Meet the Meg Ryan of opera

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

On stage, the quintessentially American soprano Renée Fleming, whose latest album "Bel Canto" has topped the Billboard classical charts, has something of the forthrightness of Sally Field or a young Martha Stewart.

She sings music that ranges from Verdi to Richard Strauss, Dvorak to Alban Berg, and she has the technique and musical smarts to sound plausible in nearly anything.

"When it comes to repertoire, variety is my favorite word," Ms. Fleming says. "I feel happiest moving between different styles and composers and operatic, concert, and recital formats without ever stretching my voice out of its comfort zone."

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She's been showered with honors, including a recent Grammy Award, during her two decades of intense work in repertory. Even a dessert has been named after her. New York's French chef Daniel Boulud recently dubbed his pricey new hazelnut-chocolate sweet "La Diva Renée."

Of course, all this sweetness does not conceal her steely gumption, revealed last Oct. 28 as she stood amid noxious fumes and grieving families to sing at a World Trade Center memorial service at ground zero. Thousands of people listened, some wearing masks to protect themselves from the smoldering ruins, as Fleming sang "God Bless America" and "Amazing Grace," seemingly without an iota of diva-like self-concern. She also performs frequent benefit concerts for the AIDS charity Classical Action.

"She's such an incredible musician with a gorgeous voice – her musicianship allows her to sing such a wide repertory," says Christoph Eschenbach, who has recorded often with her and conducted her in concert.

"In her recitals you'll always find four different languages at least, sometimes six," he adds. "She is cosmopolitan, and that's mirrored in her musicality and her curiosity about repertory."

Fleming's good looks combined with her musical intelligence are driving her success, says James Jorden, editor of an online opera journal.

"She has a great match between her sound, her look, and her persona: very classy in a Grace Kelly sort of way," he says. "Her family life and her middle-class origins keep her approachable and real. She's the Meg Ryan of opera."

Vocally, Mr. Jorden adds, "the timbre of the voice is essentially Central European like [sopranos] Sena Jurinac or Lucia Popp. Fleming is partly of Czech descent.... I think she lacks the crazy-lady temperamental fire and the meaty vocal vibrato to sound really genuine in the Italian repertory. By nature she's a born Mozart/Strauss lyric, and by training, strong technique, and immense musical intelligence, she's well suited to modern [music] as well."

There also are dissenters. French music critic Jacques Drillon says Fleming "is a typical bel canto singer, who only sings music that does not interest me."

Born in Indiana, Pa., Fleming says she was drawn to classical music after a brief stint as a jazz singer with the band of legendary sax player Illinois Jacquet, who has been described as "an extrovert honker," a term scarcely applicable to Fleming herself.

Fleming adds that a Fulbright Grant to Germany "was an important element in my vocal education. Mastering one foreign language further reduces the barriers to authenticity in style and makes all other languages easier to obtain as well. I especially love Strauss, and he clearly loved soprano voices.... Surprisingly, I have never been under any pressure to sing Italian repertoire."

Fleming admits to learning musical smarts from such conductors as the late Georg Solti, whom she found "a stickler for rhythmic accuracy and pulse. He had tremendous charisma and authority."

Yet as much as she has a capacity to learn, her innate determination seems an equal factor behind her achievement.

Faced with the current problem of AIDS, other divas might turn away rather than labor at small fund-raising concerts, as Fleming has done with pianist Jean-Yves Thibaudet for Classical Action.

"I believe Classical Action raised $250,000 from our first benefit at Carnegie Hall and $200,000 for the second one at Lincoln Center," she says. "AIDS has affected so many of my friends and colleagues ... [It] is a disease we would all love to see wiped out."

Indeed, her courage, combined with her high C's, make her one of America's most admired singers.

The many voices of Renée Fleming

Dvorak: Rusalka

Decca 2LHO3 460568

Check out Fleming's ardent work in this Czech masterpiece, conducted by the veteran Charles Mackerras.

Massenet: Herodiade

Sony Classical SK 66847

Alongside Placido Domingo, Fleming is a French romantic temptress, despite sloppy conducting by Valery Gergiev.

Donizetti: Rosmonda d'Inghilterra

Opera Rara ORR 214

A chance to catch America's diva in a rare role she will most likely never perform at the Met.

Strauss: Four Last Songs

RCA Victor Red Seal 68539

Fleming's German repertory suits her voice especially well. She is accompanied sensitively by Christoph Eschenbach.

Berg: Lulu Suite, Wozzeck Excerpts

Sony Classical SK 53959

Fleming shows her smarts in modern music, with characteristic intensity and involvement.

Handel: Alcina

Erato ECD 80233

Warmly emotional singing by Fleming, Susan Graham, and Nathalie Dessay make up for the clinically chilly baton work by William Christie.

Rossini: Armida

Sony S3K 58968

A whale of a part in which Fleming follows plausibly in the footsteps of Maria Callas.

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