"America's Beautiful Voice", soprano Renée Fleming has a devoted international following wherever she appears, whether on the operatic stage, in concert or recital, on television, radio or on disc. 1999 brought a Grammy Award for her Decca recording, The Beautiful Voice which follows honours from Musical America (1997 Vocalist of the Year) and L'Academie du Disque Lyrique (1996, inaugural Solti Prize). Renée Fleming has been an exclusive recording artist with Decca since 1995. Sir Georg Solti, who conducted Renée Fleming's first solo aria recording for Decca, described the impact of her singing; "Quite apart from the sheer lyrical beauty of voice, she has an innate musicianship which makes every performance a great joy."
Renée Fleming's career has been built on success across a wide range of musical styles and this unparalleled diversity of excellence is reflected in her Decca recordings. Her recent releases illustrate perfectly just how varied are the roles and music that she likes to perform. The recording of one of her signature roles, Rusalka, made with Ben Heppner and the Czech Philharmonic Orchestra and conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras was released in Autumn 1998 to great international acclaim. Rusalka won awards such as two Gramophone Awards (as 'Record of the Year' and best 'Opera'), the Edison Award (Netherlands) and the Caecilia Award (Belgium)." Her other autumn 1998 release was "I Want Magic". This album, recorded in New York with James Levine and the Metropolitan Opera Orchestra, is a magnificent collection of American arias from, amongst others, Bernstein's Candide, Previn's new Opera A Streetcar Named Desire and Gershwin's Porgy and Bess. For Fleming, this was very much the music that she loved as a child and music which made her want to be a singer. Gramophone chose the disc as Record of the Month and said "Fleming's voice is sumptuous...she's surely destined to be one of the greats". Repértoire hailed her project as "The most beautiful manifesto imaginable for the last fifty years of American operatic creation."
Released earlier in 1998, The Beautiful Voice, a collection of Renée Fleming's favourite songs and arias, received that year's prize from L'Academie du Disque Lyrique as well as the 1999 Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Performance. Previous releases have been: Great Opera Scenes, with the London Symphony Orchestra conducted by Sir Georg Solti; Mozart's Don Giovanni in which she played Donna Anna alongside Bryn Terfel's Don, again conducted by Sir Georg Solti (both recordings received Grammy nominations); Mendelssohn's Elijah, again with Bryn Terfel, and a disc of Schubert Lieder with Christoph Eschenbach, piano. "Here's a singer who has reached complete maturity as a singer and artist, revelling in her vocal and interpretative powers", said Gramophone of Great Opera Scenes. Her 1996 collection of Mozart arias, with the Orchestra of St Luke's conducted by Sir Charles Mackerras received a Grammy nomination and her first Decca release was as Fiordiligi in Così fan tutte with the Chamber Orchestra of Europe and Sir Georg Solti.
"Fleming and Charles Mackerras together have a way of finding...the real emotional pulse of an aria, so that it is not just an example of virtuosity accomplished but of the human spirit vividly recreated." So wrote BBC Music Magazine of the Mozart arias disc. On hearing the same disc, The New York Times was inspired to write "Ravishing melodies, ravishingly sung...Ms. Fleming convincingly gives lie to those who maintain that the golden age of singing is past."
Renée Fleming was born in Indiana, Pennsylvania and grew up in Rochester, New York. Since both her parents were voice teachers, her musical training came naturally; "My parents discussed singing every night over the dinner table; I had a tremendous music education." However, Ms Fleming did not automatically assume that she would make her career in performing. For a time, she considered a career in music education and, while studying at the State University of New York, she took up singing with a jazz trio in an off-campus bar. As well as broadening her experience in performance and communication, the jazz performances brought Ms Fleming to the attention of legendary jazz saxophonist, Illinois Jacquet, who was so moved by her singing that he invited her on tour with his big band. Instead Renée Fleming went on to graduate studies at both the Eastman School of Music and The Juilliard School. Her early awards included winning the 1988 Metropolitan Opera National Auditions, the Richard Tucker Award, the George London Prize, the Grand Prix at the International Singing Competition in Belgium and a Fulbright Scholarship to Germany.
