Renee Fleming: After 25 years in Chicago, much more than a remarkable soprano

Howard Reich, Chicago Tribune on

Published in Entertainment News

It would take quite awhile to articulate all that Fleming has given Lyric and the city, but several examples stand out.

"The curation of 'Bel Canto' was enormously valuable," says Freud, referring to the 2015 world premiere of composer Jimmy Lopez's and librettist Nilo Cruz's politically charged opera, based on Ann Patchett's novel of the same name.

"And of course, 'Bel Canto' marked our return to the national TV screens for the first time in (more than) 20 years," adds Freud, referring to the "Great Performances" PBS broadcast in 2017.

Then there was "Chicago Voices," a vast community outreach project that connected Lyric with singers of multiple genres and culminated in a multifaceted concert in February 2017. Never before had the likes of Fleming, tenor Matthew Polenzani, blues diva Shemekia Copeland, folk legend John Prine, rapper Lupe Fiasco and others shared the Lyric stage in a concert also subsequently broadcast on PBS.

"'Chicago Voices' would be the other thing I'm really proud of," says Fleming, for whom embracing alternative sounds "always has been important to me. I love singers in different genres. I hope we continue that collaboration with other kinds of singers, other kinds of music. I think it's important to continue to do that. I think we've brought in a new audience.

"Audience development has always been the focus that I have, and I think people were very excited by that. Ironically, the thought behind that was to bring opera back into the mainstream conversation."


Meaning that Fleming believes the project had somewhat the reverse effect, drawing mainstream musical idioms -- and their passionate devotees -- into the supposedly rarefied world of the opera house.

But Fleming's efforts here have pushed into other realms, as well. Freud points out that both Lyric Unlimited, which presents contemporary opera in smaller houses off campus, and Lyric's musicals initiative "arose at the start of her tenure as creative consultant -- they were part of our original discussions with her."

And the "Second City Guide to the Opera" -- another Fleming inspiration -- attracted an overflow audience to the Civic Opera House in January 2013.

"That relationship began when Renee and her husband, Tim (Jessell) had a night off and went to a Second City show ... and heard one of her own recordings being used as part of a comedy sketch," explains Freud. "She went backstage at the end to say hello to the music director, and the music director went completely pale when he saw her coming: What is she going to say?!"


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