Opera star Renée Fleming discusses her Czech roots, singing in the language, and a planned duet with Lou Reed in Prague in November

Renée Fleming, photo: CTK

The high point of this year’s Český Krumlov International Music Festival will surely be Saturday’s performance by Renée Fleming, whose programme includes her “signature piece”, Song to the Moon from Dvořák’s Rusalka. On the eve of the festival, the great American soprano discussed that aria, her Czech roots, performing at the Obama inauguration, and plans to duet with Lou Reed in Prague to mark the anniversary of the Velvet Revolution.

Renée Fleming,  photo: CTK
The south Bohemian town of Český Krumlov is celebrating its 700th anniversary this year and the music festival’s organisers pulled out all the stops to secure an appearance by one of the world’s greatest singers. But perhaps they didn’t have to try too hard to persuade Renée Fleming to come. As she told a packed news conference in Prague on Thursday night, she has Czech roots and is proud of them.

“Both of my grandparents were born in Prague and emigrated to the US about a hundred years ago. I grew up with the culture, hearing the language…it was learning about how they lived. Unfortunately they did not encourage either my grandmother or my mother to speak the language. So I’ve had to do without.”

Renée Fleming said efforts to learn more about the Czech branches of her family tree had so far proved fruitless. The fact that her forbears’ surname was the relatively common Bureš only made tracing her roots more difficult, she said.

Though Ms Fleming can’t speak Czech, it is one of a number of languages she sings in.

“It’s difficult because I don’t speak the language, so I have to learn everything by rote. However, the actual singing, once I could learn to sing certain sounds…which are almost impossible for us at first. Then because the vowels are pure, Italian vowels it’s a beautiful language to sing in, and very expressive.”

The singer also described her first exposure to Czech music.

“I was introduced to Czech composers by my mother’s set of China, which had the story of the Bartered Bride on them. So that made me curious. And then my first voice teacher suggested the Song to the Moon, and my entire career I think was launched by that aria, particularly when I began to sing it in Czech.

“What’s interesting is that when I began singing it 20 years ago, 25 years ago, people were not singing in Czech at all. So it was very difficult to find anybody to teach me the aria. Everything was done in transliteration. Now young singers are reading Czech, reading the language and learning the language, and have no fear about it.”

The title role in Rusalka is one Renée Fleming has made her own. But she says it took her a while to get to grips with the meaning of the opera, which features the Rusalka water sprite of Slavic mythology and is based on the fairy tales of Czech writers Karel Jaromír Erben and Božena Němcová.

“It took me a long time to really understand the story, or to find an interpretation of the story, because it’s ambiguous…Really it’s about the power of love, and what it is to love – to be human is to love and that I think is at the heart of it. She gives everything up, to have that experience.”

As well as her passion for Dvořák, Fleming says she is interested in the work of a number of other Czech composers. What’s more, she is hoping to set a piece of Czech literature to music, though for now she isn’t revealing what it is.

“I’m a huge fan of Janáček. I sang Jenůfa one time and I would love to sing it again. Káťa Kabanová I looked at recently and seriously thought about singing, but I think I’d prefer to revive Jenůfa.

“I also looked at Dalibor, also very seriously, because I recorded one of the arias, and…it’s a little bit too heroic for my voice. What I have not looked at is the Smetana operas. I should certainly look at the Bartered Bride.

“I’m also interested in setting some literature that was recommended to me, but I don’t want to speak about it yet, until I have it properly organised. I think that would be fantastic, a world premiere of a piece set to a piece of Czech literature or prose.”

Fleming, who is 50, regularly performs at leading concert halls around the world and is one of the most renowned opera singers today. Confirmation of the respect in which she is held came with an invitation to perform at the inauguration of President Barack Obama in Washington earlier this year.

Renée Fleming,  photo: CTK
“It was exhilarating. There were 800,000 people on the lawn, there were countless others watching on television. The spirit there was so extraordinarily positive. I have to say I think it was one of the most extraordinary things I’ve ever been involved in. We all feel tremendously hopeful about the work that he’s already doing…It’s been I think in many ways one of the most challenging periods, certainly in my lifetime, in our history.”

At the inauguration Ms Fleming performed the song You’ll Never Walk Alone.

“They wanted something inspirational and You’ll Never Walk Alone is something that all Americans know and have grown up with. It’s a very popular piece. The message is inspirational…I first sang it a month after the 9/11 attacks, at a memorial.”

After singing for her country’s new president in January, Renée Fleming is planning to perform for the former Czech president Václav Havel later this year. She told Thursday’s news conference in Prague that plans were underway for a concert in the city in November to commemorate the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution – plans that will see her involved in an unlikely pairing.

“I was invited personally by Mr Havel. The other performers are Lou Reed and Joan Baez I think, and I can’t remember who else…Tom Stoppard will be here and so many wonderful people who love this country. He [Havel] said, I’d really like you to sing with Lou Reed. So this is a challenge. We will absolutely come up with a wonderful arrangement, and we’ll find something that we can all do together.”