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On the Road, Soprano-Style

Music* Opera, bel canto, show tunes, jazz: Renee Fleming somehow finds the time and energy to perform and record on two continents.


NEW YORK — The last time Renee Fleming was to sing in "Il Pirata" in the United States, she was so nervous she was desperately hoping she wouldn't have to go on.

Fleming was the cover singer for Aprile Millo, who was getting ready for a 1989 concert performance as Imogene, the starring role, at Carnegie Hall with Eve Queler's Opera Orchestra of New York.

"I'd be bringing her tea, telling her, 'Stay healthy, please!' " Fleming recalls.

Now, Fleming stars in the Metropolitan Opera's first production of Bellini's "Il Pirata," starting Oct. 21. It's part of another busy season for America's peripatetic diva, who sang Desdemona in Verdi's "Otello" at the Met's opening gala Sept. 23.

After "Il Pirata," she's off to the Lyric Opera of Chicago for her first staged performances in Massenet's "Thais" and to the Houston Grand Opera for her first Violetta in Verdi's "La Traviata."

She has a new solo recording, "Bel Canto," and is trying to get Ann Patchett's novel of the same name made into a movie. She's just finished a recording of show tunes with Bryn Terfel and plans to record her first jazz album.

Oh, and the 42-year-old soprano is raising two daughters.

Still, she's expected to be perfect--and glamorous--at all times.

"I feel the sense of expectation the public has for my work," Fleming said.

The bel canto repertoire--the so-called "beautiful singing" often filled with ornamentation--would seem an unusual choice for a lyric soprano who became a star in the early 1990s for her work in Strauss and Mozart.

Fleming has sung Bellini's "La Straniera" and "La Sonnambula," had an infamous night at Milan's Teatro alla Scala in 1998 when an anti-American clique booed her in Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia," has sung Donizetti's "Maria Padilla" and Rossini's "Armida," and has recorded Donizetti's "Rosamonda d'Inghilterra."

Imogene, who has one of opera's great "mad scenes," will be her most high-profile bel canto role to date.

"I really like the repertoire. People really love it," she said. "There's so much pathos. When the music is at its best, it's a pure expression of emotion, loss, longing."

Her big, silvery voice has no trouble with the coloratura in these works. Some criticize her exaggerated phrasing in spots, but it seems to fit, and her "Bel Canto" recording on Decca is one of the season's top releases.

To prepare for bel canto work, she listened to recordings by Maria Callas, Montserrat Caballe, Beverly Sills and Joan Sutherland.

She performed "Il Pirata" in Paris earlier this year. In New York, the cast also includes tenor Marcello Giordani and baritone Dwayne Croft.

After singing bel canto, Fleming may act in "Bel Canto," the movie version.

Patchett, whose novel won the PEN/Faulkner award, patterned the character of soprano Roxanne Coss after Fleming, without ever speaking with her.

Last October, they finally met in the canteen at the Metropolitan Opera, when Patchett was visiting New York, but she still hasn't seen Fleming perform.

"I was not sitting around saying, 'I'm going to make this person into Renee,' " Patchett said from her home in Nashville. "I was listening to Renee's music, but I had never seen her other than the little picture on the CD packaging. It's uncanny, because ... there are so many similarities between Roxanne and Renee. But they were accidental other than power and passion.

"Now the character is so merged in my mind that I think it is Renee."

Caroline Baron, producer of "Monsoon Wedding," has taken on the project, and Fleming hopes to star in it.

Only the first part of Fleming's season is dominated by bel canto.

Thomas Hampson, which whom she recorded "Thais," will also appear with her in the Chicago production, which opens Dec. 14.

Although she originally was to have sung Violetta at the Met in 1998 as the replacement for Angela Gheorghiu, she postponed that role for five years, finally agreeing to take it on in Houston starting April 17. She's to sing it at the Met for the first time on opening night of the 2003-04 season.

In August, Fleming went to Wales to record with Terfel a CD that will include "Not While I'm Around" from "Sweeney Todd," "So in Love" from "Kiss Me Kate," "All I Ask of You" from "The Phantom of the Opera" and other show tunes.

She can't wait to get back to Europe, where she spends late spring and much of the summer. She bought an apartment in Paris, which she can finally use after a lengthy renovation, and she's starting to like urban life so much that she's thinking about moving with her family from suburban Connecticut to Manhattan.

"I'm so happy there," she said of Paris. "I live well. I eat well."

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