Renee Fleming is among the most widely admired American singers of the late twentieth and early twenty-first centuries. She has a wide variety of roles in her repertoire, and works to maintain a balance between Mozart roles, such as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro, with heavier ones such as Desdemona in Verdi's Otello, in order to preserve both nuance and power in her voice. She is an especially noted Ellen Orford, Rusalka, Amelia in Simon Boccanegra, and Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier. She created the role of the Countess in Corigliano's The Ghosts of Versailles in 1991, that of Madame Tourvel in Conrad Susa's Dangerous Liaisons in 1994, and Blanche in Andre Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire in 1998, and won both the George London and the Richard Tucker Prizes.
Fleming's parents were both high school vocal music teachers, and she describes her mother's influence as that of the "classic stage mother"; she was made to sing in any musical function that came up. While she dislikes the fact that singing became a chore, she later found the discipline that it instilled to be useful to her as a professional. In 1981, she graduated from State University of New York at Potsdam with a degree in music education, and continued her musical studies at the Eastman School of Music, which she credits with giving her a strong academic and theoretical background as well as continued vocal training.
From 1983 to 1987, she was enrolled in the American Opera Center at Juilliard, where she met Beverley Johnson, the voice teacher with whom she would continue to study throughout her career. Fleming also recalls with admiration the year she spent studying lieder with Arleen Auger, on a Fulbright Scholarship.
In 1986 she made her professional opera debut in Die Entüfhrung aus dem Serail in Salzburg. Singing Constanze, one of the most difficult roles in the soprano repertoire, made her recognize that her vocal technique still needed work, as did her self-confidence to perform in public. She worked on both with renewed determination, and two years later, in 1988, she won the Met National Council Auditions and the George London Prize (in the same week) and the Eleanor McCollum Competition in Houston.
She sang the Countess in Mozart's Le Nozze di Figaro at the Houston Grand Opera (starting a long time association with that house), made her New York City Opera debut in 1989 as Mimi in La Bohème, and made her Covent Garden debut as Glauce in Cherubini's Medea later that same year. In 1991, she made her Met debut, stepping in for an indisposed Felicity Lott as the Countess in The Marriage of Figaro. The Countess became her calling card, and she made her San Francisco debut later that year in the same role, as well as her 1993 Vienna State Opera and 1994 Glyndebourne debuts. Her 1993 La Scala debut was as Donna Elvira (Don Giovanni).
Since that time, Fleming has been in constant demand in opera houses worldwide. The combination of vocal beauty, stylistic versatility and uncommon commitment to dramatic portrayal has worked to make her an instant draw anywhere she appears. An appearance in Verdi's Otello or in Handel's Alcina is likely to be equally satisfying -- the same cannot be said for many singers.