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The Diva Who Paid Her Dues

Christopher Roberts, the chairman of Universal Classics Group, which includes the Decca label, says from London that that's just the nature of the business. There is the possibility, however, that her great roles may be captured on DVD, especially if Decca can collaborate with television or the opera houses where Fleming sings.

"I think she's at the top, period, as far as stature and the voice, and she is a premier artist," he says. But "Renee came into the business as the business was changing, in the mid-'90s, and it is coming to terms with a lot of these realities."

"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. (Universal Classics)

Fleming says that she looks forward to DVD projects but that there's nothing like the attention to fine tuning one can achieve in a traditional studio recording. If it is her fate to leave much of her legacy on video, with all the visual distractions of live performances, few artists are better equipped to make the most of it.

"Although, in these stern times, it is improper to mention it, she is blessed with a glamour of person that involves no suspension of disbelief in so many of the roles she undertakes" -- this is the deliciously roundabout way one critic, Rodney Milnes, describes the obvious fact that Fleming is gorgeous. And in the world of DVD, the world where the visual is paramount, being gorgeous never hurts.

Perhaps the most intriguing and disturbing thing in Fleming's book is a rhetorical question: "Just where do I fit into the larger picture of our culture?"

Where indeed. She is at the top of her profession but, she says, unless she's standing in the lobby of the Met, or in Tower Records, it's unlikely anyone will recognize her. Once upon a time, classical singers were a regular staple of "The Ed Sullivan Show." Today, she consults advisers and employs press people and agents to scramble for those precious three minutes at the end of Letterman. The culture to which she belongs is uneasy about what she does -- the unnatural refinement and complexity of operatic singing -- which makes her both elite and marginal at the same time.

She says she doesn't mind. Being hugely famous in a little way has its advantages. "It is the best of both worlds," she says, "meaning I have the recognition and the satisfaction of being appreciated at the top of my field, and yet I can go anywhere."

As in so many professions, arriving at the top in the opera world means you can do less and get paid more, you have more choices, and the few things you do are exactly the things you want to do. Fleming is singing Handel's "Rodelinda" at the Met this season -- she chose the work, and the right to choose your opera at the Met is the ultimate status marker. Her Feb. 15 Kennedy Center appearance will be one of the few "event" recitals in Washington this season.

But overall, for family and personal reasons, she is happy to be singing less and less opera these days, and in fewer places. She focuses on recitals and on excerpt recordings, and will soon bring out a jazz album -- a big risk for a classical singer. At the moment when she has the name recognition of the Great American Soprano, it becomes clear that hearing her in opera will, for all but a lucky few, be a thing of the past. She has daughters, and is it possible she would return to the stage after they're grown?

"Absolutely, that door could open again, 10 years from now," she says. "But would I really want to pick up that kind of life again? I'd be surprised. I rather like my life right now. I'm kind of a homebody."

A homebody in Gianfranco Ferre, fresh from the Met, with yet another command performance, at the Kennedy Center Honors, under her belt.

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