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Renee Fleming, the diversified diva

Renee Fleming is the opera singer of the moment. She had a great triumph last fall starring in Verdi's La Traviata at the Metropolitan Opera. As the tragic courtesan Violetta, she performed one of the signature roles that defines a career.

Opera fans and critics haven't stopped buzzing. "Her Violetta is searingly analytical, studied and intense, with a core of full-strength vocal beauty," wrote Justin Davidson in Newsday.

"Does Traviata get any better than this?" Susan Elliott wrote on the Musical America Web site. "Surely not in this lifetime."

Fleming has long been one of opera's leading lyric sopranos, but her triumph as Violetta was still remarkable. Just five years earlier, she had dropped out of a production of Traviata at the Met during rehearsals. That same year, she had been jeered by the notoriously difficult audience at La Scala for her performance in the title role of Lucrezia Borgia. She was getting divorced from the father of her two daughters.

America's favorite diva actually considered quitting singing.

"I was ready to just give it all up I was so uncomfortable," Fleming said in January, speaking from her publicist's office in New York, interviewed in advance of a recital Friday at the Tampa Bay Performing Arts Center.

The soprano credits seeing a psychologist who specializes in success conflicts for getting her through the crisis.

"A lot of it was just understanding that what I was experiencing was entirely normal, universal," she said. "It happens to people whether they're presidents or CEOs or movie stars. You strive, strive, strive, strive, and then one finds oneself at the top of the heap and this incredible discomfort ensues.

"In my case it was stage fright, but lots of people just suddenly begin to feel that they don't belong there. The most obvious example is when you see some young movie star, very often comedians, and the next thing you know they've sabotaged their lives with either substance abuse or bad relationships. I believe that most of the time it's probably some manifestation of this issue.

"But there was always a little voice in me that said, "Really, you want to give this up? You've worked awfully hard for this, for a long time.' There's no rhyme or reason as to why this happened. Let's put it this way: I'm glad I didn't quit."

Fleming, who turns 45 on Valentine's Day, made a late debut as Violetta. "It's the kind of role most people sing early, and then their voices take on more weight and they move into the spinto repertoire," she said. "I'm different in that I couldn't have sung this early on. I didn't have the technique, I didn't have the top. In fact, what I'm finding is that I'm singing higher and lighter now, starting with Manon in 1997. That was a revelation."

Manon, the Massenet opera about another courtesan, represented Fleming's move away from what she calls the "pedestal-type women" she usually played up until that point, such as Desdemona in Otello and Marguerite in Faust. It was also her big breakthrough in a bel canto role that called for such high singing. She's in an excellent Sony Classical recording of Manon with L'Opera National de Paris, Jesus Lopez-Cobos conducting, released last year. That production also is available on a Naxos DVD.

Fleming, who tried out her Violetta at Houston Grand Opera before doing it at the Met, listened to some 30 historical recordings of Traviata while studying for the part.

"I'm kind of a fanatic on all of that," she said. "There were a lot of interesting ones anywhere from (Maria) Callas to Rosa Ponselle. There have been a lot of great American divas who have sung the role. I had a long talk with Beverly Sills about it; she said she sang something like 200 of them. You know, it's an unending source of interpretation."

One Traviata recording Fleming recommends is from Deutsche Grammophon and has Ileana Cotrubas as Violetta in a production conducted by Carlos Kleiber.

Fleming has received especially good notices for the acting she brings to Violetta, a role that too many singers treat as merely an occasion for technical brilliance, as in the coloratura aria Sempre libera.

"I think the voice should be completely at the service of expression," she said. "It's a matter of taste how anybody feels about that. For me, it's not just subjugating the singing and the voice to the story and to the expression, but also one's own personality. One doesn't want to really have the audience constantly be aware that, "Oh, that's Renee Fleming onstage.' You want the audience to feel for Violetta."

Fleming, who grew up in upstate New York, first made her mark as a Strauss singer, with the Marschallin of Der Rosenkavalier being perhaps her most admired role. She continues to cultivate Strauss, adding Daphne and Capriccio to her repertoire this season, but the Italian bel canto tradition, of which Traviata is a keystone, has become increasingly important to her.

Refreshingly, for a diva, Fleming admits to a fondness for jazz and pop music, saying that her favorite singer is Joni Mitchell. She finds parallels in bel canto and jazz singing.

"There's a freedom to it, and one that's entirely improvisatory because one can embellish stylistically and be correct," she said. "You can change the melody, you can add things, you can bend the line a little bit off the orchestra's fixed tempo; there's an absolute freedom to get away from what's on the page. It's personalized in that sense in the way a great jazz singer takes a standard and makes it her own."

In a fun footnote to her career, Fleming inspired a character in Ann Patchett's popular novel Bel Canto. Patchett said she listened to Fleming CDs while envisioning the singer Roxanne Coss, among a group of dignitaries taken hostage by South American guerrillas.

Fleming and Patchett have become friends since the novel was published in 2001. "She didn't come out and say that the character was musically _ and only musically, not personally _ based on me until other people made the connection," Fleming said.

Coss sings widely varied repertoire, from Dvorak's Rusalka to Handel's Alcina. "When Rusalka and Alcina are mentioned on the same page, there really isn't anybody else it could be," Fleming said.

Fleming's recital is being presented by Opera Tampa. "We really were lucky," said Judi Lisi, president of the performing arts center and founder of the opera company. "Renee's about as hot as she can be, and she doesn't do that many concerts because her opera career is so significant right now."

Indeed, to be able to hear Fleming in recital is a rare treat. She repeats her program Feb. 8 at the Philharmonic Center for the Arts in Naples. Later this month, she returns to the Met's production of Traviata for three performances and will be heard on the national radio broadcast March 6.

Fleming's recital program, with pianist Richard Bado, includes arias from Handel's Rodelinda, a set of Schubert songs, arias from three Massenet operas and some show tunes.

Voice recitals have not been the easiest sell for Opera Tampa. None of the stars presented by the company in recital _ Kathleen Battle, Jose Carreras, Denyce Graves _ have sold out 2,500-seat Morsani Hall. In a setback that still grates Lisi, Marilyn Horne's 1995 recital was switched from Morsani into much smaller Ferguson Hall because of poor ticket sales.

Times are tough for Opera Tampa, which has not developed the following necessary to grow, with only 600 subscribers this season. It cut back the number of its own productions to one, Turandot in April. Lisi plans to get back to two productions in 2004-05, the company's 10th anniversary. She predicted a a good turnout for Fleming. "I think we'll do about 80 percent. So I'm thrilled so far," she said.

Fleming's operatic legend wasn't necessarily helped by one of her recent projects, but it still was something of a coup to be featured on the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. (The score was nominated for an Oscar last week.) She does three songs in the Elvish language.

"They wanted a very medieval sound," she said. "I don't think anybody would know it's my voice. It's completely without vibrato, without inflection, without dynamics; there's no connecting, no shaping of any phrase. It's very pure."

Told that a fan had thought that the singing in the movie was by Enya (featured on the soundtrack of the first installment of the Tolkien trilogy, The Lord of the Rings: The Fellowship of the Ring), Fleming laughed.

"Thank you!" she whooped. "It's true. That was my joke throughout the process that they could have gotten a boy soprano for this, and yeah, Enya, same thing."