Seeking strong female role, Fleming turns to life of O'Keeffe

NEW YORK, UNITED STATES, Shaun Tandon- Tired of an opera repertoire in which women are so often portrayed as young and vulnerable, Renee Fleming is premiering an original piece on Georgia O'Keeffe, the painter whose life was momentous and multi-dimensional.
Fleming, often considered the greatest US soprano of her generation, has increasingly branched out from the traditional canon as she strives to challenge herself and ensure the contemporary relevance of opera.

"Letters from Georgia," a song cycle by rising composer Kevin Puts, works off the correspondence of the groundbreaking painter, mostly with photographer Alfred Stieglitz, whom she would eventually marry.
"I really don't want to continue to play the typical and traditional woman who is beautiful, who is owned. It's a man's imagination that's projected on her that makes her human -- that's typically what art has been," Fleming told AFP as she rehearsed the piece with Puts on piano in her sun-swept Manhattan penthouse.
Fleming, 57, said she had been drawn to one of her signature roles, the Marschallin in the Richard Strauss opera "Der Rosenkavalier," in part because of the rare depth of the female lead.
"There is so little repertoire in the classical literature that has anything to do with women who are really fully drawn, who have the complexity and the challenges that they truly face," she said.
"So often in opera, women are symbolic and sort of archetypal and mostly very young, mostly victims," she said.
In O'Keeffe, Fleming found an "unbelievably self-realized woman" who was an innovator in art in the early 20th century at a time that abstraction was rare for US painters.
Most women "are taught and indoctrinated in a sort of people-pleasing way -- and that still exists to some degree," Fleming said.
O'Keeffe was "one of the few women able to reject that entirely."
- Music for the lonesome Southwest -
"Letters from Georgia" will premiere on November 12 in Rochester, New York, where it was commissioned by the Eastman School of Music, the alma mater of both Fleming and Puts.
It will open at Lincoln Center in New York City two days later.
Puts -- who in 2012 won the Pulitzer Prize for his first opera "Silent Night," about the spontaneous Christmas truce by soldiers in World War I -- sought to project O'Keeffe's voice and natural setting through the music.
O'Keeffe, who died in 1986 at age 98, was captivated by the landscapes of the US Southwest whose lonesome beauty mirrored her own solitary ways.
She revealed more of herself in writing to Stieglitz, with the lovers sometimes corresponding several times a day.
When they met, Stieglitz was married, already famous and more than 20 years her senior, yet the couple found a deep intellectual bond.
"She writes in an unpretentious, unshowy way. I tend to find that style lends itself to the kind of music I would write so I was immediately attracted to it," said Puts, who brings minimalism into his neo-romantic voice.
- Hillary Clinton on stage? -
Searching for a strong female character to suit Fleming, Puts said that one idea was Hillary Clinton, who is in line to become the first woman US president. But he decided the topic was too fraught for a premiere days after the election.
Fleming said another possibility was Pakistani teenager Malala Yousafzai, the youngest-ever Nobel laureate who was shot in the head in 2012 by the Taliban for advocating girls' education.
But Fleming thought that the cultural gap for a Western opera singer to portray Malala would be prohibitive -- and Fleming felt it was important to represent a middle-aged woman.
Fleming, while remaining one of the most sought-after singers for the opera canon, has put a high priority on original work.
She described her role in Andre Previn's opera rendition of "A Streetcar Named Desire" as among the most exciting experiences of her career and starred in "Le Temps l'Horloge," the last work by French composer Henri Dutilleux before his 2013 death.
In 2010 she also released a cover album of songs by rock acts including Arcade Fire, Peter Gabriel and Leonard Cohen.
"I want this art form to be relevant and to be of today," she said of opera. "We can't become a museum."
But she added: "I don't do it because I think it's important. I do it because I love it."

Saturday, November 5th 2016
Shaun Tandon

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