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As the Lyric Opera’s poster girl, Fleming proves pitch-perfect

Submitted by on Sep 24, 2011 – 7:41 pm

In a chat with high school singers picked for a new Lyric collaboration with the Merit School of Music, the soprano diva Renée Fleming admits she struck out twice competing in the Met auditions — and taking her driver’s exam. 

By Lawrence B. Johnson

Lest anyone doubt the Lyric Opera’s cleverness in hitching its wagon to superstar soprano Renée Fleming, the singer’s performance earlier this month on a very small stage – one populated mainly by 10 talented teenagers – showed the infectious stuff this grand diva is made of.

The setting was the Merit School of Music in the West Loop, where Fleming held court with the press to announce a new collaboration between the school and the Lyric Opera to provide intensive vocal training for a dozen Chicagoland high school students in opera and musical theater or jazz singing.

Ten of the 12 youths, chosen by audition last spring and already studying under the new program, were on hand to perform a few numbers, including an exuberant, semi-staged turn by the girls through “I Feel Pretty” from “West Side Story.” Fleming exclaimed how impressed she was that these kids were already getting the hang of how to move – something she said was an up-hill struggle for her as a young singer.

Then, as if everyone else in Gottlieb Recital Hall had vanished except those kids and Fleming, the queen of the proceedings effectively put her tiara in her backpack and got down with her very young colleagues. She wanted to know which singers they admired – pop, classical, no matter.

When they all started pointing and muttering, “You!,” Fleming waved off the tribute as if to say, “No, seriously, really.” As the kids began to come clean with their pop faves, Fleming praised their good taste and, case by case, seconded their enthusiasm. Now it was Q&A time. Not for the reporters, who merely sat there taking it all in. This was between the great singer and these great kids.

One bright-eyed girl asked Fleming how she first came to know she wanted to be a singer.

“We always had music in the house,” replied the soprano, the daughter of two music teachers. “So it was just organic. We’d sit around the dinner table talking about music. I assumed that’s what everybody did. All of us kids (she has a brother and a sister) had to learn an instrument. We could study anything we wanted, but we couldn’t quit. I chose piano. But eventually I became fascinated by this instrument inside me. I wanted to solve its mystery.”

When one of the teenagers on stage said she knew she wanted to be a singer because she liked to turn household conversations into operatic recitatives, Fleming said her family did that, too – when they were in the car. And she warbled an example: “Turn right at the next light and go two blocks…” All that said, and sung, Fleming told the youngsters that her rise to fame wasn’t exactly easy sledding. “It took me three attempts to win the Met Auditions,” she said. “Same as getting my driver’s license. My dad finally told me I had to pass the test on the next try, or that was it.”

Before her star finally rose, one of the teen singers asked, did Fleming ever feel like giving up? “Only about once every six months,” came the reply. “Seriously, I reached the point where I wondered if I was just kidding myself. Maybe I just didn’t have it.”

The kids loved the candor of this warm, self-deprecating woman from Indiana, Pa., who also had  the press gang roaring with laughter. No doubt everyone in the room expressed a quiet “wow” when Fleming described her early tendency to botch auditions by trying too hard – by trying to impress by singing music she couldn’t sing. “If something seems easy for you,” she said of the lesson learned, “maybe it’s because it’s well suited to your voice.”

Auditions also intimated her, she said. “I would watch my colleagues, who always looked confident, and I decided to pretend that I was someone else, someone who was confident, and that worked.” Even today, says the Lyric’s glamorous new poster girl, she’s daunted by photo shoots and overcomes that discomfort by pretending to be someone who’s confident that she’s photogenic.

Through her high-profile role as the company’s new creative consultant, Fleming will help the Lyric and the cause of opera in Chicago in many ways. But some aspiring young singers at the Merit School of Music will tell you she’s pretty terrific just being Renée.