The Kennedy Center has announced an eclectic lineup for the first season of “Renée Fleming Voices,” a concert series the soprano is curating.
Although Fleming has chosen several singers best known for their work in musical theater — including Megan Hilty, Alan Cumming and Leslie Odom Jr., a Tony Award winner for “Hamilton” — she said her new series isn’t a replacement for Barbara Cook’s “Spotlight.” That recently ended recital series, established in 2007, brought a half-dozen Broadway stars to the Kennedy Center each year.
“It’s kind of a new thing,” Fleming said Tuesday. “It really is different.”
Also joining the opera star’s dream team: acclaimed tenor Lawrence Brownlee, performance artist Rinde Eckert, jazz composer and arranger Billy Childs and jazz chanteuse Jane Monheit.
Emphasizing artists as curators has been a hallmark of Deborah Rutter’s tenure as the Kennedy Center’s new president. In March, Rutter announced several appointments, along with her plans for the 2016-2017 season. Fleming and cellist Yo-Yo Ma were named artistic advisers at-large, and rapper Q-Tip was given the title artistic director of hip-hop culture.
The center also announced that ballet star Misty Copeland and choreographer Justin Peck would curate the next iteration of the “Ballet Across America” festival.
Fleming said she has been hands-on with her selections and has heard every artist in the series sing live. Yes, she has seen “Hamilton” — although not until the spring — but she found some of the artists far from Broadway. For example, she first heard Eckert at a gala benefiting the Brooklyn music space National Sawdust.
“He was strolling the aisles, playing the accordion,” she recalled, “and he had the most beautiful voice.”
The soprano said curating “Voices” was a natural outgrowth of the three-day “American Voices” concert and workshop series she hosted at the Kennedy Center three years ago. That event featured vocal students, as well as performers such as Alison Krauss and opera singer Eric Owens, in an event akin to “The Voice” for NPR listeners.
Fleming says it’s mind-boggling that the process of becoming a singer has never been of greater public interest — thanks to competitive reality television — yet opera remains out of the picture.
“What we bring to the table are three centuries of best practices for preserving your voice and learning good vocal technique,” she said. And although not all of the vocalists in “Voices” have classical training, they all represent different ways that the voice can be presented in a theatrical setting.
“In a perfect world, opera companies would start producing some of these more artistically aspirational musicals,” Fleming said, and in turn, opera singers should be lining up to perform at spaces such as National Sawdust. “I tell young people all the time, this is where opera needs to be for a modern audience.”
Until her ship of artistic utopia comes in, Fleming is content to keep brainstorming, and keep curating “Voices.”
“I’m really excited about this,” she said. “Can you tell?”
Announcing the “Voices” series in July, rather than as part of the larger season announcement in March, was unusual for the Kennedy Center, but a much smaller local presenter has a tradition of naming its lineup in the summer. And for its next season in particular, Reston CenterStage has booked more Washington artists than ever.
“Our audiences will also go to the Kennedy Center . . . but venturing deep into the city is something people out here don’t do,” said Paul Douglas “P.D.” Michnewicz, director of arts and events at the Reston Community Center.
Since starting the Fairfax County job in 2013, Michnewicz, who worked at D.C. theaters for two decades, has looked to present more Washington groups, as well as touring artists whose works have already been well received at downtown venues.
“There are great groups in D.C. that people in this part of Northern Virginia don’t know about,” he said.
For CenterStage’s new season, Michnewicz will stage Happenstance Theatre’s “BrouHaHa,” and he has invited Theatre Alliance to bring “Black Nativity” from Anacostia to Reston. Also in the lineup, a cabaret featuring Sherri L. Edelen, a local musical theater star frequently seen at Signature Theatre.
Two touring shows on the CenterStage roster were hits in Washington: The Reduced Shakespeare Company’s “William Shakespeare’s Long Lost First Play (Abridged),” which debuted at Folger Theatre, and Ping Chong & Company’s “Beyond Sacred: Voices of Muslim Identity,” which came to Georgetown University last year.
CenterStage will also present two shows with the District’s Dance Place, with which it has partnered for years. The groups will produce their first touring full-length work — “What’s Going On,” a new evening of dances by three local choreographers set to music by Marvin Gaye. It will open at Dance Place in November and tour to Reston in February, with additional dates to be announced.
“I want to book artists who are really putting out their A game for us,” Michnewicz said. “Sometimes you find those artists from overseas, sometimes you find that in your back yard.”
“How do you get to Carnegie Hall?” is an old joke among classical musicians. (“Practice.”) In musical theater, the question might be, “How do you get to 54 Below?”
For Washington-based playwright and director Star Johnson, the answer was clear: Summon all your courage, call and ask.
It took some cajoling, but a producer with the New York cabaret joint now known as Feinstein’s/54 Below eventually agreed to give Johnson’s musical a slot.
“How to Quit Your Day Job,” which was named best musical at the 2015 Capital Fringe Festival, will have its New York premiere there Sunday. There will be producers in the audience, said Johnson, who hopes the gig leads to another staging.
“This is going to sound crazy, but our goal is Broadway,” she said. “Capital Fringe hasn’t had that yet, but this could be the show that happens for.”