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Feb 3, 2017

Renee Fleming explores new genres

Greenville News

Donna Isbell Walker , [email protected] Published 10:31 a.m. ET Feb. 1, 2017 | Updated 5:53 p.m. ET Feb. 1, 2017

Soprano Renee Fleming is one of the most-acclaimed opera singers of the past few decades. She’s won Grammy Awards, the National Medal of the Arts and the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal.

In an email interview, Fleming, who performs at the Peace Center Feb. 11, talked about her latest album, “Distant Light,” her Grammy wins, and how she feels about being called “the people’s diva.”

Q. Your new album, “Distant Light,” focuses on Scandinavian music. What drew you to that particular region?

A. You’re correct that, with the Anders Hillborg “Strand Settings” and the Bjork songs, more than half of the music is Scandinavian. The album started with “The Strand Settings.” In 2008, I was in Sweden singing with Alan Gilbert and the Royal Stockholm Philharmonic Orchestra. After the performance, Alan and I found ourselves discussing new music and comparing notes about our favorite composers. We found we both love the music of Anders Hillborg, one of Sweden’s brightest stars. His gift for creating otherworldly effects with an orchestra is breathtaking. The obvious idea presented itself: We should ask Anders to create a new work for orchestra and voice. …  Then with the Bjork, I had always been attracted to her songs. It was adventurous, but I thought they would work well with the Hillborg and the album’s other major work, Barber’s “Knoxville: Summer of 1915,” which is one of my most-requested concert pieces.

Q. You perform a few Bjork songs on the album. She’s such a quirky, unique artist. What do you love about her?

A. I love Björk’s openness of expression. The creative coloring of her voice, with the text and instrumentation, create a style that is uniquely hers. Her originality is breathtaking. She just blazes her own path forward. I also love that her music has been embraced by listeners across multiple generations, making her a household name.  Because she is one of the few artists in popular music who sings in a soprano register, I could imagine her songs in my own voice, with the acoustic textures a symphony orchestra could add.

Q. There’s an emotional through-line connecting all of the songs. What would you say is the overarching theme or feeling?

A. I think all of the music on the album creates vivid soundscapes. The phrase that struck me in one of the Björk songs is “emotional landscapes.” While the feeling in each piece might be different, they all have the power to evoke distinct moods. In the Barber, the overarching feeling is nostalgia, remembering a more innocent time of life, when a child is safe in the shelter of a family, but just starting to be aware that this might not be permanent. In “The Strand Settings,” nostalgia is there too, in remembered details of desire, and the heights and depths of love. Mark Strand’s poetry is just stunning in the moods it evokes, and Hillborg’s music captures and amplifies those emotional states perfectly. And then, in the Björk songs, the joy in “Jóga” and the yearning in “Virus” have such immediacy. … And the message of “All Is Full of Love” is so close to my heart: This idea that we really can find love and support in the world and people around us.

Q. You’ve won five Grammy Awards. Does a Grammy win have a different significance for a classical performer than for a pop or rock artist?

A. I don’t think any of us makes music with eyes on an award like the Grammy. Whether someone is a pop singer, a rapper, or recording Mozart, I think you make the music because you love it. Of course it is fantastic to have your efforts recognized by your peers, because the Grammy Awards are voted on by people in the music industry. The Grammy might possibly be more meaningful to a classical or jazz artist, simply because the financial rewards and audience numbers in our genres are not going to be on the scale of those in pop and rock.

Q. You’ve been called “the people’s diva.” What does that mean to you?

A. I hope it means that I’ve helped expand the idea of “the diva” to a more welcoming, inclusive persona. Classical music and opera are based in a wonderful European tradition that is hundreds of years old. Part of that tradition is the diva. The word comes from an idea that’s not all bad, the thought that there is the chance that there might be something of the divine in what we do. My challenge has been to reinterpret this role as an American, in a time when the way we experience music is changing every minute, and when barriers between musical genres are becoming less rigid.

Q. You don’t stick to the classical genre, but have performed jazz, indie rock and other styles. Where is the common ground in a classical piece and an indie-rock song?

A. The common ground for me is the voice. I just love the human voice and what it can do, whatever the genre. It’s perhaps the most direct, personal form of artistic expression we have, and the musical instrument that each of us is born with. My musical tastes are really wide-ranging, and I listen to vocal music of almost every kind. As a performer, I want to follow my musical curiosity wherever it leads.

Q. What can fans expect at your Peace Center concert?

A. I try to offer a wide variety of music in terms of style, language, and period. That reflects my own musical taste, but I also want everyone in the audience to hear something they love, as well as something new. So, at the Peace Center, I will sing some quite famous music, like the Brahms Lullaby, which I’ve just added to my repertoire, with other beautiful songs by that composer. I will also be singing something that was composed for me only a few months ago, from Kevin Puts’ “Letters From Georgia.” These are settings of the letters of the iconic American artist Georgia O’Keeffe, which we premiered in New York in November. And of course, there will be some opera and musical theater in the mix as well. I group the songs in such a way that, I hope, I can create the right mood for each one, and take the audience on a journey.

YOU CAN GO

Who: Renee Fleming

When: 8 p.m. Feb. 11

Where: Peace Center

How much: $20-$95

For more: www.peacecenter.org