Ms Fleming's break came in 1988 when she was invited to sing the Countess at the Houston Grand Opera; the following year she made debuts with the New York City Opera and Covent Garden and 1991 saw her Metropolitan Opera debut. She has had success in roles across the operatic spectrum, always relishing a new challenge. In 1997 Ms Fleming sang her first Manon in Paris at the Opéra de la Bastille (and again at the Metropolitan Opera later that year). Singing this French work in Paris was a brave step which won her glowing reviews. The Times wrote "Challenges do not come much larger than Manon, especially when sung in Paris. But Fleming took the risk...and the result was a personal triumph."
In addition to her many appearances at New York's Metropolitan Opera, Renée Fleming's voice has resounded throughout the distinguished opera houses and concert venues of the world. As well as her accomplishments singing central repertoire, Ms. Fleming, a great champion of new music, performed in the World Première of John Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles with the San Francisco Opera, in the Lyric Opera of Chicago's first performances of Floyd's Susannah and, most recently, as Blanche in the World Première of André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, also with the San Francisco Opera.
In November 1998, she starred in The Marriage of Figaro at the Metropolitan Opera, conducted by James Levine and co-starring Cecilia Bartoli and Bryn Terfel. The New York Times said of her performance on the first night: "'Porgi amor' was a flood of beautiful sound; the climactic tones of 'Dove sono' made the body tingle."
1999 began with an international recital tour; in the US the schedule included dates at Carnegie Hall and Chicago's Symphony Hall. She managed to leave audiences everywhere wanting still more, even though she regularly returned to sing half an hour of encores. The Toronto Globe and Mail described her remarkable performance there: "Fleming's lyric soprano has the one thing that every great singer needs, an unmistakable, distinctive, individual timbre. Commanding intelligence and musicianship take the gift even further, allowing her to interpret ad communicate on the highest level." In Europe Renée Fleming collaborated with pianist Christoph Eschenbach in a Paris recital and went on to perform in Milan, Vienna and Copenhagen.
In April 1999, she returned to the MET for a production of Carlisle Floyd's Susannah, conducted by James Conlon, before returning to Paris for the remainder of the spring for a production of Alcina at the Bastille, conducted by William Christie. Following the summer's stage and concert performances in Paris, Germany and the Czech Republic, Ms Fleming returned to the US to concentrate on operatic roles: in September 1999 she sang Louise in San Francisco; in November, Alcina in Chicago and in December she appeared at the MET to prepare for one of her signature roles, the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. She also sung the Marschallin in London's Covent Garden in March 2000.
Renée Fleming's late 1999/early 2000 release on Decca was Strauss Heroines, a disc of operatic scenes from Der Rosenkavalier, Arabella and Capriccio with the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra conducted by Christoph Eschenbach where Ms Fleming was joined by Barbara Bonney and Susan Graham. She has also recorded the title role in Massenet's Thaïs for release in 2000.
Alongside her operatic and recital recording schedule, Renée Fleming has reserved some time to catch up with her other musical love and plans to record a jazz album. Away from the stage she has recorded two arias for the soundtrack to the Fox Searchlight film of "A Midsummer Night's Dream". She has also been featured across the US as one of Anne Klein's Important Women in a prestigious major advertising campaign for the designer and was the subject of a widely watched CBS 60 minutes broadcast in April 1999. She is featured in a new millennium book by photographer Annie Leibovitz focusing on the twentieth century's most influential women.
Classic CD magazine captured something of the essence of Renée Fleming's unique personality: "Fleming has the natural girl-next-door approachability but she still maintains the presence of the diva." But for the woman Vogue described as "the most gorgeous and busiest opera star on the circuit", achieving a satisfying balance between commitments to work and home is essential and she endeavours to lead a normal life despite the demands of her international career. Renée Fleming knows that the real stars in her Connecticut home are her two young daughters.