As a young American soprano studying opera in the early 2000s, Renée Fleming was my hero. Who am I kidding, she still is. She has the most beautiful tone quality, consummate technique, and an air of ease that makes the whole thing seem effortless. Of course now, as a working singer, I know that making it look effortless takes years of hard work and dedication. My favorite Renée recording is Strauss’s Vier Letzte Lieder with Eschenbach from the 90’s, and my favorite song from that cycle is “Beim Schlafengehen.” I listened to that recording weekly for three or four years, especially when I felt down about the business or about my progression as an artist. It always brought me back to center, a gentle reminder of why I sing: for the pure joy of self-expression and (hopefully) transporting others in the process. Since I couldn’t find that recording on YouTube, here’s a live version from the Proms in 2001.
When I think of of exquisite writing for the voice and absolute masterful orchestration, I always think of this piece. For me this is the way to write for voice and orchestra. Absolute care about the registers, and the way Ravel keeps the balances has not been surpassed. On top of that, the gorgeous melodies and harmonies…
Maurice Ravel’s “Asie” from Shéhérazade
Sheer perfection. All I ever wanted as a singer was to have even 50% of her breath control.
For the finale, back to harmony and counterpoint. This is the final trio from Der Rosenkavalier, by my all-time favorite cast of Renee Fleming, Susan Graham, and Christine Schaefer. In 2000 a friend and I saw the Fleming-Graham-Schaefer trio in Rosenkavalier at the Met Opera and it was glorious. So my friend told me that they were repeating the production at the Royal Opera in London and we should go. Since we both had money at that time, we went. If New York was glorious, London was transcendent. This is music that has always made so many emotions of joy and sorrow audible. I have sometimes chased my favorite music to Philadelphia, Boston and Chicago, but this was the first (and probably the last) time I traveled across an ocean and it was worth it. Since I could only find the final trio for F-G-S, I have added the final duet by Anne Sophie von Otter and Barbara Bonney for your listening pleasure.
“Sing for Your Supper”, a Rodgers and Hart trio from The Boys from Syracuse is irresistibly goofy, especially when it’s done so enthusiastically by world class singers. I couldn’t decide who did it better—the Broadway stars Rebecca Luker, Audra McDonald and Mary Testa or the opera legends Frederica von Stade, Marilyn Horne and Renee Fleming. The former is not the best sound in the world, but clearly, all of them were having a wonderful time. So, I have included them both and you get to choose. A lot of its glory comes from the vocal arrangement by Hugh Martin, who was also a composer. He deserves a credit. Eighty plus years after he wrote that arrangement, everyone still uses it.
It is amazing what you can find on the internet. Trawling YouTube for this week’s videos, I nonchalantly typed “Blier Fleming” into its search engine. There were a few clips I already knew about, but also something I had not seen before: a performance of the Rondine aria “Chi il bel sogno di Doretta.” No pianist was listed, but it came from a concert in Barcelona’s Palau de la Música in 1999. Hmm, wasn’t that when I was in Spain with Renée, accompanied by my brother Malcolm and my newish boyfriend (now husband) Jim?
I listened to the performance and knew it had to be me: the balance of the hands, the very breezy intro (this was the sixth encore, no time to dawdle), the places where I tend to use a little more bass to swell the volume, the tricky, almost-perfect co-ordination under the endlessly spun-out high notes, even the place I often have a teensy screw-up—yep, Steve at the 88s. The frame is focused on Renée for the entire aria, but when she beckons the pianist to come to her for a bow…there I am. With a goatee. (Yep, 1999.) I would never have found the video except one of the listener comments: “Isn’t that Steven Blier at the piano?”
Renée Fleming had a soft spot for me. She first heard me play at Matthew Epstein’s 50th birthday bash at Weill Hall, where she also sang the Rondine aria (partnered by my colleague Martin Katz). She told me afterwards, “There’s something about the way you make music that I really like. I get your phrasing, I love the sound you make.” I went on to partner Renée in a number of concerts. We didn’t rehearse much—a couple of run-throughs per program was about it. I didn’t find it hard to get on her wavelength, though I often had the feeling I was in a very high-class jam session, responding spontaneously to Renée’s lead. That happens to be one of the ways I most enjoy playing, especially with someone as deeply musical as this artist. I don’t like overanalyzing music—it only makes my arms feel crunchy and stiff. She also cured me of a bad habit: playing the melody line while accompanying popular songs. Taking away that crutch I found new and better things to do with my right hand when improvising in Gershwin and Ellington. I’ll always be grateful for the years I had with Renée. I never got to make a CD with her, but I did get to Carnegie Hall, Symphony Hall in Chicago, the Musikhaus in Vienna, and La Scala in her company. She trusted me onstage, and that was a blessing.
I am especially moved by the end of the video, where I stand up and join Renée for a bow. There are very few films of me walking, and this one brought tears to my eyes. I was just beginning to notice difficulties getting around on my feet in 1999—mainly fatigue, and a lazy right foot that gave me an eccentric gait. But to see myself walk center stage, kiss Renée on the cheek, and bow to the public…wow. I swear I’ll do it again before I shuffle off this mortal coil. The research is moving quickly and the cure for FSH Muscular Dystrophy is certainly on the way. (A pink pill—it must be pink.)
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