As the temporary shutdown of Broadway and theatres around the world continues, Playbill is reaching out to artists to see how they are physically and creatively responding to a changed world.
The series continues with world-renowned soprano Renée Fleming, a recipient of the National Medal of Arts who made her Broadway debut in Joe DiPietro's Living on Love and later received a Tony nomination for her performance as Nettie Fowler in the 2018 revival of Carousel. She subsequently starred in several stagings of the Tony-winning The Light in the Piazza, including a limited engagement at London's Royal Festival Hall. Fleming was most recently seen opposite Tony nominee Vanessa Williams in A Time to Sing, which launched the Kennedy Center's On Stage at the Opera House series, marking the first in-person performance at the Center since the pandemic began.
This four-time Grammy winner, who has performed in virtually all of the world's greatest opera houses, will next be seen in United in Song: Celebrating the Resilience of America, which was filmed in front of a small, socially distanced audience at George Washington’s Mount Vernon and the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, and will premiere December 31 at 8 PM ET on PBS. The 90-minute special also features Tony winners Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell and Tony nominees Anna Deavere Smith and Josh Groban, among others.
What is your typical day like now?
It’s been a shock to the system, because in a normal year, I’m traveling most of the time. Fortunately, I moved to the D.C. area just before the pandemic began, and I have been busy landscaping and otherwise organizing repairs on a new/old house.
What book/TV show/podcast/film should everyone take the time to consume during this period?
Last Week Tonight with Jon Oliver is a favorite. I also found the Netflix documentary The Social Dilemma to be alarming. And, I recommend Dr. Vivek Murthy’s new book, Together: The Healing Power of Human Connection in a Sometimes Lonely World. He is the former Surgeon General, under President Obama, and coming back to the role with President-Elect Biden. Dr. Murthy was my very first guest for Music and Mind Live, the web series I hosted this year from May to September. It was so helpful to hear his thoughts about loneliness, which he identified as an epidemic long before social distancing began.
Mrs. America and The Trial of the Chicago 7 illuminate an era I knew about as a child, but didn’t understand. They are fascinating, especially in light of this year, with brilliant performances by many of our greatest stage actors.
I loved last year’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Overstory by Richard Powers, but I am a mad tree hugger, and the harm that’s being done to the planet that we share with the world’s wildlife is deeply distressing to me.
During this time of reflection and re-education regarding BIPOC artists and artistry, particularly in the theatre, what do you want people (those in power, fellow actors, audiences) to be aware of? What do you want them to consider further?
I hope everyone will really, truly listen to these artists about their experience and learn from that. It is easy not to recognize privilege when you are the beneficiary of it, and there have been some great discussions happening. I also hope that arts organizations will look at inclusivity in all areas of production—not just onstage, where it is more obvious to audiences, but in administration, directing, conducting, writing, and artistic leadership.
What advice would you give to someone who may be struggling with the isolation and/or the current unrest?
I realize that I am shielded from the strongest negative impact of the pandemic, but many of us are defined by our work, and this complete stoppage is hard to absorb. Add to that the bombardment of negative news, and I’ve had to turn off the television, and read just enough to register the day’s events, but not be consumed by them. There has been nothing like this year in my lifetime, and much longer.
I’m walking outside, using my new electric bike, and trying to stay active—also, reading books that are positive and uplifting. It’s a challenge to fight the sense of isolation and sadness about the shredding of our social fabric. At least the raised awareness about systemic racism is positive. We have to remain vigilant though, just as we need to with gender equality in the workplace.
How, if at all, are you keeping your creative juices flowing? Has that been helpful to you?
I’m lucky to have creative outlets even when performances can’t go on. I am passionate about the intersection of arts, neuroscience, and health, and I had been doing live presentations on that subject for the past couple of years. So I took this period to move that work online, producing Music and Mind Live. I hosted 19 episodes with views from people in 70 countries. I’ve also prepared virtual performances, to support institutions like Carnegie Hall, the Kennedy Center, the Metropolitan Opera, Lyric Opera of Chicago, and others. And, I recently had two chances to be back onstage with small, socially-distanced audiences. One was A Time to Sing, a live-streamed concert with my friend Vanessa Williams on the stage of the Kennedy Center Opera House, which you can stream through the end of the year. And, the other was for United in Song, a concert that will premiere on New Year’s Eve on PBS. We shot it at Mount Vernon, with an amazing lineup of performers, including Audra McDonald and Brian Stokes Mitchell. In both cases it was sheer joy to be in front of a live audience again, not to mention to be back sharing a stage with friends.
Are you working on any theatrical projects during this time?
I’m working on my next recording for Decca, and also developing a concept for a song cycle I will be performing on tour. Coming up soon is the world premiere opera of The Hours, by Pulitzer Prize-winning composer Kevin Puts, at the Metropolitan Opera. Kelli O’Hara and Joyce DiDonato will be in that, and I’m currently working on another project with Kelli and soprano Julia Bullock. It’s a portion of Adam Guettel’s Myths and Hymns for Master Voices. Ted Sperling is presenting the whole song cycle online, spacing it out over six months.
What organization would you recommend people learn more about or donate to during this time of change?
I hope that anyone who is able will donate to help performers and arts professionals whose work stopped because of the pandemic. Some groups doing this work are The AGMA Relief Fund, Sing for Hope, Artist Relief Tree, MET Orchestra Musicians, Face the Music Campaign, and The Actors Fund COVID-19 Emergency Relief.