Renée Fleming and Patricia Barber
One of the most beloved and celebrated musical ambassadors of our time, soprano Renée Fleming captivates audiences with her sumptuous voice, consummate artistry, and compelling stage presence. At a White House ceremony in 2013, the President awarded her the National Medal of Arts, America’s highest honor for an individual artist. Known as “the people’s diva” and winner of the 2013 Grammy Award for Best Classical Vocal Solo, she continues to grace the world’s greatest opera stages and concert halls, now extending her reach to include other musical forms and media. Over the past few seasons, Renée has hosted a wide variety of television and radio broadcasts, including the Metropolitan Opera’s Live in HD series for movie theaters and television, and Live From Lincoln Center on PBS. She brought her voice to a vast new audience in 2014, as the first classical artist to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl.
As a musical statesman, Renée has been sought after on numerous distinguished occasions, from the 2006 Nobel Peace Prize ceremony to performances in Beijing during the 2008 Olympic Games. Last year, she sang in the televised concert at the Brandenburg Gate to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. In 2012, in an historic first, she sang on the balcony of Buckingham Palace in the Diamond Jubilee Concert for HM Queen Elizabeth II. In January 2009, Renée was featured in the televised We Are One: The Inaugural Celebration at the Lincoln Memorial concert for President Obama. She has also performed for the United States Supreme Court and, in November 2009, celebrated the 20th anniversary of the Czech Republic’s “Velvet Revolution” at the invitation of Václav Havel. An additional distinction was bestowed in 2008 when, breaking a precedent, Renée became the first woman in the 125-year history of the Metropolitan Opera to solo headline an opening night gala.
Last season, Renée was seen as Countess Madeleine in Strauss’s Capriccio at Lyric Opera of Chicago, under the baton of Sir Andrew Davis, and with conductor Christian Thielemann at the Semperoper Dresden. On New Year’s Eve she sang the title role in a new production of Lehar’s The Merry Widow at the Metropolitan Opera. In April, she made her Broadway debut as an actress in the comedy Living on Love, for which she was nominated for a Drama League Award.
Renée’s recital schedule in recent years has spanned the globe, including Rio de Janeiro, São Paulo, Buenos Aires, Quito, Bogota, Paris, Geneva, London, Vienna, Hong Kong, Beijing, Guangzhou, and Taipei. In 2013, she joined with the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts to present American Voices, a concert and 3-day festival celebrating the best American singing in all genres. The festival was the subject of a Great Performances documentary on PBS in January of 2015. Her 2014 recital calendar included performances in Tucson, Las Vegas, and Mesa, AZ. Concerts in 2014 included a duo evening with tenor Jonas Kaufmann at Lyric Opera of Chicago, another with tenor Michael Schade and the Dresden Philharmonic in Abu Dhabi, a concert at the New National Theatre in Tokyo, and Dresden concerts of Richard Strauss orchestral songs conducted by Christian Thielemann.
A four-time Grammy winner, Renée won the 2013 Best Classical Vocal Solo Grammy Award for Poèmes (Decca, 2012), a collection of 20th-Century French music, including works composed especially for her by Henri Dutilleux. Her first-ever holiday album, Christmas in New York, was released by Decca in October of 2014. In June 2010, Decca and Mercury records released the CD Dark Hope, which features Renée covering songs by indie-rock and pop artists. Her recent opera dvds include Strauss’s Arabella and Ariadne auf Naxos, and Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. Other recent DVD releases include Handel’s Rodelinda, Massenet’s Thaïs and Rossini’s Armida, all three in the Metropolitan Opera Live in HD series, and Verdi’s Traviata, filmed at London’s Royal Opera House. Ms. Fleming’s 2010 DVD Renée Fleming & Dmitri Hvorostovsky: A Musical Odyssey in St. Petersburg follows Renée and baritone Dmitri Hvorostovsky to Russia, where they explore and perform in some of St. Petersburg’s most historic locations. In recent years, this fourteen-time Grammy nominated artist has recorded everything from Strauss’s complete Daphne to the jazz album Haunted Heart to the movie soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. She recorded Alexandre Desplat’s theme song, “Still Dream” for the soundtrack of the Dreamworks Animation feature, Rise of the Guardians. Her recording honors range from the 2009 Echo Award for Strauss’s Four Last Songs to the Prix Maria Callas Orphée d’Or by the Académie du Disque Lyric for TDK’s DVD production of Capriccio. In February, 2012, Renée received the Victoire d’Honneur, the highest award conveyed by the French Victoires de la Musique.
