Prima Donna Gets Dressed

rf 31 Prima Donna Gets Dressed“This is so glamorous, this is really the jet-setting opera lifestyle that people think I lead,” said Renee Fleming, the world-renowned American opera singer with the enchanting voice that is in such high demand, she never seems to take a vacation.

Ms. Fleming, a luscious 49, was speaking over the phone after getting off the plane from Italy to sing for the Vienna State Opera, just days before she’d head to Washington, D.C., to play the lead in Donizetti’s Lucrezia Borgia. She was simply giddy when discussing her glitzy evening as honorary guest at the Metropolitan Opera’s Gala Opening Night on Sept. 22, to which she wore four new costumes, custom-designed for her for the night’s performances by Karl Lagerfeld, John Galliano and Christian Lacroix. “I had fittings in London, Paris, Vienna and New York,” she said. “It was an Audrey Hepburn story.”

Like Ms. Hepburn, the curvy, green-eyed, milky-skinned, Grammy-grabbing blond soprano, known as the “people’s diva” for her down-to-earth charm and grace, has become a fashion icon. Vogue collaborated with the Met for the opening-night gala, and Coty, the world’s largest fragrance company, created a limited edition fragrance, La Voce by Renee Fleming, for $200 a pop. Profits will be donated to the opera house, where she has been a darling since auditioning in 1988 at the age of 29.

Now, two decades later, she’s preparing to lead Massenet’s rarely produced Thais, starting Dec. 8 at the Met, as a narcissistic Egyptian courtesan.
“Any woman can relate to this: She looks in the mirror and says, ‘I’m going to lose my beauty,’ and she prays to Venus, ‘Please let me keep my beauty because it’s all I have,’” Ms. Fleming said.

But a monk convinces the courtesan (not a prostitute, but a “highly respected, high-culture ‘kept’ woman,” Ms. Fleming explained) to ditch her life of vanity and pursue God instead.

“People who love singing go crazy for this work,” she said. “There’s everything in it and the kitchen sink, and it’s so exposed and glamorous.” Vocally glamorous, that is. “There’s a lot of high notes, high, soft singing.” But it will also be visually glamorous with the help of Mr. Lacroix, who will design her costumes.

It won’t be their first collaboration. For Ms. Fleming’s opening-night performance in Verdi’s La Traviata, the designer created a luscious, romantic gown with sheer, pale salmon sleeves, a puffy skirt, and a tight bodice flourished with yellow, teal, green and pink fabrics in floral shapes for a country house scene. For a party scene, she changed into a deep purple gown, with cascading ruffled fabric, and blood-red flowers skirting the off-the-shoulder neckline. “He’s so wonderful to work with,” Ms. Fleming said with a sigh.

Next up at the Met, in the spring: Antonin Dvorak’s Rusalka. With performances scheduled all over the world in between the two operas, not to mention the release of her latest album, Four Last Songs, last spring, Ms. Fleming never seems to stop to hear the music.

“I don’t have a lot of downtime to prepare for something so I really have to trust that I have the technique,” she said. “The rest is the matter of nerve, the courage to switch gears quickly, and it’s all based on experiences you’ve had before. … I’m always singing, I never stop.”

PHOTOGRAPH: Decca / Andrew Eccles

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