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Renée Fleming in Massenet’s Thaïs

Renée Fleming in Massenet’s Thaïs Photograph: Brigitte Lacombe/Metropolitan Opera

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Bring the noise!

This season, superstar soprano Renée Fleming claims the city as her own, rocking the Met and appearing on the side of a bus near you.

By Steve Smith

Taking Renée Fleming for granted is far too easy. We should know; we’ve been doing it for years. A prominent lyric soprano for more than two decades, Fleming, 49, has been a creative force at the Metropolitan Opera since the mid-’90s. She is without question the reigning American opera singer worldwide, and one of the few to attain a broader general appeal. At a time when the memory of Beverly Sills guest-hosting The Tonight Show verges on the surreal, Fleming sings on Letterman, and Daniel Boulud has named a dessert after her.

Ironically, the trappings of celebrity have made it easy to overlook Fleming’s serious artistic contributions. We admired her moxie in tackling offbeat roles in Bellini’s Il Pirata and Handel’s Rodelinda, but wrote about her collaborators. During Peter Gelb’s first two seasons as general manager of the Met, Fleming’s presence seemed to diminish among the subway-station posters and Times Square simulcasts—not to mention the furor over recent arrivals like Anna Netrebko and Natalie Dessay.

Not so, Fleming asserts in a telephone call from Tanglewood. “I sang Traviata and Otello at the Met last season, which is more than usual,” she says. “You may not have realized it because neither one was broadcast, but in fact it was a lot of performances.” The same was true the previous year: Her appearances in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin contributed to sold-out houses and a successful movie-theater simulcast, later released on DVD.

One thing’s for sure: Fleming will be impossible to overlook this season. You’ll see her face plastered all over town as the Met’s figurehead, crowned with the leonine mane she’ll be wearing in Massenet’s Thaïs, which opens December 8. “When I actually see it I’ll have to deal with it, but at this point I’m thinking it must be a mistake,” Fleming says with genuine modesty. “I’m sure they’ll change their minds and it’ll be a different campaign.”

Fat chance: Thaïs, a sexy rarity by French composer Jules Massenet, is one of two operas in which Fleming will grace the stage, in a production that’s being imported from the Lyric Opera of Chicago expressly for her. The other, Dvorak’s Rusalka (coming in March), is one of her signature roles; when she last did it here in 2004, every show sold out. Prior to those appearances, the singer will star in the Met’s opening-night gala on September 22, performing in one act apiece from Verdi’s La Traviata and Massenet’s Manon, and a third opera indicative of the repertoire she now favors, Richard Strauss’s Capriccio. (A new CD of Strauss’s Four Last Songs will come out a week before the gala.)

That Gelb is soldiering on with a glamorous event put in place by the previous regime, rather than the new productions he prefers, is proof of his fervent wish to keep Fleming busy here. “She is under such demand to do more-lucrative recitals and different types of projects,” Gelb explains. “She’d cut back on appearances at the Met before I was hired. One of my first acts as manager was to have lunch with her and persuade her to increase her performances.”

This being an opening night at Gelb’s house, mediagenic lures are being cast far and wide. Through a collaboration with Vogue chief Anna Wintour, Fleming will be adorned in costumes designed by Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano and Christian Lacroix. Coinciding with opening night, Coty will release a new perfume, La Voce by Renée Fleming. Each cute little bottle will command a stiff $200, with part of the proceeds benefiting the Met.

Fleming accepts the glitz pragmatically because, as she points out, media attention for the arts is drying up. “A hundred years ago, singers were advertising fragrances and even cigarettes, because they were huge stars,” she says. (Shrewdly, this star recently signed with the talent agency Paradigm to pursue opportunities outside the musical world.)

Still, now that Fleming’s name is on a flower (the Renée Fleming Iris), a dessert and a fragrance, is there any place else she’d like to leave it? She answers with no hesitation. “The most awe-inspiring moment for me was looking at [the score for] Barber’s Knoxville: Summer of 1915 and seeing Eleanor Steber’s name at the top of it,” she says. “I just thought, That’s what we’re supposed to do. To be involved in a masterpiece that could survive time would be the greatest thrill of all.”

The Metropolitan Opera Opening Night Gala will be held on Sept 22.

NEXT: Feel the Bern Leonard Bernstein was this city. A new fest proves he was a whole lot more, too.»

