Author Ann Patchett still remembers the first time she met the people's diva, Renée Fleming.
"It was at the cantina beneath the stage of the Metropolitan Opera in 2001," says Patchett, on the phone from her home in Nashville. "As she came into the room she began greeting people in four different languages. I thought later that it would have been a nice touch to have given that ability to Roxane Coss."
Opera aficionados have long suspected that Coss, the opera singer in Patchett's 2001 novel Bel Canto, was based on the great American soprano. And why not? During a pivotal moment in the novel, Coss lets loose with an urgent rendition of the aria "O mio babbino caro" from Puccini's Gianni Schicchi. That's one of Fleming's specialties, and she'll perform it this Saturday night at the Nashville Symphony Orchestra's gala concert at the Schermerhorn Symphony Center.
"Ann listened to a lot of my recordings while she was doing research on her novel," says Fleming, who spoke recently by phone from New York. "But she didn't base the character of Roxane Coss on me. She wrote the book before we met."
Fleming and Patchett, who are now famously famous friends, will get the chance to dispel any and all misconceptions about Bel Canto this Friday night, when they will appear together for an informal conversation at the Schermerhorn. (Admission is free, but attendees must still obtain a ticket from the symphony's website.) Patchett will no doubt tell the assembled crowd — most likely an improbable mix of opera buffs and denizens of her Parnassus Books — that she modeled Coss on Karol Bennett, an acquaintance who sang opera.
Coss may have derived her manner and appearance from Bennett. But her soul — that certain indefinable something that imbued her character with life and believability — surely came from Fleming. Consider Patchett's description of Coss singing Schubert's "Ave Maria" (another of Fleming's signature songs): "Her voice was so pure, so light, that it opened up the ceiling and carried their petitions directly to God."
That's about as apt a description of Fleming singing "Ave Maria" as you'll find anywhere. Fleming's lyric soprano instrument is light and infinitely agile, which allows her to suspend weightless, translucent notes in midair. And she sings these notes with such richness of timbre and intensity of emotion that she seemingly stops time — just ask the opera connoisseurs who have held their collective breaths during her most sublime performances.
Fleming has been the reigning diva of the Metropolitan Opera since 1991, when she made her debut in that august house portraying the Countess Almaviva in Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro. In the years since, she has performed on all of the world's great stages and has appeared in 54 different roles.
Interestingly, Fleming managed to reach the pinnacle of her profession without portraying many of the Verdi and Puccini heroines, the money parts most often associated with top-drawer sopranos. She has usually chosen — arguably wisely — lesser-known roles in which she can make a mark. She returns to one of those works this season at the Met, singing the title role in Dvorák's fairytale opera Rusalka (another opera, by the way, that is prominently mentioned in Patchett's Bel Canto).
"My voice just never had the weight or the edge to sing some of the bigger heroic roles, like Tosca or Butterfly," says Fleming. "It's ideally suited for lighter roles, though, and I'm especially comfortable with Strauss." Fleming will be bringing one of her favorite Strauss works, Four Last Songs, to perform with music director Giancarlo Guerrero and the Nashville Symphony this weekend.
Fleming has been favoring symphonic concerts over full-fledged operatic productions in recent years. She's also become more involved in her own special projects. One of those events is American Voices, a festival celebrating every vocal genre, from Broadway and jazz to pop and country. Fleming will host American Voices with that other NSO (the National Symphony Orchestra) in November at the Kennedy Center in Washington.
Another project near to Fleming's heart stems from her role as creative consultant to the Lyric Opera of Chicago. Her five-year residency with the Lyric will culminate with the premiere of a new opera in the 2015-16 season based on (what else?) Patchett's Bel Canto.
It was probably only a matter of time before Bel Canto became an opera, given the sweep and romance of the story. An opera singer (Coss) travels to a South American country to perform at the birthday party of a visiting Japanese corporate titan. The party, held at the home the country's vice president, is crashed by terrorists, who demand ransom for their hostages. This kidnapping turns into an extended siege, and as the weeks pass the captives and their captors begin to form unexpected relationships.
Bel Canto the opera will feature the music of the young Peruvian composer Jimmy López and a libretto by the Pulitzer Prize-winning Cuban-American playwright Nilo Cruz. "Ann was inspired to write Bel Canto after the Japanese embassy hostage crisis in the Peru in the 1990s," says Fleming. "We now have the perfect composer and librettist to capture the essence of that place and time."
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