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High-flying Songbird Soars in Risky Roles
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American soprano Renee Fleming performs at Beijing's Zhongshan Concert Hall tonight. 
American soprano Renee Fleming is an embodiment of contrasts contrasts that are so harmoniously blended that nothing is ever out of place.

For example, she is a prima donna reigning supreme in today's opera, exuding glamor and elegance; yet she also has this girl-next-door quality that brings her audience to her world, a quality lacking in previous generations of divas.

She has a high-flying career that takes her around the world in non-stop concerts and operas. However, she still prizes motherhood as her number one priority. Unlike other celebrities who travel with an entourage of publicists, she is surrounded by family and friends. This China tour is scheduled around her daughters' spring break. Maybe that's why she is so down-to-earth while flying so high.

She is best known for her Mozart and Richard Strauss, but she is not content with this repertory. While lavishly praising her colleagues who "do a few roles but so well", she is always exploring, pushing her artistic boundaries wherever she can. Her latest album, The Age of the Diva, takes her to rare operas, recovering forgotten gems and creating a new vista for opera buffs.

But she is also a champion of new operas, having sung in such world premieres as The Ghosts of Versailles, A Streetcar Named Desire and Dangerous Liaisons. She has recorded the famous Barcarolle in a new movie, Marguerite, and that is her beautiful voice in the soundtrack of The Lord of the Rings.

Fleming does not see her art as elitist. She speaks fondly of the efforts to reach out to the general public and China's new generation of classical music lovers. She has recorded many studio albums and live performances so that more people can enjoy her singing.

For many, the most striking thing about Renee Fleming is her hauntingly beautiful voice, immense intelligence and technique. She combines the vocal dexterity of Joan Sutherland and the dramatic expressiveness of Maria Callas, with a voice so creamy and rich that somebody has named a chocolate cake after her.

She could well rest on her laurels and sing those parts that are guaranteed to get her applause. But no, she takes adventures. When her album Bel Canto came out, some loved it and others hated it. One thing is for sure, nobody has sung this repertory like she did. When she was booed in La Scala for singing Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, she joined an exclusive club of singers, like Pavarotti, who would never blink putting their unique stamp on the roles they sing.

Having sung 51 roles, she is ready to venture into more high-risk territory. Next year, she'll tackle Bellini's Norma, an enormously difficult role. She admits that her interpretation will be different from others'. Her characterization of Norma will be one that suits her voice.

And having sung Eva in Bayreuth early in her career, she will return to Wagner and probably take on Elsa in Lohengrin.

Renee Fleming recorded Richard Strauss' The Four Last Songs before she signed an exclusive contract with Decca. She has a special feeling for this work. She reveals that the long-rumored second recording will come out next year and she will infuse it with something new, something from the dozen years of experience she has gathered since the first outing.

Perhaps the audience at tonight's concert in Beijing's Zhongshan Concert Hall will get a taste of her new interpretation of these melodious tunes.

(China Daily April 7, 2007)

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