The famed soprano will lead an arts health discussion Tuesday and then perform a sold-out recital Wednesday with La Jolla Music Society music director Inon Barnatan
Soprano Renée Fleming may be most famous for her decades-long career as an opera singer. But it’s been a long time since opera was her only focus.
She has recorded jazz, Broadway, rock, lieder and even “Lord of the Ring” albums; performed theater roles on Broadway and in London’s West End; hosted a web series on how music impacts brain health; and has a book coming out in April on the same topic.
This week, Fleming arrives in La Jolla for two La Jolla Music Society events at the Conrad Prebys Performing Arts Center. On Tuesday, she’ll host “Music and Mind,” a presentation on the arts and health, and she will be joined by Drs. John Iversen and Tim Brown from UC San Diego’s EARLI Lab. (EARLI stands for Early Academic Readiness and Learning Intervention, which studies how early access to music in the classroom enhances early childhood development.)
On Wednesday, she’ll perform a sold-out recital with pianist Inon Barnatan, music director for La Jolla Music Society. The concert will feature songs from “Voice of Nature: the Anthropocene,” Fleming’s Grammy-winning 2022 album with pianist-conductor Yannick Nézet-Séguin. The second half of the concert will feature nature footage from the National Geographic Society that will complement songs by Maria Schneider, Nico Muhly, Kevin Puts (“The Hours”), Björk and Howard Shore (“The Lord of the Rings” film scores).
Now in her early 60s, Fleming has been a vocal star of the stage for nearly 40 years. She has sung for President Joe Biden and the late Queen Elizabeth, is a recipient of the National Medal of Arts, a 2023 Kennedy Center Honoree and has won five Grammy Awards.
Although she has retired from many of the operatic stage roles that made her famous, she has hardly slowed down. Last summer, she sang Pat Nixon in “Nixon in China” in Paris. This month and next, she’s touring the country on a recital mini-tour, performing different repertoire from arts songs to Broadway classics. In May, she’s at the Metropolitan Opera in New York for a return engagement of the Kevin Puts-Greg Pierce 2022 opera “The Hours.” And in April, she’ll release her book “Music and Mind.”
After spending most of her adult in New York City, Fleming moved just before the pandemic to Northern Virginia, just across the Potomac River from Washington, D.C. She spoke from her home on Tuesday.
Q: Since 2020, you’ve been talking about music and the mind, and even recorded a web series on the topic with some of the top experts in the field. How did this all begin?
A: This actually happened a little bit before 2020. I was new down here (in the Washington area) and went to a dinner party and met Dr. Francis Collins, who ran the National Institutes of Health. We talked about why scientists are studying music. Because we want to understand the brain. Music is in more parts of the known mapped brain than any other activity. I wanted to create a platform for science at the Kennedy Center. We now have a very robust program working with the National Endowment for the Arts, the Kennedy Center and the National Institutes of Health. It has exploded beyond those boundaries to include an initiative for the NeuroArts Blueprint. I bring this presentation wherever I tour to foster collaboration between arts and health.
Q: What are some of the most interesting things you’ve learned about music and the mind?
A: There are the pillars of the field that have to do with childhood development and creative aging and a host of disorders that are helped by creative art therapies. If you have a stroke or brain injury, you can regain speech in as little as one session due to the plasticity of the brain. Or if you have MS or movement disorders, rhythm can help with fluid movement. We are just at the beginning of this type of knowledge because new technology has made it possible. I had an fMRI (functional magnetic resonance imaging) that lasted two hours and we found out that, for me, imagining music had the greatest effect in my brain — more than speaking or singing. They’re learning so much these days. MIT recently discovered that brain waves are consistent in all mammals. Brain waves are a type of rhythm, after all.
Q: During the 2020 COVID-19 lockdown, you produced 18 episodes of Music and Mind Live. What inspired you to do that?
A: I didn’t want to be grounded. I thought, this is something I can do. I’m a doer type. It was really great, and the fact that it’s still out there and people are still watching it is great. And Dr. Vivek Murthy (her guest on the first episode) is now our Surgeon General. He now talks a lot about arts and health.
Q: How as your life as a singer impacted your health?
A: When I met Deepak Chopra, he said you’re so lucky to be a singer because you’re stimulating the vagus nerve every time you sing.
Singing is something I’ve always loved. It transports me. When I perform, I’m definitely in the zone, which is a beautiful healthy place to be in — a flow state.
Most of are trying to wrest more from our days than we have the capacity or energy for. It’s great to take these breaks and do something artistic. The beauty of where I am is that I really am not building a career anymore. I pick and choose the things I want to spend my time on and lift up. I also love working with young artists at the Aspen Music Festival and the SongStudio and Carnegie Hall. I have maybe a little too much of everything right now, but I don’t want to give any of it up.
Q: Can you tell me about the songs you’ve chosen for your “Voice of Nature” recital on Wednesday?
A: The recital tour came from the success of “Voice of Nature.” I thought, let me add some popular things like “Twilight” and “Shadow” from “Lord of the Rings.” My daughter encouraged me to sing a song from “Lord of the Rings” because she said it’s a touchstone for a lot of people her age. I added that and (a song by) Björk and mixed up the repertoire, but everything points to our relationship to the planet, which has been a powerful inspiration for all of us since the beginning of our history. We want to encourage the audience to think about that and remember there’s a lot of work to be done to protect that. National Geographic didn’t go out and film this for me. They drew it from their own archive and edited and mixed videos that that correspond to the tracks I sang.
Q: Your accompanist on Wednesday will be Inon Barnatan. Have you two worked together before?
A: Yes. I’m so grateful every time I get the chance to work with Inon. His artistry and imagination and willingness to try new things and play in different genres is incredible. He brings the whole performance to another level. And he’s a wonderful person, too.”
‘Music and Mind’ with Renée Fleming
When: 6 p.m. Tuesday
Tickets: RSVP required
Renée Fleming and Inon Barnatan recital
When: 8 p.m. Wednesday
Tickets: Sold out