Renée Fleming takes center stage at Benaroya Hall as she steps away from classic roles and moves toward new music.
Last April, superstar soprano Renée Fleming appeared at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for what would be her final run playing the Marschallin, a wealthy married woman having an affair with a younger man in Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier.” It was a role she had often played in a long career.
Drawing parallels between Fleming’s longevity and Strauss’ themes of time’s passage and aging, a New York Times article inadvertently gave the impression she was retiring from opera altogether.
Fleming quickly denied that notion, explaining that, at 58, she is ready to step away from classic roles associated with her. But, she said, she is interested in new works for opera and, in fact, new music of many sorts.
Seattle Symphony Opening Night Concert and Gala
5 p.m. Sept. 16, at Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; from $65 (206-215-4747 or seattlesymphony.org).
The episode drew attention to the non-opera side of Fleming’s achievements, such as jazz, indie rock and pop (her best-selling track is a cover of Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah”). Fleming will make her Broadway debut in a revival of “Carousel” next spring, and is ratcheting up concert appearances, including her promising performance in Seattle Symphony’s Opening Night Concert on Sept. 16.
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“I have always followed wherever my musical instincts have led. That has included at least 55 roles in opera, which is just about everything in the standard repertoire that is right for my voice. I’m not a great fan of repeating things, so there is a certain freedom I’m enjoying as concerts and recitals occupy the major part of my calendar,” Fleming said in an email interview.
The symphony’s season opener is built entirely around Fleming, including orchestral works that will musically and atmospherically complement her songs in the program. Seattle Symphony conductor and music director Ludovic Morlot says, “We gave [Fleming] carte blanche for what she will be singing. Our challenge was to add orchestral numbers that will create an entertaining evening. It’s always a thrill and privilege to welcome her.”
(Morlot will not be conducting the opening night performance as he recovers from a leg injury, the symphony announced Sept. 12. Taking his place will be Seattle Symphony Associate Conductor Pablo Rus Broseta.)
The program opens with Samuel Barber’s dynamic overture to “The School for Scandal,” written when the composer was 21. Fleming will then make her entrance to sing Barber’s 1947 “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” based on a prose poem by James Agee about an idealized chapter in life preceding a darker one.
Fleming says the Barber piece “is arguably the greatest American concert work for soprano and orchestra of the 20th century. It offers Agee’s evocation of childhood and family in an earlier, simpler time, but one tinged with sadness for what is to come.”
The remainder of the concert’s first half should prove fascinating. Fleming will take on two songs by Björk, former singer with Icelandic rock band The Sugarcubes and now an innovative and much-admired solo composer and vocalist. Fleming has recorded several Björk pieces, and will sing the latter’s critically acclaimed “Virus” and “All is Full of Love” in arrangements for orchestra by Hans Ek.
“I have always admired Björk’s originality,” Fleming said. “She blazed her own path forward, and the creative coloring of her voice, her texts and her musical effects are beautiful and arresting. Because she is one of the only singers in popular music who sings in a true soprano register, I could imagine her songs in my own voice, with the textures a symphony orchestra would bring.”
Morlot said “the spare and intimate sound world of Björk” will contrast nicely with the warmth of the concert’s second half, which focuses on “Italian favorites,” beginning with Verdi’s overture to his “The Force of Destiny” and continuing with bel canto highlights from Refice, Tosti, Boito and Catalani.
“The songs by Refice and Tosti (“Ombra di Nube” and “Aprile,” respectively), were beloved concert repertoire in an earlier era, but you don’t hear them as much recently,” Fleming said. “It’s been great to rediscover those. And then the Boito aria, “L’altra notte,” and Catalani’s “Ebben, ne andro lontana,” are classic grand opera moments, emotional and full of drama.”
Opening night for Seattle Symphony, as always, entails grandeur, gowns and a ticketed gala celebration following the concert. But you don’t need formal attire to be there for the music. Tickets start at $65, and as Morlot would say: Come as you are.