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Renée Fleming Living on Love

First Career Dramatic Role at Williamstown Theatre Festival

By: Charles Giuliano - 07/07/2014

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Fleming’s appearance at Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer is one of the season’s most coveted tickets.
Fleming’s appearance at Williamstown Theatre Festival this summer is one of the season’s most coveted tickets.

Over the Fourth of July weekend Renée Fleming was the featured soloist for the opening night performance of the Boston Symphony Orchestra’s summer season in Tanglewood.

Significantly, the two part evening started with an emphasis on classical music and for the second part switched to a Pops format with a selection of Broadway standards.

That may signify a turning point for the 55-year-old artist on the cusp of a career as arguably the world’s most successful soprano.

Building on decades of hard work and acclaim she is presented with a range of options.

In an extended residence in the Berkshires, more a working holiday than a vacation, she is appearing as an actor in a refurbished play Living on Love from July 16 through 26 at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.

During a press conference at the Williams Inn I asked if this production is headed for Broadway? It is a dramatic, speaking part for Fleming which includes music but was left unclear to what extent, if at all, Fleming will sing.

Having received ever honor and accolade in the field is a Tony a possibility? Having conquered the classical music world is a move to Broadway musicals among the options she is considering? She confirmed that there have been offers but she has concerns about nightly performances and matinees.

As an opera singer she described to me needing a couple of days of barely speaking between grueling three hour performances of opera.

Below is a thumbnail of the pending WTF play which is the season’s hottest ticket. That is followed by Q & A excerpts from the press conference and brief encounters that followed.

Living on Love

World-renowned soprano Renée Fleming stars as celebrated diva Raquel De Angelis. When her husband, the fiery and egomaniacal Maestro Vito De Angelis, becomes enamored with the lovely young lady hired to ghostwrite his long-delayed autobiography, Raquel retaliates by hiring her very own — and very handsome — ghostwriter to chronicle her life as an opera star. As the young writers try to keep themselves out of the story while churning out chapters, the high-energy — and high-maintenance — power duet threatens to fall out of tune for good. A sparkling new comedy from two-time Tony Award winner Joe DiPietro, adapted from a work by the revered Garson Kanin and directed by three-time Tony Award winner Kathleen Marshall.

Kathleen Marshall Garson Kanin wrote Peccadillo in the 1980s. It was a first draft of a play that had one production but not much of a life after that. It is about an opera diva and an Italian symphony conductor. We did a reading a couple of summers ago. We all agreed that there was something there but it needed to be further developed. We petitioned the Kanin estate to bring on a playwright who proved to be Joe DiPietro. He’s been working on it for the past year and we have done some various readings and things.

This is our first production of the play. In essence it’s a new play based on the source material. The characters and basic plot line are from the original material but so much of the dialogue is new. We got fifty new pages yesterday. We’ll get some new pages today.

Renée Fleming If I get to do anything in the 20th century and in English it’s rare. So it’s very exciting to be in the ‘50s. Our two characters are larger than life almost operatic caricatures. I have known a lot of people who inhabit these two characters so I can draw on parts of them and my own rich experience. What’s different is to make these two characters rather than life and death (as in opera) in theatre to make them funny. And have a great time with it.

Q Will you sing in the play?

RF Not really. I have a phrase here or there. What we do is so Olympian/ athletic, without amplification (in opera) that I wouldn’t know how to sing every day. So this is the safest way to do it. To just have fun with it. There are various recordings that come on. There’s a lot of music in the play. But it’s not me inhabiting.

Q In opera you have a very long gestation period where her you have to do this quickly. How do you feel about that?

(Long pause and then Renée let out a high pitched gasp of simulated exasperation and panic.)

RF I’m a little nervous about that. Most of what I do is by people who died a long time ago. It’s set. We can’t change anything. Not even the dynamic marking. So this is a new experience for me but that’s why I’m doing it. It’s a great adventure.

Charles Giuliano There has been a great deal of speculation that this play will go to Broadway. Of course it’s premature as you are just in readings and rehearsals. Are you considering at this point in your career the possibility of starring in Broadway musicals? We have seen the enormous success of Idina Menzel and Audra McDonald on Broadway. You seem a natural for Broadway. Can you share your thoughts on that? Is it within the realm of possibility?

RF The problem we have is that our schedules are fixed four years in advance. Sometimes five years in advance for opera. Everything that happens on Broadway happens much later. So it’s a challenge to carve out that kind of time. Let’s just say that trying to work with Kathleen has been such a thrill. Putting this together is such an exciting new thing for me. I’ve been singing opera for decades now so this is a new opportunity. We have tried to carve out time to see if that is possible. If not I’ll have a phenomenal holiday.

Stephen M. Kaus (producer for WTF) When we put on plays here the goal is to put on plays here. It’s a bonus if it happens to be wildly successful and commercially viable. But very rarely is that the driving force behind doing a project here. So when we take on Living on Love it’s to get from July 16 to July 26. With fifteen of the best performances we can give to our audience. If it happens to be so well received that people continue to want to see it and in a larger format, that’s awesome. But that’s not the goal.

CG You said exactly that about Elephant Man (which is opening on Broadway this coming season after a sold out run at WTF.)

Douglas Sills Let me translate the subtext here. On 20/19 we are going to Broadway.

