CHICAGO -- A little over a quarter-century ago, a gifted soprano stepped onto the Lyric Opera stage for the first time, playing the title character in Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah."
Listeners were impressed.
"Fleming's creamy, flexible, steady soprano rose to the dramatic pages without compromising the purity of her lyrical singing," wrote my colleague John von Rhein, the Tribune's former classical music critic. "Her aria and ballad were ravishingly sung, welling up as from deep emotional pools."
Since then, Fleming has been much more than just another remarkable soprano with a luxuriant voice worth savoring regardless of repertoire. As Lyric Opera's first creative consultant, a post she assumed in 2010, she has helped reshape the company in tandem with general director, president and CEO Anthony Freud, music director and principal conductor Andrew Davis and others too numerous to name.
"Having lived in New York so long, I remember the first time I went into one of the stores downtown (Chicago), and (sales) people kept coming up and saying: 'Can I help you?'" recalls Fleming.
"I was so alarmed. I so wasn't used to that. My first thought as a New Yorker was: 'What. Do. You. Want?'" adds Fleming with a hearty laugh.
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Chicago's small-town-in-a-big-city ambience, in other words, took a little getting used to and helps explain, she believes, why she has developed such close and ever-deepening ties to Lyric, where she continues as creative consultant.
"Part of it is Chicago," says Fleming. "Part of it is who people are in the Midwest, the kind of down-to-earth warmth.
"I was also immediately impressed by the fact that the people who are supportive of the opera, those donors are supporting (other) organizations in Chicago. So there's this sharing of resources, of information, that does not happen in New York.
"In New York, people are very protective of their pet projects and institutions. And in Chicago, it's amazing to see how many people -- either the Ryans or the Crowns or other families are supportive of more than one major institution."