Renée Fleming’s artistry has been an inspiration to many other prominent artists, such as Chuck Close and Robert Wilson, whose portraits of her were included in the Metropolitan Opera’s 2007 fundraising auction. Two portraits of Ms. Fleming were also created by Francesco Clemente, who revealed one in Salzburg in spring 2007, with the Metropolitan Opera displaying the other in 2008. Photographic portraits include works by Brigitte Lacombe and Irving Penn, among others. In June of this year, the Annie Leibowitz portrait of Renée was added to the permanent collection of the National Portrait Gallery in Washington, DC.
Renée Fleming is a champion of new music and has performed works by a wide range of contemporary composers, including recent compositions by Anders Hillborg, Henri Dutilleux, Brad Mehldau, André Previn, and Wayne Shorter. Among her numerous awards are the Fulbright Lifetime Achievement Medal (2011); Sweden’s Polar Prize (2008); the Chevalier de la Légion d’Honneur from the French government (2005); Honorary Membership in the Royal Academy of Music (2003); and honorary doctorates from Harvard University, Duke University (2015), Carnegie Mellon University (2012), the Eastman School of Music (2011) and The Juilliard School (2003), where she was also commencement speaker.
An advocate for literacy, Renée Fleming has been featured in promotional campaigns for the Association of American Publishers (Get Caught Reading), and the Magazine Publishers of America’s READ poster campaign for the American Library Association. She was honored by The New York Public Library as a “Library Lion.” Her book, The Inner Voice, was published by Viking Penguin in 2004, and released in paperback by Penguin the following year. An intimate account of her career and creative process, the book is also published in France by Fayard Editions, in the United Kingdom by Virgin Books, by Henschel Verlag in Germany, Shunjusha in Japan, and by Fantom Press in Russia.
In addition to her work on stage and in recordings, Renée Fleming has represented Rolex timepieces in print advertising since 2001. In 2008, she launched La Voce by Renée Fleming, a fragrance designed for her, with the proceeds benefiting the Metropolitan Opera. Master Chef Daniel Boulud created the dessert “La Diva Renée” (1999) in her honor, and she inspired the “Renée Fleming Iris” (2004), which has been replicated in porcelain by Boehm. Having been added to Mr. Blackwell’s best dressed list, her concert gowns have been designed by Reem Acra, Gianfranco Ferré, John Galliano for Dior, Douglas Hannant, Christian Lacroix, Oscar de la Renta, Angel Sanchez and Vivienne Westwood. In June of 2014, the Smithsonian added the gown designed by Vera Wang for Renée’s Super Bowl anthem performance to the permanent collection of the Museum of American History. In addition to serving as the face of opera for two public transit campaigns in New York and London, Renée has appeared on The Late Show with David Letterman, The Martha Stewart Show, Spectacle: Elvis Costello with…, The View and Prairie Home Companion as “Renata Flambé,” among numerous other media outlets.
Renée is currently a member of the Board of Trustees of the Carnegie Hall Corporation, the Board of Sing for Hope, the Board of Trustees of Asia Society, and the Artistic Advisory Board of the Polyphony Foundation, which works to bridge the divide between Arab and Jewish communities in Israel by creating a common ground where young people come together around classical music. In 2010, she was named the first-ever Creative Consultant at Lyric Opera of Chicago, where she is also a member of the Board and a Vice President. She is currently curating the creation of a world-premiere opera based on the best-seller Bel Canto for Lyric Opera’s 2015-2016 season.
From her early days leading a jazz trio in small Chicago nightclubs, Patricia Barber has drawn extravagant accolades. The praise came at first from local writers, impressed by her unique arrangements and coolly composed piano improvisations. As she added vocals to her repertoire, the praise poured in from national reviewers intoxicated by her recordings. And when (after years of international touring) she began to focus on her own compositions, kudos arrived from new fans, besotted by her lapidary lyrics and her often indelible imagery.
