American soprano Renée Fleming takes a modern approach in Distant Light

She tells us more about the album, her admiration for Icelandic singer Björk and her growing role offstage

American opera singer Renée Fleming. AFP
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Renée Fleming has become more discerning with her material. Her latest album, Distant Light, is an eclectic collection featuring works by 20th-century American orchestral composer Samuel Barber, along with more modern pieces by Swedish maestro Anders Hillborg and – surprisingly – Björk.

With her 58th birthday approaching on Valentines Day, Fleming's hints that her performances in Richard Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier this month at London's Royal Opera and at the Metropolitan Opera House this spring could be her last in the standard repertoire.

“I haven’t found too many things that are appropriate for me because my voice has not got heavier or more dramatic,” she says.

“This will be my last Marschallin, but I definitely am hoping to do some new work in the future, and there’s a couple of things buzzing right now.”

Distant Light opens with Barber's Knoxville: Summer of 1915, a 1948 work set to a text by poet and novelist James Agee, and is a perfect fit for Fleming's silvery, soaring soprano.

It links with Hillborg's The Strand Settings, a 20-minute, four-song cycle debuted by Fleming with the New York Philharmonic in 2013. Various locales also play an inspirational role in Fleming's approach to Distant Light.

She explains how the album includes sounds recorded from a porch on a summer evening, a roof on a house near the sea on a starlit night and bees buzzing at a bus terminal. It all combines to create a textured, emotional soundscape.

“Because I’ve done all my standard rep, [music label] Decca said: ‘Hey, you haven’t recorded the Barber’. And I’m shocked that they recommended it because these major orchestral works are not exactly radio,” she says. “This album is sort of the beginning of me trying to explore this idea of new music.”

For Björk's Virus, Joga and All Is Full of Love, the microphone is much closer to her mouth, creating a contemporary rather than classical sound.

Fleming is full of praise for the trailblazing Icelandic singer. “Americans tend to kind of block Scandinavians together, and Björk is somebody who’s such a household name, and when I became more familiar with her music, I just thought: ‘God, this is so inventive, the use of language, the arrangements’,” says Fleming. “I’m looking for repertoire that is interesting to the public that’s a little bit more modern.”

The album ends with two tracks melding into a single recording.

“I wanted to do that for years. This is what pop artists do,” says Fleming, adding playfully: “I’m my own backup chorus”.

Born in Pennsylvania, she cut her teeth as a jazz singer to pay her tuition fees at New York's Juilliard School. Her big break arrived when at the age of 29 she won the Metropolotian Opera audition in 1988. That same year she landed a high-profile gig in what would become her signature role as Countess Almaviva in Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro by the Houston Grand Opera. Known for her masterful renderings of works by composers, including Richard Strauss, Mozart and Handel, Fleming is now viewed as one of the finest sopranos of her generation. She headlined the 2014 Abu Dhabi Festival in a sold-out performance at Emirates Palace.

She is also known for her spellbinding performances of the United States anthem before the World Series baseball games in 2003 and before US football's game of the year, the Super Bowl, in 2014 She also released a 2005 jazz recording, Haunted Heart, with Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell.

Despite her varied achievements, she feels women face more difficult career paths than men. “There are still many limits on what women can do,” she says.

“If you look at certain parts of our business, let alone Wall Street or anywhere, we definitely don’t make up half the population of many worlds in which we live,” says Fleming.

“Now when I tour, and sometimes I’m fortunate to have private tours of shows and museums, I always ask: ‘Tell me about the women that are represented here’. And people sometimes squirm, and sometimes they’re very proud to say, ‘we’re really working on it’.”

Following an administrative track established by her late friend Beverly Sills, Fleming in December 2010 became a vice president and creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago – there she curated Jimmy López's 2015 Bel Canto, based on Ann Patchett's 2001 novel.

Fleming added the role of artistic partner at the Kennedy Center in Washington in March last year.

Could she see herself running an opera company?

“I used to think about that, and I would say never say never,” she says. “But I think I’m probably more useful doing what I’m doing now rather than focusing in one area.”

* Ronald Blum / Associated Press