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Originally published Sunday, January 16, 2005 at 12:00 AM

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Opera

Renée Fleming: a gifted voice in a gorgeous, independent package

The last time Renée Fleming sang a recital at Benaroya Hall, the enraptured audience demanded seven encores, and the beaming diva gestured to her pianist and jokingly announced...

Seattle Times music critic

The last time Renée Fleming sang a recital at Benaroya Hall, the enraptured audience demanded seven encores, and the beaming diva gestured to her pianist and jokingly announced, "We're moving here."

Sadly, she is still in New York, but four years after that landmark recital, Fleming will at last return to Seattle for another recital on Tuesday. Since her previous appearance, the diva has kicked her career up another notch or two: a second Grammy (for "Bel Canto"), more high-profile opera debuts (in "La Traviata" and "Rodelinda," among others), and a new book ("The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer").

"This has been an incredible year," she said of 2004 in a recent phone conversation. And 2005 looks to be even more interesting, with recordings of everything from Strauss' "Daphne" to a jazz album with Bill Frisell. The latter disc will be "a very personal expression of what I love to listen to in my off time," Fleming reflects.

What makes this singer so special? Why does she stand out above others, and why do audiences swoon for her?

First off, it doesn't hurt to be gorgeous. The initial impression when Fleming sweeps onto the stage in her spectacular Gianfranco Ferré gowns is one of all-out glamour. At 45 (her 46th birthday is on Valentine's Day), she's radiant, slim, beautifully presented; any audience's initial perception is going to be favorable. She also has, as her former drama teacher pointed out, a "big face" for her size, one whose expressions are easy to see from the farthest seats of the theater.

But there is more, much more, to a diva than mere appearances. Fleming has a voice whose distinctive timbre was described by famous conductor Sir Georg Solti as "double crème." And indeed, it is food analogies that so often crop up in her reviews: creamy, rich, smooth, even "like pulled taffy." In a field where so many singers sound the same, Fleming's voice is a standout.

And it's what she does with it that counts. Some critics roast her for the way she pushes and pulls musical phrases, drawing out certain notes and recrafting the lines in ways not specified by the composer, but it's her trademark to put her own distinctive spin on the music. (One famously acerbic critic, Norman Lebrecht, put Fleming's recent Handel disc on his "worst of 2004" list for that reason.)

Coming up

Renée Fleming, soprano, in recital with pianist Hartmut Höll. 7:30 p.m. Tuesday, Benaroya Hall, 200 University St., Seattle; $35-$95 (206-215-4747 or www.seattlesymphony.org). Tickets are limited; call ahead for availability.

As Fleming herself writes in her book, "Being considered 'special' is a hugely important asset for a singer. A soprano can have a perfect technique, but she has to have something more than that, something ephemeral that makes her voice memorable. I sang at Chautauqua when I was very young, and the soprano Frances Yeend and her husband, the vocal coach Jim Benner, told me then that my voice was unique. They then patiently explained that this was an element that was absolutely necessary for real success. I'm sure the concept went right over my head then. All these years later, that was exactly what I needed my voice to be: an instantly recognizable sound."

Fleming's book is not only an indispensable asset to those who want to know her better, it's also a huge asset to aspiring young singers. In the frankest possible terms, it's a story of her early years, her coups and her setbacks, her successes and those fateful times when she really screwed up. It hasn't been one quick vault to stardom. There have been many periods of frustration, especially in the early years when companies like the Lyric Opera of Chicago considered her "a B singer, not an A singer. Not for this house."

There were the days when she was lucky to get a "cover" (understudy) contract at the Metropolitan Opera, and when she finally got to go on (in 1991, as the Countess in Mozart's "Marriage of Figaro" for an indisposed Felicity Lott).

In the book, we see her traipsing from Dallas to Milan with her new baby, trying to memorize the role of Tatiana ("Eugene Onegin") in Russian despite many sleepless nights, packing diapers and a stroller and baby food and the other necessities for six-week stints at opera companies. It was on tour that she earned her new nickname from her voice teacher: "Earth mother with a core of steel." And she is tough: Her former manager, Merle Hubbard, called her "the single most ambitious singer" he has ever known.

With motherhood (her second daughter was born in 1995), Fleming adapted her career. It was fine to travel from country to country doing operas, which require a long rehearsal period and then a run of performances, when the girls were little. When they entered school, however, Fleming began singing more concerts, which mean much less time away from home. She sings every season at the Met, an easy commute from her New York home, and then sings opera in Europe in the summer, when her daughters can come with her.

Fleming and her husband divorced in 1998, a year that also saw one of her most difficult challenges: a psychological condition that manifested itself in extreme stage fright, made worse when Fleming was loudly and lengthily booed at Milan's La Scala during a performance of Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia." She began suffering what she called "crushing waves of anxiety" in "a dark night of the soul." A psychiatrist helped her pull through, explaining that her mind was terrified of her own success; Fleming also had crucial help from her voice teacher, the late Beverley Johnson.

The last few years have solidified Fleming's reputation as today's reigning diva, the darling of "Vogue" and "People" and "More" and many other glossy publications. The stage fright has all but disappeared; she also is willing now to step forward and say she'll do the music just the way she wants.

Reminded of some critical quibbling about her recent Violetta ("La Traviata"), which most reviewers adored, Fleming is firm: "I love and adore the role of Violetta, but it is such an iconic role. I expected a variety of reactions; that is human nature. I have to be willing to say, 'This is how I do it,' and just stop worrying about what people say. That doesn't mean I don't want to get better — I do, every time — but I'm going to do it my own way."

Melinda Bargreen: mbargreen@seattletimes.com

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