Soprano Renée Fleming is a bit of an overachiever: She has nearly 60 roles under her belt, over 40 CD and DVD recordings to her name and a mountain of awards and honors that include three Grammys. This Sunday, the operatic superstar will add yet another prize to the pile when the University Musical Society presents her with the 2011 Distinguished Artist Award before her recital at Hill Auditorium.
Sunday at 4 p.m.
Despite her myriad accomplishments, there’s something overwhelmingly magnetic about Fleming. Since her Metropolitan Opera debut in the early ’90s, Fleming has won over thousands of fans to opera with her engaging smile and down-to-earth persona.
“She seems to have everything all together,” said Naomi André, an associate professor of musicology and women’s studies at the University. “She has this beautiful silky voice. She’s very compelling on stage — a good actress. And there’s something about her personality where she seems to be everybody’s sweetheart.”
André went on to praise Fleming’s voice and technique, which she described as “almost too perfect” — another mark of the soprano’s overachievement.
“Nobody thinks it’s not beautiful,” André said. “But some people wish that it were a little more distinctive, that it had a little more of an ‘edgy’ character.”
André also compared Fleming to the late great soprano Beverly “Bubbles” Sills. Like Sills, Fleming has demystified the bewildering world of opera for a new era of classical music audiences.
“She’s well known internationally, but particularly in America because she’s in this generation where it seems like she’s trying hard to make opera accessible to people,” André said. “I think the most visible way is with her hosting the HD Metropolitan (Opera) broadcasts, where she’s been one of the main hosts to introduce (the productions) and interview the singers.
“She kind of seems like the face of America — bringing opera to the people.”
Staying true to her nickname, “the people’s diva,” Fleming increasingly finds new ways to reach audiences. Earlier last month, she was given the invented position of “Creative Consultant” at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. André compared Fleming’s new role to that of Plácido Domingo, who serves as General Director of the LA Opera and continues to perform lead tenor roles.
“We’ve got great examples with Domingo,” André said. “He does a lot of different things with the LA Opera … And he’s such an intelligent singer to still be singing and moving into different repertory. I would love to see that translate to a female singer and to Renée.”
“She does seem to be reaching a point of omnipresence,” André added.
Indeed, Fleming’s work and influence have permeated American society far beyond the operatic stage. Fans of “The Lord of the Rings” will recognize her voice from the soundtrack of “The Return of the King.” Guests at the New York City restaurant DANIEL can order a desert called “La Diva Renée,” named for you-know-who. There is even a Fleming fragrance (La Voce by Renée Fleming) and a Fleming flower (the Renée Fleming Iris).
The soprano has also recently made an uncharacteristic — yet critically applauded — move with her recent foray into indie rock. In her newest album, Dark Hope, she covers songs by Death Cab For Cutie, Muse and Arcade Fire.
At Sunday’s concert, however, Fleming will return to her operatic roots, performing a program that includes works by Schoenberg, Korngold and Richard Strauss — a composer whose work she has championed over the years.
Fleming will also perform works from her 2009 album Verismo, which showcased the music of Italian turn-of-the-century composers like Giacomo Puccini, who pioneered a gritty and true-to-life style of opera. In addition to an aria from Puccini’s beloved “La Bohème,” the soprano will present selections from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s rarely heard opera of the same name and based on the same story.
While Fleming is no stranger to Ann Arbor — Sunday will mark her fourth UMS concert — her visits have become less frequent over the past two decades. Her last appearance was a performance of Richard Strauss’ “Daphne” in 2005 — just over five years ago. Sunday’s concert will therefore be a rare opportunity for Ann Arbor to hear Fleming’s highly theatrical style of singing in a local setting.
“She has a very dramatic presence onstage,” André said. “And when the drama and the voice come together — that’s what’s really amazing.”