Much buzz over Fleming’s 1st show in Mississippi

Published 2:07 pm Friday, January 29, 2010

The Mississippi debut of Metropolitan Opera star Renee Fleming has created a lot of buzz in the Deep South.

It’s not as if Mississippi has no connections to the high art. The Mississippi Opera, formed in 1945, is the 10th oldest opera house in the country, and the relatively poor, agrarian state is the birthplace of such world renowned artists as soprano Leontyne Price and the late lyric tenor John Alexander.

Still, it wasn’t until word got out that Fleming, a star soprano, was coming that opera became the music of the moment.

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The 2,360-ticket concert is nearly sold out, drawing fans from 15 states. Local restaurants are serving a special dessert in her honor, and even Fleming says there’s been a lot of Internet traffic about the event.

“Of all the singing that I do, the Google alerts have been coming in steadily for this concert for a year now … more than anything I’ve sung anywhere, ten times as much,” Fleming said, commenting on the successful marketing of the performance set for 7 p.m. at Thalia Mara Hall in Jackson.

Fleming, a star for The Met’s Mozart and Strauss repertoire and host of the opera house’s high-definition broadcast performances, will sing a series of arias at the Mississippi Opera on Friday.

“It’s like we’re hosting a Super Bowl,” said Alan Mann, artistic director of the Mississippi Opera.

The University of Southern Mississippi Symphony Orchestra will accompany the opera diva as USM kicks off a yearlong centennial celebration and the opera house celebrates its 65th anniversary.

Fleming said the repertoire — featuring songs from “La Boheme,” “Siberia,” and “Rusalka,” among others — is “demanding,” but the experience will be rewarding for the students.

“I remember very clearly the few times as a student that I came in contact with an artist of international stature … these experiences are firmly etched in my development. I was humbled seeing exactly what was required,” Fleming said during an interview with reporters at the Fairview Inn, a white-columned, 100-year-old mansion near downtown.

Mann said he’s looking forward to hearing Fleming sing Rusalka’s “Song to the Moon.” That’s a slow lament of a water nymph who falls in love with a human, but after taking on human form to be with him, she is unable to speak.

“She’s always included pieces of the Czech opera in her concerts and recitals. That’s one of her signature pieces. She’s able to embrace the Czech language and the passion,” Mann said. “There’s a warmth and color in her voice that’s unique.”

Lori Birrer, a voice performance master’s student at USM, will sing in a chorus behind Fleming. The 24-year-old from Indianapolis says she’s inspired by Fleming’s ability to speak several languages fluently.

“When you see her on stage and she’s singing one of her arias, she’s able to make it relatable to the people in the audience,” Birrer said.

One longtime opera fan, 86-year-old Jean Butler of Jackson, also is excited about the upcoming performance. Butler said she remembers being among a busload of opera fans who traveled to Laurel, Miss., in the 1960s to see Leontyne Price perform in a high school auditorium.

“It was probably the first time there had been an integrated audience in the Laurel auditorium,” said Butler, whose comments came shortly after she finished eating a serving of Coupe Glacee Diva Renee, a signature dessert that’s being served at Bon Ami and other Jackson restaurants.

Fleming’s popularity in the Deep South and elsewhere is also due, in part, to her role as host of “The Met: Live in HD,” opera performances that are televised and shown in theaters.

Fleming said she was on five continents last year, making stops in Ecuador, South Africa, Russia, Napa Valley and London, and she drew comments about the show wherever she went.

She said the performances are an opportunity to bring the arts to people who otherwise may never get to see opera on stage and are also enrichment tools for students.

“It’s also been a tremendous service for me because I have a personality now,” Fleming said. “Landing in Toronto, I didn’t even get a chance to get out of the car when three women ran up to me and said, “We loved your hair last week and the jacket the week before was even better.”’