Since Barber doesn’t consider herself a poet – and since she didn’t want to be a jazz pianist in the first place – you’d have to say things turned out pretty well. Barber wrote (in Poetry Magazine, in 2005): “I am a songwriter, which is not the same thing as a poet. Poetry is a passion, my ever present guide and inspiration. Though I indulge in very little of the lingua franca of the art. . . . I cannot talk about poetry, but I know poetry. Alone, with logic and diligence, I have studied, but for me art can be created neither by logic nor diligence. Like music, poetry is created in the mouth, in the ear, and in the air.”
That’s an especially nuanced explanation; then again, the gleaming successes of Barber’s art lie in the nuances, the nooks and crannies, of conventional performance. When the veteran music writer Don Heckman (in the Los Angeles Times) called Barber “one of the most utterly individual jazz performers to arrive on the scene in years,” he wasn’t referring to the virtuosic spectacle that comes all too easily to today’s jazz artists; he had homed in on the quiet audacity with which Barber has redefined the role of the singersongwriter for 21st-century jazz.
Born in the Chicago suburbs, Barber came by music naturally. Her father was Floyd “Shim” Barber, a saxophonist who had worked with Glenn Miller’s orchestra, and the instrument beguiled young Patricia: “When he played the saxophone around the house, I’d put my hand in the bell to feel the music.” She began playing classical piano at the age of 6, but by the time she had graduated high school – in South Sioux City, Iowa, where the family had moved in the mid-60s, following her father’s death – Barber had foresworn jazz entirely. “It was hanging over my head the whole time,” she recalled years later. “But I thought that becoming a jazz musician was such a stupid thing for a woman to do – for a smart woman to do – that I tried to resist it.”
Barber enrolled at the University of Iowa with a double major in classical music and psychology, while continuing to indulge the voracious reading habit she had nurtured since childhood. But the jazz echoes she thought she’d banished only grew louder, and by graduation, she had decided to follow in her father’s path. She returned to Chicago, and in 1984 she landed the gig that put her (and the venue at which she performed) on the national jazz map: five nights a week at the intimate Gold Star Sardine Bar, which held 60 people at the most, but where the audience made up in sophistication what it lacked in size.
Soon her reputation spread beyond Chicago, spurred by enthusiastic response to performances at the Chicago Jazz Festival (1988) and the North Sea Jazz Festival in the Netherlands (1989), culminating in her major label debut (A Distortion Of Love) in 1992. Two years later, she released Café Blue, her debut for the small Premonition label; working with label head and producer Michael Friedman, Barber garnered rave reviews from around the nation, which would quickly become the normal response to each new release.
At about the same time, Barber began a steady engagement at Chicago’s legendary Green Mill (which was owned in the 1920s by a lieutenant of Al Capone’s, and is today considered the city’s leading jazz room); when not on tour, she continues to perform there every Monday night. And, ever the student, Barber returned to academia in the mid-90s to earn her master’s degree in jazz pedagogy from Northwestern University. (She regularly gives master classes in this country and overseas.)
Barber’s first two albums for Premonition made her an international star: despite the label’s tiny size, Barber sold more than 120,000 of the album Modern Cool and even more of the follow-up Nightclub, attracting the attention of Blue Note Records. In 1999 Blue Note started distributing her discs as part of a unique partnership – the first joint imprint in the fabled label’s then-six-decade history. In 2002, Barber moved into an exclusive contract with Blue Note, recording three albums, including Mythologies, a genre-crashing song cycle based on the writings of the ancient Roman poet Ovid; the project was supported by a Guggenheim Fellowship in composition (the first ever awarded to a non-classical “songwriter”).
By then, Barber had secured her place in modern jazz history. Among her contemporaries, only Cassandra Wilson had managed to create a comparable chemistry of new and old standards (catalyzed by uncategorizable originals); and only Diana Krall would match the compound appeal of Barber’s rarefied vocals and pristine piano. In recent years, she has released two volumes of music recorded at the Green Mill, available on her own label.
Now with Smash, her January 22, 2013 debut on Concord Jazz, Barber proves that her poetry continues to search ever deeper, even as her music grows all the more magical.