Renee Fleming on Self-Reinvention

Opera diva Renee Fleming talks about reinvention, music and more.

By Jill Daniel, published on November 1, 2006 - last reviewed on June 9, 2016

In the competitive opera scene, American soprano Renee Fleming commands center stage. The daughter of two music teachers from upstate New York, Fleming was not born a diva, but a pliant, fledgling songbird eager to learn. In 1991, she made a triumphant debut at the Metropolitan Opera. Now Fleming, author of The Inner Voice, lives in New York City with her two daughters. Her CD of handpicked arias, Homage, was released in the fall of 2006.

In graduate school, you realized your passivity was holding you back. How did you change?

When I was in my twenties, I likened myself to a chameleon. I was literally changing on a daily basis, minute by minute, depending on whom I was with. I'd be what I thought that person would most want.

At that time, people weren't as tuned into the self. I had to discover my own strategy for reinventing myself. I simply emulated friends of mine who seemed to be much more free of this need to please.

You described studying with your mentor Beverley Johnson as hearing the locks on a safe all tumble in sequence.

Beverley not only provided me with the most important elements of my technique, she also gave me emotional support. She encouraged me not to be so hard on myself in those early engagements when I was still struggling and not getting good reviews. It enabled me to be patient. It took a good ten years before I was really ready to perform.

Did you continue to transform yourself thereafter?

I had to work on my image about a decade ago. This took effort and time; I'm much more of a casual, not-particularly-glamorous person in my everyday life. I had to accept the fact that people buy music with their eyes as well as their ears.

Now I am in the stage of trying to maintain everything. Continual artistic growth is what I focus on now. You have to keep reinventing yourself to stay on top.