Renée Fleming, who sings with the Minnesota Orchestra on Friday, has become the friendly face of opera in America.
There was never a time when Renée Fleming doubted she would sing again with the Minnesota Orchestra. She followed the almost-two-year labor-management turmoil from afar and understood the pain, but she said last week, “I always thought it would work out.”
It has and Fleming — among the most celebrated opera voices currently working — will perform with the ensemble at Orchestra Hall on Friday, headlining “Starry, Starry Night,” a gala benefit concert for an orchestra that begins its first full season since 2011-12. All the $1,000 tickets to the fundraiser have been sold, so you will need to content yourself with something at the $500, $250 or $75 level.
Following the concert, the orchestra’s Grammy award for one of its Sibelius recordings will be unveiled in the lobby.
Fleming will sing four segments of the program, which features the orchestra and music director Osmo Vänskä. Included are selections from “West Side Story” and two arias from Italian operas. The weightiest moment will be her performance with the orchestra of “The Strand Settings,” a newer work by Swedish composer Anders Hillborg.
Fleming debuted “The Strand Settings” last year at Carnegie Hall with the New York Philharmonic. This will be the piece’s second performance, and the first time that Hillborg’s work has been heard in Minnesota. He composed “The Strand Settings” in 2012, using texts by Canadian writer Mark Strand, and dedicating the piece to Fleming.
“It’s no accident that the Hillborg is in the program,” Fleming said. “I was pleased Osmo wanted to do it, and it seemed important to have some gravitas for this event.”
Taking it to the people
Fleming has become, by design or accident, the beaming smile and ringing voice of American opera. She has welcomed chances to expand her audience, have fun at her own expense and show the world that divas can get down — a little.
You heard her voice in “The Lord of the Rings” and on the Joe Jackson song “Lullaby.” She has helped the Count count numbers on “Sesame Street” and sung the Top 10 List on the “Late Show With David Letterman.” In July she made her straight acting debut playing — what else? — an opera diva in the comedy “Living on Love” at the Williamstown Festival in Massachusetts. Critic Rex Reed commented that he had no fears about her acting ability, “But who knew she was so funny?”
Oh, and she made sure to tell a reporter that she will release “Christmas in New York,” a holiday CD, on Oct. 14.
By far, though, it was one performance that brought Fleming’s grace and talent into American living rooms. On Feb. 2, she sang the national anthem at the Super Bowl.
“There were 110 million people watching,” she said. “If you added up the audiences from my entire career, and then added all the other audiences that all my colleagues have ever sung for, you might reach that number.”
Despite her celebrated experience, she said the Super Bowl was “pretty terrifying” in the moment.
“You realize that if anything goes wrong, it’s going to be in your obituary,” she said.
Back in Minnesota
Fleming made her debut with the Metropolitan Opera in 1991 and has sung about 50 operas worldwide. Signature roles include the title character in “Rusalka,” the Marschallin in “Der Rosenkavalier” and Violetta in “La Traviata.” This December, she returns to the Met in a new staging of “The Merry Widow,” directed by Susan Stroman. The Met season was threatened by collective bargaining turmoil also, until settlements were made just weeks ago.
“It was hugely contentious, but I hope everything is calm now and people can come back and work,” she said.
Fleming likes the recital circuit and gets to Minnesota on what seems to be an informal five-year cycle. She was last here in a 2010 Schubert Club program. In 2000, she and the Minnesota Orchestra premiered “Valentines,” a song cycle by Aaron Jay Kernis with the Minnesota Orchestra, an event she called “hugely memorable.”