Q & A: Renée Fleming on the Making of ‘Cities that Sing: Paris’ IMAX Experience

By Francisco Salazar

Renée Fleming continues to push the boundaries as an artist. She has been an influential opera singer, recitalist, and mentor, and has built one of the most significant discographies of her generation. Her voice has been featured in many films and she has even done some cross-over work in jazz and rock.

Now the soprano brings her artistic vision to a new IMAX experience series that will see her explore different cities through music, art, food, and fashion. The first of the series will focus on Paris, a city that has been important to Fleming’s career and where she has many of her greatest successes.

OperaWire had a chance to speak with Fleming about the filming process, her inspiration, and what she hopes to bring to audiences with this new series.

OperaWire: How did this project come about? What inspired it?

Renée Fleming: I’m always trying to bring opera and classical music to a wider audience. I’d been working with Stage Access, which produces, distributes, and licenses performing arts content, and we had this idea for a filmed series where performances of great vocal music would be surrounded with explorations of the legendary cities associated with the repertoire.

When we saw the opportunity to work with IMAX, and have this totally immersive cinema format in the classical arts space for the first time, it was something I wanted to explore.

OW: Why was Paris the city you chose for the first of these IMAX experiences?

RF: Paris is truly one of the greatest opera capitals in the world. On some nights, you might find productions in five different houses. I have performed there countless times, in both opera and concerts, and it’s where I have had some of my most rewarding artistic experiences. And, for dream destinations, Paris would have to be at or near the top of anyone’s list.

OW: What are some of the most memorable experiences in Paris throughout your career? 

RF: The production of “Capriccio” at the Palais Garnier directed by Robert Carsen (who appears in this film) is something I’ll never forget. He directed a gala I did there last spring. I have sung such a wide variety of roles in Paris- From Alcina to Manon, Desdemona, Rusalka, and Arabella. I’ll be back next year for another role debut- Pat Nixon in a new production of “Nixon in China.”

And the city is incredibly meaningful for me on a personal level. I owned an apartment in Paris, and I often brought my young daughters along when I was performing there. I used to take them to play in the park behind Notre Dame. I love the light in the city, the museums, and of course the food.

OW: How did you choose the locations you wanted to film when the project was conceived? Who were some of the people you wanted to speak with when the project started to be developed? 

RF: I knew I wanted to speak with director Robert Carsen because he has done such phenomenal work in Paris, some of which I have been privileged to be a part of. And, because Paris is a world capital of fashion, I wanted to speak to a great designer. It’s fantastic that Alexis Mabille agreed to let us visit his atelier. He is one of the very small, select official list of grand couturiers, and aside from being incredibly charming, he also has a background in opera and theater.

OW: You are not only a musical icon but you are also known for your style and fashion. Tell me about the gowns and wardrobe that you chose for this project especially since Paris is a fashion capital.

RF A bonus of having Alexis Mabille in this episode is that I was able to wear three of his stunning gowns. When you see his creations, you know instantly that he understands the scale and grandeur of opera, but his work is also extremely elegant.

OW: Let’s talk about the filming process and working with the director François-René Martin. What were some of the challenges of making this project and what did you learn from doing something like this?

RF: To film something for IMAX, you need to use very special cameras and a lot of them. It’s an amazing technical process, to film for the largest cinema format there is. Movement, tracking shots, and the knowledge that your image will be at least 50 feet high, affect how you shoot. There were some sweeping shots where we had to rein in the camera movement because it’s just so powerful. But François-René Martin is brilliant, with an impeccable visual sense, and the ability to find poetry in light, architecture, and images of people. When I saw his first edit, I was stunned.

OW: You have a number of musical guests like Piotr Beczala and Alexandre Duhamel. How did you get them on board for the project and how did you choose the musical selections for the film?

RF: I love singing with Piotr. The last time we had shared the stage was in “Rusalka” at the Metropolitan Opera. But I knew about his command of the French repertoire “Werther,” “Des Grieux,” “Faust” and that he had also started singing Don José to great acclaim.

We really wanted to feature emerging and local artists as well, and I had met French soprano Axelle Fanyo when she came to work in SongStudio, the art song program I direct at Carnegie Hall, where she was utterly charming. And there is so much fabulous French music for the baritone voice, that we were fortunate to find Alexandre Duhamel, who lives in Paris and sings all over the world.

As far as choosing repertoire, it’s a fluid conversation between the producers and each singer. Knowing we wanted to focus on music associated with Paris, and to include some of the really landmark, beloved arias, and duets, it’s a question of asking each artist what they propose, and then making it all fit, which I think worked out beautifully.

OW: What do you hope audiences take away from this IMAX experience?

RF: I hope the audience will be immersed in the music (especially opera) and culture of a place I truly love. With all that’s going on these days, why not escape, for just a while, to Paris and the Théâtre du Châtelet via an IMAX screen?

OW: What can we expect for the next installment in Venice?

RF: It’s going to be spectacular. We shot at La Fenice, with that legendary theater’s orchestra, conducted by Maestro Riccardo Frizza. It is staggering how many well-beloved operas premiered there: “Rigoletto,” “La Traviata,” “Simon Boccanegra,” among others. It’s a city that can reasonably lay claim to being a birthplace of the art form. And of course, there will be plenty of gondolas, bridges, more gorgeous gowns, and the occasional spritz.


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