Baltimore gave Fleming pause

The last time Renée Fleming sang at Baltimore's Lyric Opera House, in December 2007, she heard something that superstar sopranos typically don't encounter - a wailing alarm bell, set off accidentally backstage. She was right in the middle of one of the most intensely moving scenes in the operatic repertoire, the "Willow Song" and "Ave Maria" from Verdi's "Otello."

Fleming went silent, the orchestra went silent, and a packed house at this fundraising concert for the Baltimore Opera Company waited for the nuisance to cease. When the bell was finally turned off, the singer smiled and, before picking up where she left off, said, "You'll remember this."

She remembered it, too, during a recent phone interview from New York.

"That may be the one and only time I've ever stopped a performance," she said. "In retrospect, there probably were other times I should have. That night, it seemed to be the only thing to do."

No hard feelings, though. Fleming even plans to sing that same "Otello" excerpt when she returns to the Lyric on Thursday for a recital. This time, she is being presented by the theater; its longtime tenant, the Baltimore Opera, folded last spring, a victim of the Great Recession.

Jim Harp, who was artistic administrator of the Baltimore Opera, now has the title director of opera and educational activities at the Lyric, where Fleming's recital will be the first of several opera-related presentations this season (including a staged production of Bizet's "Carmen" from Opera New Jersey in February).

"It's very appropriate to have the world's most famous opera singer to inaugurate a new era of grand opera in Baltimore," Harp said. "In this day and age of generic, vanilla music-making, Miss Fleming puts her idiosyncratic, indelible imprint on everything she sings. It's almost as if she were composing the music on the spot."

As tenor Placido Domingo put it last year, when I asked his views on Fleming's talent before her appearance in Donizetti's "Lucrezia Borgia" for Washington National Opera, "She has such a sensibility to all different kinds of styles, such musicality and taste."

That stylishness is matched by a voice of unusual warmth and richness - and matched in extra-musical ways by her natural beauty and a vibrant taste in fashion.

It's little wonder that Fleming is one of the few opera stars recognized even by folks who don't typically follow opera. Her wide-reaching charisma shines as much in a staged opera as in a solo appearance, when she can cover a wide swath of music and, incidentally, show off the latest gowns designed for her by the finest couturiers.

"When I do a recital, I am responsible for the entire show, for people's enjoyment of the experience," Fleming, 50, said. "The programming is really challenging, and that goes hand in hand with the sense of responsibility. When you get the program wrong, if you've over- or underestimated a particular audience, you get a very sinking feeling onstage."

For other U.S. cities on her December recital tour that finishes up in Baltimore, the soprano included non-operatic works by 20th century French composers Olivier Messiaen and Henri Dutilleux.

"That's a difficult program for the audience," she said. "Baltimore requires a lighter program. We're trying to garner support for opera in Baltimore. It will be a totally fun program."

There will be some Strauss songs and popular arias from Gounod's "Faust" and Puccini's "La Boheme," but also much rarer items, several of them featured on her latest CD, "Renée Fleming: Verismo" (Decca). That compelling disc offers excerpts from such fascinating operas as Mascagini's "Iris" and "Lodoletta," Leoncavallo's "Zaza" and "La Boheme" (long overshadowed by Puccini's take on the same source material), and Giordano's "Siberia."

Helping her explore and prepare those unfamiliar works to such exceptional effect for that recording was Gerald Martin Moore, who will be her accompanist in the Baltimore recital. The two met when Fleming was preparing for a production of Handel's "Alcina" in Paris a decade ago.

"Gerald was so wonderful to work with, so supportive," she said, "and he has a great ear. He's my vocal coach, basically. He has moved to New York and his career has really taken off because singers are starved for great coaches."

A recital tour means constant adjustments for singer and pianist alike - each hall has its own acoustic properties, each piano its own characteristics.

"It is really important to have some sense of the hall," Fleming said. "One of the most important and subtle aspects [of singing] is acoustics."

Sometimes an adjustment in vocal production may have to be made midperformance, as happened a couple of months ago when Fleming was singing the Marschallin, one of her signature roles, in Strauss' "Der Rosenkavalier" at the Metropolitan Opera.

"I felt I was pushing too hard," she said. "I finally realized it was because the monitors were too loud onstage. ..."

Chances are, she won't have any such surprises at the Lyric, where no less than the legendary soprano Nellie Melba proclaimed the acoustics excellent. That quality should also help if Fleming, as is her custom, speaks to the audience.

"I have discovered in my concerts and recitals that people have not received the musical education that we did and they don't have the time to research the program [in advance]," she said.

"If I'm singing music that is unknown or difficult I'll introduce it, not with the intent to lecture, but just to say what interests me about the piece, my relationship to the music. It is more crucial than ever to help people enjoy classical music."

If you go

Renee Fleming, accompanied by pianist Gerald M. Moore, will give a recital at 7:30 p.m. Thursday at the Lyric Opera House, 140 W. Mount Royal Ave. Tickets are $27 to $122. Call 410-900-1150 or go to