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Renee Fleming talks Broadway's  'Carousel' revival, #MeToo

The opera soprano is known for pushing herself in unexpected directions.

Renee Fleming attends the New Museum 40th Anniversary

Renee Fleming attends the New Museum 40th Anniversary Spring Gala (2017). Photo Credit: Getty Images/Jamie McCarthy

Don’t expect opera superstar Renée Fleming to start coasting anytime soon. Not even when biking down the Hudson, we’re betting.

         The soprano is known for pushing herself in unexpected directions — she’s recorded jazz standards, show tunes (a new album is due out later this year), Bjork covers, and even sung (in Elvish) on the soundtrack for the third “Lord of the Rings” movie. Now she’s making her Broadway musical debut in the revival of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Carousel,” playing at the Imperial Theatre. A four-time Grammy Award winner, she’s earned her first Tony Award nomination for her portrayal of Nettie, a woman trying to support her cousin (Tony winner Jessie Mueller), who’s trapped in a violent romance with carousel barker Billy Bigelow (“Hamilton’s” Joshua Henry). The show has spawned much chatter—how can a musical that has never dealt adequately with the domestic violence at the heart of its plot survive in the midst of today’s #MeToo movement?

         And how, for that matter, can an opera star handle the (very un-opera-like) Broadway grind of eight shows a week? Fleming, 59, spoke with Newsday contributor Joseph V. Amodio.

In opera, you get days off between performances, to protect the voice. It makes sense—you’re singing without microphones, and expected to reach the back row of the Met. Broadway uses different muscles. It’s like you’re a marathoner who’s suddenly expected to sprint.

Exactly. (She chuckles.) It’s been okay. I love having a routine. And sleeping in my own bed. I’m typically in a plane every three days.  Actually…I’m not nervous at all. That’s unusual for me. I have a bicycle in my room—between shows, I go for a nice long ride on the river.

Does it help the voice?

It helps the brain to get out of the theater, get some sun.  It’s a real pleasure.

Your big number—“You’ll Never Walk Alone”—is iconic. You’ve sung it before. How do you approach it in the context of the show?

 When I sing it in concert, it’s an anthem. In the show, it has a different purpose. Nettie is helping Julie absorb a shocking tragedy. That’s the beauty of great music. The songs people respond most powerfully to are slightly enigmatic and can be applied to your own life. Think of “Amazing Grace,” or Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” or “You’ll Never Walk Alone.”

I go back and forth on this show. On one hand, it’s dated and problematic—Julie gets hit and, no worries, keeps on singing. Yet in a way, it’s bracingly realistic. Many abused women DO stay in their relationship, for a host of reasons.

That’s the important thing—to discuss it. I think it’s actually the perfect time to show this piece and bring younger people to it…and have frank conversations about it. In my generation, we put it under the rug. It was “Stand by Your Man,” “The Man I Love”—there were songs that perpetuated this.

Yeah, torch songs that singers revel in alongside a piano.

Right—as you’re nursing your bruises. But…in the show, things that weren’t questioned are now questioned.  (Director) Jack O’Brien has tried to deal with this by shifting the dialogue a bit, and removing the assertion that, yes, he can hit you and it doesn’t hurt.  That’s gone. But (some of it) is still there, warts and all. So it’s a perfect fit for #MeToo, I think. The only way this behavior stops is if it’s out in the open.

There aren’t many artists like you, who dare to step outside their comfort zone and challenge themselves in new ways. What drives you to do that?

My taste was eclectic as a young person growing up.

What did you listen to?

Because I was the oldest child in my family, I didn’t have siblings to influence me. I started late. My teacher in a middle school art class would turn on the radio—that was my first introduction to popular music. I loved Elton John, Cat Stevens, Dan Fogelberg. But mostly Joni Mitchell.  I was a total Joni Mitchell fanatic. All through my twenties, she was kind of an emotional touchstone for me.  Finding someone who writes music that makes you think, “I could’ve written that—she’s saying what I’m thinking”—that’s how it becomes a soundtrack for your life. 

Will classical music ever again be a soundtrack for young people?

Organizations are trying to do that by having initiatives that heavily discount tickets for students, treating them as future patrons. Smaller venues—that’s working—and shorter pieces that are more social.

So you’re hopeful.

I am.  Even “Carousel”—when I come outside, there are tons and tons of young people looking for autographs.

       

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