Opera Star Renée Fleming on Her New Broadway Album, Love of Joni Mitchell and the Time She Demo'd With The Roots
Renée Fleming may be known internationally as one of the opera world’s foremost grande dames, but her talents have never been confined only to the classical stage. Since April, Broadway audiences have been embracing the four-time Grammy-winning soprano in the Tony-nominated revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel.
As Nettie Fowler, Fleming gets to sing the show’s best-known song, “You’ll Never Walk Alone,” and scored a Tony nomination for Best Featured Actress in a Musical. Carousel (which closes Sept. 16) is actually Fleming’s second Broadway stint after her debut in 2015’s Living on Love -- and yet another example of how the diva, who has delved into jazz and rock on her many recordings, defies the conventions of her genre. Her profile has grown exponentially, too, thanks to performances at former President Barack Obama’s 2008 inauguration, Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee in 2012 and, earlier this month, Sen. John McCain’s memorial service.
Fleming’s Carousel experience helped lay the groundwork for her new album, Broadway (out Sept. 7 on Decca Classics) which finds her singing tunes by Stephen Sondheim, Andrew Lloyd Webber and other musical theater greats. The collection is also refreshingly current, with showstoppers from 2014’s Violet and 2017’s Dear Evan Hansen among its 17 tracks. Fleming spoke with Billboard about her omnivorous attitude towards music, why she's revisiting Joni Mitchell, and her advice for anyone who can't get a Hamilton ticket.
Broadway means a lot of different things to many people. What was your thought process when it came to selecting music?
I wanted to represent the composers I liked, and a few that I know. I also wanted to choose pieces that represent women I could portray. The wealth of riches and treasures one finds now on Broadway have a stylistic variety that’s extraordinary. I think some people come to New York and think if they can’t get tickets to Hamilton, they might as well give up. I’d tell them to keep tasting, keep trying. There’s a dish out there for everyone.
The newest show represented is Dear Evan Hansen. What was it about “So Big, So Small,” performed in the show by Evan’s mom, Heidi, that spoke to you?
It’s really a fabulous piece, and so relevant to anyone who’s ever had children and gotten divorced. It’s such an emotional moment. I could hardly get through it.
You’ve teamed up with Hamilton star Leslie Odom Jr. for a medley of “Children Will Listen” and “You’ve Got to Be Taught” from Into the Woods and South Pacific, respectively. How did that come about?
When I can’t decide between songs, I start thinking about what I can put together, and this is definitely a case of that. Given the climate we’re in now, the pieces go together in that sense, too. And Leslie is a lovely colleague. He knew what he wanted and how to get it. He’s a fantastic singer – so charismatic, so elegant in every way. He’s got it all.
What’s been the biggest takeaway from your Broadway experience?
The sense of community among the performers and the people who make theater come alive. I couldn’t believe the Tony Awards season -- it has such an intense structure around it. I call it the “city within a city.” The classical music world is way more spread out.
Many people seem to view the opera world as isolated, and yet you’ve defied that stereotype…
There’s no reason why what we do is inaccessible. Every single TV show that’s about singing… a 14-year-old will sing a classical piece, and people cry and cheer and stand up. And yet it’s true that in the mainstream world, we’re not terribly welcome. I’d love to see that change.
Who are you listening to right now?
I’ve been listening a lot to Kurt Elling’s new album, American Tune. I was with [composer] Nico Muhly the other night, so I’ve been listening to some of his music right now, which is incredibly beautiful. I’m also revisiting Joni Mitchell’s Travelogue. I’m very interested in the orchestrations from that record.
Is there a musical realm you’re still eager to delve into?
I recorded a demo for a Roots album some years ago that we never finished, and I don’t know if we ever will. I’d love to do perky, cute things, but it’s a bit of a stretch. I’m interested in a broad variety of music. I love doing new things, so I keep an open mind.
At this stage of your career, what keeps you inspired?
It’s not hard: I love what I do. I’m just in awe of other talented people, and it makes me curious about how they do what they do. Judy Collins came to see Carousel the other night, and we went out afterward. I was able to tell her that her new track, “Dreamers,” is so beautiful. And I’m inspired by the fact that she’s still in such great shape!