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Renée Fleming: A Class Act

The history of illustrious singers giving master classes at Juilliard is deep and rich, from Maria Callas’s legendary series of classes in 1971 and 1972 (the inspiration for Terrence McNally’s play Master Class), to Luciano Pavarotti’s visit in 1991, to memorable classes with legendary soprano Leontyne Price in 1987 and again in 1993. The latest chapter in this history was written during the early evening hours of October 20 when Renée Fleming, easily the most accomplished, and possibly the most beloved, soprano of her generation gave a master class—her first in New York—as part of the rededication of the newly refurbished Peter Jay Sharp Theater.  

Renée Fleming (right) instructs soprano and artist diploma candidate Lei Xu during a recent master class at Juilliard.

(Photo by Hiroyuki Ito)

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In his opening remarks, President Joseph W. Polisi thanked the Peter Jay Sharp Foundation for its longstanding and generous support of many of Juilliard’s initiatives and activities. He also noted with more than a little irony that some 20 years ago a young soprano named Renée Fleming had performed on the same stage from which he was now delivering his remarks. “Of course,” the president joked, “we didn’t know she was Renée Fleming when she was at Juilliard.”  

In the long list of Fleming’s accomplishments since her student days—11 Grammy Award nominations (including two wins), headliner at all of the world’s major opera houses and orchestras, television and radio guest star, fashion icon, perfume mogul, author—teaching master classes is not necessarily the first thing that comes to mind. But, as the eminently down-to-earth Fleming pointed out in a recent phone interview, “I’ve been doing more and more of them, and you know, I have mixed feelings about the whole thing because of my own experiences when I was a young singer … I mean, the advantage is that you get input from someone you admire, sometimes it’s fresh, sometimes people will bring your attention to something you hadn’t been working on, and perhaps need to, and sometimes they’ll bring your attention to something in a way that makes it understandable. I rarely find that students don’t say ‘Oh, yes, my teacher’s been trying to get me to do that, too,’ in which case it’s so helpful. But it can also be confusing. If it does differ greatly from the thing the person’s working on, they can start to think, ‘Well, Renée Fleming said this, so it must be true.’ So I always start with a disclaimer and say if you don’t agree, or if you and your teacher don’t agree, just, please, discard it immediately.”  

Indeed, Fleming, who graduated from Juilliard in 1987, is keenly aware of the perils of the master class format. “I think it’s brutal, I really do,” she said, “because you’re performing, and you’re basically being criticized in front of an audience, and that’s hard.  So I try very much to impart as much information as I can, but in a positive framework.  Young singers [are] such fragile beings, and it’s very easy to take someone apart in front of an audience, and have everybody laugh, and you watch the poor young musician’s face fall … I don’t shrink back from saying what I really think, but I try really hard not to be mean, not to tear them down, but instead to say, ‘Look, I’m still a student, I’m still working, I’m still learning.’ Nobody’s ever finished learning.”  

Fleming traces her unprecedented success to hard work, of course, but also to the notion that a singer’s art requires a broad palette of influence. “I liken forming a voice, and in fact the whole artistic package, to putting together an incredibly complex puzzle. And so all of the pieces never come from one person,” she said. “They come from all different sources, and from your own intellectual curiosity. I’ve had a couple of teachers who were really helpful, but without some of the other pieces, I wouldn’t be where I am.”  

The music presented during the class, much of it far removed from the standard core repertory, reflected the formidable breadth of Fleming’s own performing history, ranging from an extract from Strauss’s Capriccio sung by tenor Paul Appleby, to a signature soprano aria from Massenet’s Hérodiade offered by master’s degree candidate Emalie Savoy, to works by Handel and Rachmaninoff performed by artist diploma students Cecelia Hall and Lei Xu, respectively. The fine pianists for the class were Nathan Brandwein, who is working toward a D.M.A. in collaborative piano, and graduate diploma candidate Natalia Katyukova.

When addressing the singers, Fleming used a combination of metaphors (“Imagine that your words are on a cushion of air”) and nuts and bolts talk of technique (“Expand your intercostal muscles when you inhale”), in addition to heavy doses of humor. (Her story about walking out on stage on the opening night of Der Rosenkavalier at the Met earlier this season only to realize that her pannier—and its accompanying bustle—was on backwards nearly brought down the house. “You’ve got to have a sense of humor in this business,” she said.) In the end, Fleming, who has the reputation of being completely without pretense despite her artistic and social standing, was able to achieve real results with each of the four singers with whom she worked. She was particularly focused on the issue of support, which she called the “most difficult part of singing to teach, and the most controversial,” and with finding dramatic variety (“You want your voice and body to do anything your imagination wants to do.”). In all cases, Fleming was duly impressed the by the level of technical polish and musical insight the performers brought to their work. 

During the final minutes of the class, Fleming took questions from the audience. The questions, all of which were about learning to sing properly, echoed a comment she had made during her recent phone interview. “I always say that it’s important not to set limitations and to take full responsibility in the practice room for your own development. You know, students are so busy doing so many different things, they can be kind of passive. ‘Well, my teacher said this, my teacher said that.’ And, you know, you have to go and experiment, and be positive. And frankly, all the advice we give is based on our own experience, anyway.” It was just the sort of no-nonsense approach to singing that she demonstrated throughout the class.

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