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Opera singer Renée Fleming is the thinking person's diva

Ren? Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.

Metropolitan Opera

Ren? Fleming as the Marschallin in Strauss’ Der Rosenkavalier.

Renée Fleming is the quintessential diva. Great soprano, glamorous looks, elegant interpreter of roles in Mozart and Strauss operas — and she's American to boot.

But Fleming is also something of a thinking person's prima donna, as exemplified by her latest album, Verismo (Decca), in which she delves into little-known repertoire by Italian composers from the turn of the 20th century such as Leoncavallo, Mascagni, Giordano and Zandonai, as well as some Puccini favorites.

"The repertoire referred to as verismo is opera about the average Joe,'' Fleming said in a phone interview. "It portrays everyday life, with all of the foibles and glories of that.''

Fleming will be singing some of the arias from her album at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday at the David A. Straz Jr. Center for the Performing Arts. It's an Opera Tampa production with Anton Coppola conducting a 56-piece orchestra.

"The response to the album has been so good,'' Fleming said of Verismo, which has been nominated for a Grammy Award. "I'm a little surprised, because this is not repertoire that I sing on stage very much. On the other hand, I think maybe introducing people to some of this music is interesting, and I bring a more lyric point of view to it.''

Two weeks ago, Fleming, 50, played a signature role of hers, the Marschallin in Strauss' Der Rosenkavalier, part of the Metropolitan Opera's series of Saturday matinees beamed live to movie theaters, now in its fourth season. She has sung in or hosted many of these high-definition productions, which demand a different approach from singers.

"When I'm singing in a performance that is not filmed, I'm making gestures which I know will be easy to read at the top of this 4,000-seat house,'' she said. "When there's a camera that's doing a closeup, I focus more on subtle things. One must remain completely focused at all times. Listening is important. I think it's all been really good for the art form — as long as the musical values don't suffer.''

Fleming's program on Tuesday includes four songs by Strauss. She'll also perform a scene from Armida, the Rossini opera in which she will play the title role of a sorceress in a new production directed by Mary Zimmerman for the Met this spring.

The bel canto singing of Rossini is relatively unfamiliar territory for Fleming, though she did perform Armida in 1993 in an Italian production recorded for Sony. It's the rare opera in which all the principals are men (six tenors) except for the title soprano.

"I've only sung one Rossini role and this is it,'' she said. "So I'm definitely not a Rossini singer. However, I did sing nine bel canto roles early on in my career, Bellini, Donizetti and this one Rossini role.''

Rossini singing is known for its intricacy and quickness. "It's like Handel in how florid it is,'' Fleming said. "For Armida, I have to really oil up my voice and get it to move quickly enough. It does have its challenges. The biggest one of all is stamina. It's a long, hard, dramatic part.''

This week's concert will be Fleming's second performance for Opera Tampa. She also was scheduled to sing the program in Naples on Saturday. In the opera world, a star of her stature books her calendar years in advance.

"I'm talking now with opera companies about the 2014-15 season,'' she said. "I think this trend began with Placido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti. Companies were so anxious to have those two guys that they started to book them further and further in advance, and then build their seasons around that. On the one hand, it's nice to have some security about knowing what you're going to be doing. On the other hand, it's a bit frightening because we're living creatures and our voices change. You can think that something's going to be great, and then you get there and you find that it actually wasn't great, or it would have been better to sing something else. What's more frustrating is that when something does go incredibly well, there's not the flexibility to repeat it.''

Fleming's wish list for new roles in the future include Ariadne in Strauss' Ariadne auf Naxos and Elsa in Lohengrin by Wagner.

Tickets for her concert are $50-$125. (813) 229-7827 or toll-free 1-800-955-1045;

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Florida Pro Musica plays a concert of baroque chamber music at 4 p.m. today at Sacred Heart Catholic Church, 509 N Florida Ave., Tampa. On the agenda are a sonata Mozart wrote at age 8 plus works of Vivaldi and Leclair. $15. (813) 293-4594; floridapro

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Tchaikovsky lovers will get their fill this week. There are two all-Tchaikovsky orchestra programs. At 8 p.m. Monday, the Moscow State Radio Symphony Orchestra plays the Romeo and Juliet Overture, Symphony No. 1 and the Violin Concerto, with Nadezda Tokareva as the soloist and Alexei Kornienko conducting, at Ruth Eckerd Hall. $38-$55. (727) 791-7400; rutheckerd

Mikhail Rudy was scheduled to be the soloist in Tchaikovsky's First Piano Concerto with the Florida Orchestra, but he dropped out because of injury, and a replacement hadn't been named at press time. Stefan Sanderling will conduct a program that also includes Symphony No. 3 at 8 p.m. Friday at Ferguson Hall of the Straz Center, 8 p.m. Saturday at Mahaffey Theater and 7:30 p.m. Jan. 31 at Ruth Eckerd. $20-$67. (727) 892-3337 or toll-free 1-800-662-7286;

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The Dance Ybor series opens this week with choreographer Faye Driscoll's 837 Venice Boulevard, a dance theater piece inspired by her growing up in Venice Beach, Calif., that the New York Times called one of the top five dance shows of 2008. Performed by three dancers, it "paints the lonesome emotional landscape of a neglected kid left to her own fantasies and fears, while exploring universal themes of identity, blame and how exhausting it is to have to 'be somebody' all the time,'' Driscoll writes. 7:30 p.m. Thursday through Saturday at the HCC Performing Arts Building, Palm Avenue and 14th Street, Tampa. $10.

John Fleming can be reached at or (727) 893-8716. He blogs on Critics Circle at

Opera singer Renée Fleming is the thinking person's diva 01/23/10 [Last modified: Saturday, January 23, 2010 3:30am]
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