(Following the panel discussion the room was set up for speed dates with individual reporters. Here are some excerpts.)

CG Tell me about working with Renée in the transition from a brilliant career in opera to now an entirely new challenge of directing her for theatre.

KM She’s so smart. She is incredibly knowledgeable about the world we are dipping our toe into with this play. But she’s smart about everything. She’s smart about comedy. She’s smart about rhythm. She’s smart about story. Herself. So it’s a joy. We get to present her in a way that she hasn’t been seen before. Obviously opera is an international world. To have the most famous and successful soprano in the world in a play is kind of wonderful. She’s an American born woman so she has all the references to the era and style.

CG What does diva mean in working with her?

KM The opposite. She always looks stunningly beautiful and better than anyone else in the room. She’s gracious and funny. People who are funny in real life translate to being funny on stage.

CG You’re won Tony’s on Broadway. Will this be another one?

KM (Laughs) It’s a new play. You never know what you have until you put it up in front of people. We’re excited about it and the incredible company we have. The design team we put together. You can have the smartest people in the world in the room and it may not work. We’ll see what we have. That’s why we’re here. This can be a wonderful comedy and a wonderful evening out. I hope this play has something to say about age and marriage. About a long marriage, a long career, and about celebrity. About people who are famous and how it affects the people they come in contact with.

CG Welcome to the 20th Century or now the 21st century. Can we discuss what that means for you when stepping out of the familiar world of opera?

RF Honestly to be involved in something this new evolving every day for me is a first for me. This is literally day three of rehearsals so it is very new.

CG I’m following up on a time in your life and career when there are opportunities and changes. Not to force it onto you there seems to be a natural evolution.

RF You know I’ve been offered several things relating to musical theatre. As we said, I haven’t had time to do that. As I’ve said to people my training is so different and so much about power. In opera we’re not amplified. We’re the weight lifters of singers. We perform for three hours and then have to be quiet for three days after that.

CG Like a baseball pitcher.

RF Exactly. (laughing) That’s much more refined than weight lifters. So this idea that you would perform every day and sometimes twice a day is so foreign to me that right now I can’t imagine it. Singing wise. We’ll see how this goes just speaking.

CG We were fortunate to see you at the Met in Rusalka and reviewed it. We continue to get lots of hits on the piece. You have such an enormous fan base.

RF (an emotional response) Oh wonderful. Oh good.

CG You seem unique among opera singers by being as well a dramatic artist.

RF I love theatre. I’m a huge fan. Since I was a beginner singer, stuck in London, alone, right after I got married, I went to the theatre every single night. I got half price tickets and became completely hooked. So I love doing a dramatic part.

CG Have you seen Idina and Audra on Broadway?

RF I’ve seen them both but not recently. I love Audra. I love her. She’s a friend. She’s such an incredible artist. When you see her perform every night it seems she’s giving every fiber of her being. She’s a very generous performer.

CG That describes you as well my dear.

RF Well, thank you.

CG We’ll look forward to seeing you on Broadway.

RF We’ll see.

CG You’ve got quite the leading lady to work with.

DS It’s exciting. Before I got here I learned that she’s a woman in a field where one wears a mask of pretense and that she’s very down to earth. The whole idea of her coming here to do this defines what kind of person she is.

CG In her context define diva for me.

RF Talent. Just magnificent scale of achievement and talent. It doesn’t have to do with pretense. It has to do with living up to what she has been asked to do and far beyond that exceeding anyone’s expectations for her career. She’s one of the greatest in the world that’s ever lived.

CG Is it daunting for you to have that responsibility?

RF I guess if I thought about it. It doesn’t serve me to think about it too much. She’s here to do a job. I’m here to do a job. We’re here to support each other. She brings a wealth of experience and I bring thirty years of what I’ve been doing classically trained. She’s looking to me for support in this new venture and I’m there to give it to her. It is daunting but it’s fun. You always want to play tennis with people who are better than you.

CG Is she raising your game?

RF Being in Williamstown brings up my game. Kathleen’s career, Anna’s career, Justin’s career. They’re all at the top of their game. What a cast. Of course it makes me want to be better. Looking down the line of my career I want to be working with people who make me the best.

CG This is an old play that’s getting new rewrites. So it is much like a new work in progress. You are now getting fifty new pages today and new pages every day. What’s that like?

RF I like it. I grew up doing repertory theatre. I would do four Shakespeare plays each season. So to have to think quickly, move quickly, learn quickly and inhabit quickly is something that’s not foreign to me. I like it. It creates an atmosphere of creativity. And to have a lot of input so that’s why I chose it. Does it make it more scary? Yes.

CG What’s your background for the character? (He plays a conductor.)

RF To some degree yes. I went to the University of Michigan and for a year and a half I was a music major. If you went to the radio in my car you would find a classical music station or more than one. I don’t read music. I’ve read a couple of Bernstein biographies. As a Jewish kid Bernstein was a big deal for our family. So to some degree I’m familiar with it (the role). Being a conductor was something I aspired to as a little boy. When some kids wanted to be a fire chief I wanted to be a conductor. I found it an exciting place to be.

CG Do you play the air guitar of classical music?

RF (Laughing) I like that. There’s a baton, right?

CG If this show goes to Broadway have you carved out time for it?

RF In my business it’s bird in the hand. If someone says “Here’s your contract” I’ve got my carving knife ready.

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