NEW YORK - "I think it's all downhill from there," Renee Fleming says in a perfect deadpan, referring to her unprecedented star turn on the opening night of the Metropolitan Opera's season last month, when she performed three acts from three different operas. She was the first soprano in the Met's century-plus history accorded such a distinction.
Each year seems to bring a fresh height for Fleming. Not since the sunny days of Beverly Sills has an American opera singer enjoyed so much popularity. And not since the brief, heady reign of Maria Callas has a soprano provided so much glamour to go with all the vocal appeal.
Already known for the many eye-catching gowns designed for her by just about every major couturier, she also graces a new fragrance from Coty: La Voce by Renee Fleming.
The 49-year-old soprano is now preparing for Washington National Opera's new production of Donizetti's Lucrezia Borgia, a rarely encountered work being staged specifically for her and conducted by the company's general director, tenor Placido Domingo, no stranger to fame himself.
"I am looking forward tremendously to this," Domingo says. "I could see the first time I sang with her at the Met in Otello  that Renee was a great singer, and she has grown into a great actress as well. She has such a sensibility to all different kinds of styles, such musicality and taste."
Those characteristics have made her a particularly hot property at the Met. That company's former general manager, Joe Volpe, planned the tripartite opening night for Fleming. His successor, Peter Gelb, "could have canceled it," she says, looking as beautiful and effortlessly elegant as ever, sipping coffee in a suite at her publicist's Manhattan office. "But he didn't. And I loved what Peter said at the party afterward: 'A glass ceiling for sopranos has been broken.' "
Given that this opening night was simulcast to hundreds of theaters across the country, Fleming's stock and stature couldn't help but rise.
"I tried not to think about the live broadcast and the history of the event," she says. "Don't laugh, but I was worried that I would trip and fall - and not gracefully, but right on my face."
The soprano endured a different kind of fall the last time she sang in Lucrezia. That was at La Scala in Milan 10 years ago, when she heard a chorus of boos.
Various conspiracy theories have floated in the opera world to account for that volatile night. Whatever the circumstances, the scandal does not appear to have left a permanent scar on the singer.
"I finally went back to listen to it recently - a pirate recording exists, and you can hear the booing," Fleming says. "I have to say that, on the whole, the performance was really good, and from everybody."
John Pascoe, the inventive stage director and designer who has created the Lucrezia Borgia for Washington National Opera, has the same opinion.
"I listened to that recording, and I'm completely perplexed about the reaction," he says. "Her singing is fantastic. In the final scene, the final high note is a little under [pitch]. But if a performance is going to be dismissed because a top note wasn't centered, I think the decision was made that she would not be allowed a success. Besides, I told Renee that everybody we know has been booed at La Scala."
Fleming now calls the experience "a badge of honor" and has no reservations or superstitions about approaching Lucrezia again. "You really do have to get back on a horse again," she says. "I don't like feeling fearful about anything."
The infamous Lucrezia Borgia is popularly believed to have been a serial poisoner and wanton woman. The opera plot ends with her murdering several men who had been conspiring against her; one of them, inadvertently, is her own son, whom she tries at the last minute to save.
"There's nothing in the libretto to explain her past, but there is a lot in her history," Fleming says. "She was extremely abused as a child by her father and brothers. She had family members far worse than she. Joe wants to make her more of a victim than a villain. If every character is unsympathetic, the audience doesn't get involved - I don't, at any rate."
Pascoe finds ample justification for the interpretation in Donizetti's music for the character.
"He gives her beautiful music of a deeply loving mother who is trying to protect her son," the director says. "When I first heard Renee sing the final aria on a recital CD, my knees literally buckled. I told her that we've got to do this opera on the stage."
The opportunity came when Domingo became interested in producing it for his Washington company (he's also general director of the Los Angeles Opera). "The music is quite brilliant and exciting, and the drama is very strong," he says.
There wasn't much question about who should take the title role. "Placido eventually gets all his friends to sing with one of his companies," Fleming says. "How can you say no?"
The soprano will be saying no to some repertoire in the future. Donizetti and other bel canto composers will be put aside soon. Manon and La traviata also "will probably disappear," she says. But there are tantalizing plans for Wagner's Lohengrin.
There aren't that many roles Fleming feels compelled to add to her roster. "I've done 51, most of them in the first 10 years of my career," she says.
But she's always interested in exploring new possibilities. Her next recording project will be devoted to "a treasure trove of verismo pieces I discovered that are not in the repertoire," she says. These include Leoncavallo's forgotten Zaza.
One thing not on Fleming's schedule is a lot of freedom. "Right now I have absolutely no leisure time," she says. "I have two teenage girls who require a tremendous amount of time, more than when they were small. And I don't really have a social life."
The soprano, divorced several years ago, sounds only slightly wistful about her long-range future.
"The thing about being single is that it's difficult to formulate when you're hoping not to remain single," she says. But finding someone to share her life "is something that's not so easy for singers to work out. It would take a very patient and very secure person."
Meanwhile, Fleming says, "I realize how fortunate I am. This is my time."
if you go
Renee Fleming stars in Washington National Opera's production of Lucrezia Borgia Nov. 1, 5, 9 and 11 (Sondra Radvanovsky takes the role Nov. 7, 15 and 17) at the Kennedy Center, 2700 F St. N.W., Washington. For ticket information, call 202-295-2400 or go to dc-opera.org.