There isn't always a clear claimant to the title Great American Soprano, and those who do hold it are not necessarily great sopranos at all. It is a name-recognition thing, a personality thing, a marketing thing, and only secondarily a musical thing.
Beverly Sills was a Great American Soprano by virtue of a few good years of modestly distinguished singing and an effervescent public persona ("Bubbles," they called her). That was in the 1960s and '70s. Fast-forward to the 1980s, and Jessye Norman was a Great American Soprano, with a voice that drove audiences wild and seemed somehow to fit perfectly with the cultural moment: It was oversize and luxurious and perhaps a little bit decadent. Eventually it cloyed.
"The beauty of the difficulties I had, early on, is that now, when something is a little funny or goes out of whack, I recognize it, and can usually fix it myself," says soprano Renee Fleming.
The Great American Soprano is the woman they call when someone important who doesn't know a lot about music says "get me a soprano" (which is one reason that the Great American Soprano is occasionally, like Marilyn Horne, not a soprano but a mezzo). It is her duty to sing at the White House and at major international events, to open opera houses, to class up the late-night talk shows, make an appearance now and then in Vanity Fair, and generally carry the heavy mantle of being classical music's celebrity on call.
Renee Fleming is currently the Great American Soprano.
Late-night television? Check. She recently made her second appearance on Letterman, singing three minutes of music by Handel (music featured on her latest recording). White House? She sang at a New Year's Eve gala there in 1999, among other appearances. Major international events? She sang for Russian President Vladimir Putin and 50 other heads of state at the Mariinsky Theatre to celebrate the 300th anniversary of St. Petersburg in 2003. Magazines? She's on the cover of the current Town & Country, which dubs her "the down-to-earth diva." Oh yes, and she also sang, in the made-up language of Elvish, on the soundtrack to "The Lord of the Rings."
On a recent rainy, windy Tuesday, the Great American Soprano was sitting in a restaurant in Georgetown, resplendent in a black Gianfranco Ferre number with zippers and flaps and a vaguely military look to it. If she had been outdoors earlier, braving the elements, you wouldn't know it from the immaculate coiffure. If she was feeling tired, from having sung at the Kennedy Center Honors that Sunday (she was introduced by Jack Nicholson), followed by a Monday-night gig at New York's Metropolitan Opera and an early-morning return to Washington for another round of interviews, you wouldn't know that either. Fleming, 45, was wide awake, pleasant, sipping a peppermint tea and happily flogging her new book, "The Inner Voice." Whose main message is that Fleming is not a natural -- and that has made all the difference. Her voice is a made thing, constructed through trial and tribulation, error and correction.
"The beauty of the difficulties I had, early on, is that now, when something is a little funny or goes out of whack, I recognize it, and I can usually fix it myself," she says of her long rise to stardom. "A singer who is natural can, at the age of 35, have a crisis and be completely lost."
The result of Fleming's prolonged and painful vocal fledging is a self-manufactured instrument that sounds so effortless people think it's a simple gift from God, as if divine providence stuck a Stradivarius in her throat and all she has to do is breathe. That drives her nuts.
"I wrote it kind of in answer to the audience member who, over the years, has said to me, 'You were so lucky to be born with that gift,' " she says. "I believe they imagine that I woke up one day and discovered I had a voice and the next day I was onstage. But it's all about process."
At a certain point in her career, the Great American Soprano writes her memoirs, but they're not usually about process. Typically it is a Horatio Alger tale of hard work and disappointment, tenacity and picking oneself up off the floor, eventual triumphs tempered by the fear of success, then glory and doubt and, finally, the humble new her at peace with the world. Usually such reminiscences are filled with bitchy anecdotes about nameless singers and lots and lots of logrolling. Thanks to my parents, my managers, my press agent, my teachers and my fans (I could never do it without the fans). It takes a slow reader about three hours to plow through the usual diva memoir.
Fleming's book isn't intended as a memoir and, while it doesn't break the mold of diva lit, it goes deeper than most, and it has a lot of process. She doesn't bitch much, but she offers thanks and gratitude profusely. Sadly, there isn't much gossip, no pictures of the burgeoning diva from her high school yearbook and very little detail about her personal life. She glosses over the story of her divorce and is strangely elliptical on the subject of her parents' breakup, as well. One day she is a happy young girl living in an idyllic upstate New York home; turn the page, and her parents are divorced and her mother remarried. No details offered.
And it can be bracingly literal and specific in its descriptions of the voice. "First, I learned to aim the sound mentally into the two slight indentations on either side of the nostrils," she writes of her efforts to learn how to produce the soft, ethereal sound that thrills her listeners. "My tongue wanted to fall back, basically inhibiting the larynx from hanging freely and thus strangling my high notes, sometimes creating a gargling sound, sometimes cutting them off altogether," she says, describing how she had to change the shape of her mouth when she opened it to sing. And when she gets to her breathing, it's all about anatomy ("crucial to this process is a release of the intercostal muscles, the ones that connect the ribs").
Helping her write the book was Ann Patchett, author of a lovely 2001 novel, "Bel Canto," about a singer who sounds a lot like Renee Fleming (who happened to make a recording called "Bel Canto"). Patchett's character, Roxane Coss, was, like Fleming, a lyric soprano. Like Fleming, she was noted for singing a haunting aria from Dvorak's "Rusalka" and spectacular Handel (an unusual combination that suggests Fleming's flexibility). Like Fleming, she was beautiful. But unlike Roxane Coss, Renee Fleming has never been kidnapped and held hostage by South American revolutionaries in an embassy that becomes a metaphor for the fragility of human sympathy and understanding. And in "Bel Canto," singing isn't about the intercostal muscles.
"All of the love and the longing a body can contain was spun into not more than two and a half minutes of song, and when she came to the highest notes it seemed that all they had been given in their lives and all they had lost came together and made a weight that was almost impossible to bear," Patchett wrote, describing the effect Roxane Coss had on her listeners.