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Renée Fleming: Ensuring that the Song Continues

“I fell in love with song literature through Marilyn Horne,” recalls the great American soprano Renée Fleming, who in 2019 succeeds Ms. Horne in leading SongStudio, Carnegie Hall and the Weill Music Institute’s program for developing young singers—and now pianists as well—into champions of classical song for the future. “When I was 14, my father bought me a recording of her singing German lieder, and I was immediately drawn into the world of poetry and music. I’m grateful that she devoted her artistry and agency to this art form. SongStudio has evolved out of her contribution.” Throughout her own career, Ms. Fleming has made a major commitment to classical song, as witnessed by her many performances as a recitalist at Carnegie Hall.

Beginning with Mozart and Beethoven in the late 18th century, the classical song literature emerged as vocal music’s equivalent to instrumental chamber and popular music of the day. It came to maturity in the 19th century with the sublime songs of Schubert, followed by a host of German composers, among them Schumann, Brahms, Wolf, and Richard Strauss. But this intimate art form didn’t stop there, quickly spreading to France, Italy, Spain, England, the Scandinavian countries, Eastern Europe, Russia, and eventually America.

Unlike chamber music, however, there is a language barrier. The classical song literature is written in a myriad of tongues, with composers celebrating their most cherished poets in their respective languages. But shuffling through pages of translations can be an arduous task for an audience. In an art form that relies on intimate communication between performer and audience, the demands on the singer are immense. And though the song recital still thrives at Carnegie Hall, elsewhere— as Ms. Horne recognized and Ms. Fleming comments—“it needs help to flourish and find a wider audience, both here and abroad. It’s a nuanced, deeply personal art form.”

It was this realization that led Ms. Horne to start The Song Continues, now renamed SongStudio in Ms. Fleming’s iteration—a title that expresses the spirit of experimentation and innovation she will encourage throughout the weeklong intensive. “Of course we will focus on the crucial skills of languages and musicianship in private sessions.” But in addition to honing performance skills, “I’m hoping to spark more creative thinking about the art form and how it can be expanded,” Ms. Fleming says. “I want to encourage singers to be intellectually curious and adventurous in their approach to song repertoire; to think outside the box in their choice of repertoire, including music beyond the standard classical literature; and to experiment with new elements, potentially incorporating movement, media, and unconventional venues.”

Up to 10 singers and additional pianists, all between the ages of 18 and 35, will participate in SongStudio. Ms. Fleming believes it is vital to include pianists alongside singers, because “in a song recital, it’s a completely collaborative effort between the two.” Along with tenor Piotr Beczała and other distinguished guests, Ms. Fleming will lead master classes with the participants. There also will be sessions on programming, performance practice, history, new music, working with composers, and text analysis. And Ms. Fleming plans to establish a composer-in-residence role at SongStudio.

In her own programs, Ms. Fleming chooses a wide range of music, some of it lying well outside the traditional art song repertoire. “I encourage singers to develop their intellectual curiosity and explore their own interests and personalities,” says Ms. Fleming. She notes that “programming is one of the most challenging aspects of creating an engaging recital, so I want to discuss best practices and strategies.” Ms. Fleming also encourages singers to “break the barrier” and speak to the audience. “It is really a friendly art form, and I think there is an element of connection, or conviviality, that may have been lost as recitals became more formal in concert settings. It helps to remember that much of this repertoire was created for the parlor, not the concert hall.”

A double-pronged approach of singers reaching out more to audiences and audiences in turn being helped to understand the classical art song better will also animate SongStudio. “I’d like much of the program to be open to the public so that we can delight together in this jewel of an art form.”

Song literature is one of classical music’s most prized genres, as vital to the art as the string quartet. Says Ms. Fleming, “The mastery of song literature is all about refinement, of the art of interpretation as much as singing.” And she is determined to do all she can to enable it to thrive in the future.