For decades Renée Fleming has been a shining star on the world’s great opera stages, none more so than the Metropolitan Opera. From her victory at the National Council Auditions in 1988 to her debut three years later to her final performance at the tail end of the 2016-17 season, Fleming was the Met’s diva.
While her future as an opera star remains a mystery (she hasn’t retired altogether but is simply biding her time for exciting projects), there is no doubt that she remains an essential fixture in the world of classical music. In honor of her efforts both past and future, the Metropolitan Opera Guild honored the soprano at its 83rd Annual Luncheon in an event entitled “Renée & Friends” on Thursday, Dec. 7, 2017.
The two-hour event, held at Cipriani in New York City, featured a number of high-profile guests, including opera stars and general managers, musical performances, and some truly memorable speeches.
Here is a look at the highlights of the exclusive event.
The event was hosted by Met Opera Guild president Richard J. Miller who made a point to emphasize Fleming’s major achievements, including her emphasis on education programs. From there he introduced Urban Voices, a group of young middle school students who performed “Amazing Grace” for the guests. “They started just a few months ago,” he added.
In one of the emotional highlights of the evening, the guild put on a video that traced Fleming’s career at the Met. The montage included pictures from her childhood, her university years, and her early time at the Met. HD videos were supplemented throughout as well, though it was surprising to not see much footage from the pre-2006 era, including fine performances such as her “Otello” (which was only heard with an audio clip). The video also showcased interviews with Fleming, Susan Graham, and Plácido Domingo, which added to the general sense of love and respect for this great artist. The clincher was the bookends of Fleming singing the “Letter Scene” from “Eugene Onegin.”
Two Soprano Arias Sung By a Bass-Baritone
In one of the lighter moments of the evening, bass-baritone Luca Pisaroni came on stage to pay musical tribute to Fleming. He noted that he would be singing three pieces, including “two of your arias that I’ve always wanted to sing.” Sure enough, pianist Vlad Iftinca kicked off the performance with the introduction to one of the Countess’ arias from “Le Nozze di Figaro” before Pisaroni launched into a completely different song. In closing the program, the introduction to “Sempre Libera” made a cameo before the bass-baritone took over yet another English-language song. Despite singing the night before, Pisaroni was in truly fine voice.
Gelb Makes Statement
It was Renée Fleming’s afternoon, but something uncomfortable hung in the air as Met general manager Peter Gelb stepped onstage. And he knew it. Instead of sidestepping the issue as if it never happened, Gelb elegantly addressed the situation without naming names and emphasizing that the Met was bigger than anyone or anything. He listed off all the challenges the organization has overcome since its inception to make the statement. Then he launched into a tribute for Fleming, noting his first experience with her when he was forced to hire her a last-second replacement for Cheryl Studer in a concert to perform the final trio from “Der Rosenkavalier.” “Little did I know that she would become one of the greatest Strauss singers in history,” he said to rousing applause. He also ended his speech by leaving the door open for when Fleming might be ready to take on another project at the Met.
Ann Patchett Steals the Show
The author of Bel Canto delivered, unquestionably, the finest speech of the entire evening, painting a portrait of Fleming as few know her. She emphasized that she often forgot that her famous friend was an icon and related a number of stories that emphasized the fact. Among them was one in which the two were on a trip from Moscow to St. Petersburg in -30 degree weather. Patchett noted that as they got close to their arrival, at 2 AM, Fleming started putting on some makeup. Patchett was incredulous and questioned the decision, noting that no one would be at the station. “I know that you’re really important but nobody’s going to be there,” Patchett noted. But sure enough, as they arrived at the train station, “it was as if Scott Glenn had fallen to earth. There were just banks of people, paparazzi just going everywhere.” She emphasized Fleming’s constant kindness to everyone and closed things off narrating a hilarious story about a limo driver trying to pick up Fleming one night as she waited to be picked up for a concert performance. “You’ve still got it,” she closed.
The event came to a close with the soprano giving her own remarks, thanking everyone involved. Speaking about the opportunities offered in the US and her lineage, she joked about feeling like a candidate running for president before telling a story about being confused with Hillary Clinton. She was doing an event for Chance Rapper and was being filmed from behind as she sang. He posted it to his millions of Instagram followers and “15 minutes later, my daughter burst out laughing.” Fleming inquired about what had happened and was told that all the people commenting on the post noted that they didn’t know that “Hillary could sing.” She thanked all her mentors, including Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, Beverly Sills, and others. She thanked all the organizations she was involved with, capping off a memorable event.