which I’m trying to move forward a little bit each day.

Finally, please tell us about your new compilation album, “The Art Of Renee Fleming,” which was released on Sept. 11. 

The songs are a great introduction to opera and the soprano voice, as they include many of the most popular arias, and all of my best-selling hits .


Also by Renee Fleming, “The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer,” an autobiography of her voice and career. And Susan’s favorite album, “Dark Hope.”

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