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Feel the Bern

Leonard Bernstein was this city. A new fest proves he was a whole lot more, too.

By Steve Smith


Though he was born just north of Boston, Leonard Bernstein became the quintessential New York artist: a conductor, composer, pianist and pedagogue who made classical music cool without pandering. He was charming and erudite, complex and direct, cultured and radical—and the original crossover artist, penning hit songs and timeless musicals (including one of the greatest, West Side Story).

This fall, Carnegie Hall and the New York Philharmonic—two institutions with which Bernstein was indelibly linked—are marking what would have been his 90th birthday and the 50th anniversary of his appointment as music director of the Phil with “Bernstein: The Best of All Possible Worlds,” a cross-disciplinary festival meant to illuminate the many facets of this singular artist. Which of his personalities will show up? TONY takes a look.

What’s here?

THE TUNESMITH
Michael Tilson Thomas, a Bernstein protégé, leads an opening-night gala chock-full of killer hooks, including selections from West Side Story, On the Town and Trouble in Tahiti. San Francisco Symphony, Carnegie Hall, Sept 24

THE SERIOUS COMPOSER
Lorin Maazel examines Bernstein’s dual role as music director and composer, conducting the Symphony No. 2 (“The Age of Anxiety”) alongside pieces by fellow New York Phil conductors Mahler, Boulez and Maazel himself. New York Philharmonic, Avery Fisher Hall, Sept 25–27

THE SHOWMAN
Prominent jazz and cabaret artists apply their talents to a Bernstein hit parade, featuring tunes from Wonderful Town, West Side Story and Peter Pan. New York Pops, Carnegie Hall, Oct 17

THE MAN OF FAITH
Marin Alsop, another Bernstein acolyte, helms “The Bernstein Mass Project,” in which hundreds of local students will explore and perform Bernstein’s Mass, a still-controversial statement of faith and tolerance. Zankel Hall, Oct 19; United Palace, Oct 25

THE NATIVE SON
David Robertson celebrates Bernstein’s devotion to boosting for American music, matching the Symphony No. 1 (“Jeremiah”) with works by Copland, Elliott Carter and Christopher Rouse. Avery Fisher Hall, Oct 30–Nov 1

THE YOUNG AMERICAN
Bernstein made his worldwide splash on November 14, 1943, at Carnegie Hall, stepping in at the last minute to conduct the New York Philharmonic. Exactly 65 years later, young music director–designate Alan Gilbert leads an all-Bernstein bill. Carnegie Hall, Nov 14

What’s missing?

THE RAKE
Let’s really bring out the flamboyance, melancholy and intimacy of Bernstein’s songs: Rufus Wainwright singing “100 Easy Ways to Lose a Man,” and k.d. lang doing “I Feel Pretty” would be our dream bill. Or vice versa!

THE RADICAL
Like many of his peers, Bernstein mingled with Black Panthers and other rabble-rousers. What might today’s socially aware artists like Nas, Wyclef Jean or the Roots make of his tunes?

THE ECLECTIC
Imagine the kind of wildly multifaceted bill producer Hal Willner might have mined from Bernstein’s eclectic musical juxtapositions…say, Lou Reed, Van Dyke Parks, Joe Jackson, Rubén Blades and Fiona Apple?

NEXT: The odds »

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ODDS


Xenakis’ Oresteia at Miller Theatre

0.1%


That Miller Theatre impresario George Steel will take Oresteia to his new job at the Dallas Opera.

99%


That the little old couple sitting in the third row won’t make it past the 15-minute mark.

2%


That the general public knows that Greek composer Iannis Xenakis (1922–2001) used higher maths to make music of raw, primitive fury.

80%


That some local journalist will use the phrase “It’s all Greek to me” to describe the gnarly Oresteia, based on an ancient tragedy by Aeschylus.

40%


That Columbia University’s fraternities will make attendance a Greek Week pledge requirement. Xenakis’ Oresteia is at Miller Theatre Sept 13, 16 and 17.

More in Classical
Bring the noise! | Feel the Bern | The Odds


ART | BOOKS | CLASSICAL | CLUBS | COMEDY | DANCE | EAT OUT | FILM | MUSIC | THEATER

DOWNLOAD ALL EVENTS: GOOGLE CAL | for iCAL

DOWNLOAD PDFs: November | October | September

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