When soprano Renee Fleming stands before a full Waco Hall on Tuesday night, she won’t be the only one singing, though the others in the audience will sing just in their hearts and minds.
Fleming, one of the world’s most famous singers, joins the Waco Symphony Orchestra as its guest artist in Tuesday’s concert, the latest feather in the WSO’s 56-year-old cap. She comes on a short Texas tour this fall with recitals scheduled for Houston and San Antonio; Waco will be the only stop where the 58-year-old soprano will perform with a full orchestra.
Fleming’s Waco appearance falls during a transition in her career as she shifts away from the opera roles that built her reputation — she’s performed in more than 50 operas in her three-decade career — to more recital and concert performances.
A New York Times profile on the eve of her last performance in the Metropolitan Opera’s production of Richard Strauss’ “Der Rosenkavalier” in April gave some readers the impression that she was leaving opera, but she later clarified she meant only some of the lyric soprano roles that she became known for, characters in such operas as “Der Rosenkavalier,” Verdi’s “Otello” and “La traviata,” Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and Dvorak’s “Rusalka.”
Her availability in Texas aligned with the WSA’s ongoing efforts to bring a world-class performer to Waco and Music Director Stephen Heyde praised Waco businesses and individuals who stepped up to cover the cost.
“I was really thrilled with the community. We have so many civic-minded and generous sponsors,” Heyde said. “It’s a real feather in our cap.”
Given Fleming’s reputation as a first-class soprano with a global reputation, the WSA has advertised the concert in statewide publications like Texas Monthly and Texas Highways. The concert was not sold out at press time, but symphony officials anticipate it will come close as Tuesday night approaches.
Fleming will sing a program that mixes opera, classical, musical theater and pop selections. In contrast with most of the guest artists who perform with the Waco orchestra, she will perform in both halves of Tuesday’s concert, said Heyde.
She’ll sing Richard Strauss’s “Four Last Songs” in the first half, a work for soprano and orchestra written by the German composer a year before his death in 1949. The concert’s second half will feature a selection of opera arias, songs from the Broadway musicals “The Music Man” and “The King and I” — a tribute to the late Broadway singer Barbara Cook — plus contemporary songs such as Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” and Bjork’s “Virus,” the latter one of three Bjork songs on Fleming’s CD “Distant Light.”
Heyde said that wide-ranging program should convince listeners who might not be die-hard opera fans or who view opera as a largely European art form. “She’s distinctly American. She brings the same consistency and integrity to every piece she sings,” he said. “I love this program because it’s a real collaboration.”
The Waco music director, who grew up in Butler, Pennsylvania, roughly an hour’s drive from Fleming’s birthplace of Indiana, Pa., added he and the orchestra were working on the Strauss piece to give Fleming plenty of room for vocal interpretation.
“Only a handful of sopranos in the world can do it. It’s very taxing and takes a special artist,” he said.
The WSO’s selections for the concert, Dvorak’s “Carnival Overture” and Glinka’s “Russlan and Ludmilla Overture,” both flashy and energetic pieces, add to the concert’s excitement and celebratory mood, Heyde said.
The American soprano grew to worldwide fame through her opera performances, many with the Metropolitan Opera and the New York City Opera, but reaches far beyond that with more than 40 CDs and 20 DVDs, four of which landed her Grammy Awards; frequent appearances on television and radio; and performances at such events as the 2014 Super Bowl, the 2008 Olympic Games in Beijing; Queen Elizabeth II’s Diamond Jubilee; the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony; and a U.S. Supreme Court reception.
She’s also an ardent advocate of music education and presently serves as artistic advisor at large for the Kennedy Center.