Susan Stroman’s splashy staging of the operetta The Merry Widow arrives in Chicago after its premiere last season in New York. “She’s very visual and tuned in to movement,” says Renée Fleming (center) of the show’s director-choreographer.
“In opera,” says Renée Fleming, “the lyric soprano is typically the victim.” Little wonder, then, that the opera star is relishing the chance to play a very different kind of heroine in the Lyric Opera’s The Merry Widow, opening November 14 in an eye-popping production directed by Tony Award winner Susan Stroman. As the wealthy widow Hanna Glawari, Fleming teases, needles, and manipulates an admiring throng of gold-digging suitors, all while threading her plush soprano through Franz Lehár’s often exquisite melodies. “I’ve never really gotten to play a character like that,” she says. “She really has the upper hand.”
Fleming has made a career out of trying new things, from putting out an indie rock record (2010’s Dark Hope) to singing a Top 10 list for David Letterman. It’s an approach that also defines her tenure as the Lyric’s first ever creative consultant. “Audience development — that’s my real passion,” she says. “I have this philosophy that it’s hard to get new people in the house even if we’re creating great opera. Word of mouth is certainly helpful, and people will ideally bring their friends. But if we’re expanding in terms of what we present, then there’s more to choose from. It can seem a little bit more relevant.”
In that spirit, Fleming’s initiatives have included the company’s well-received American musicals series and a collaboration with The Second City. Later this fall, opera’s foremost multitasker sees the result of two more projects she’s dreamt up: an operatic adaptation of Ann Patchett’s award-winning novel Bel Canto, premiering at the Lyric on December 7, and a recital of songs by Chicago jazz favorite Patricia Barber at the Harris Theater on December 14. Says Fleming, “I think people like the novelty of seeing collaborations that they wouldn’t otherwise see.”
The Merry Widow runs from November 14 to December 13 at Lyric Opera of Chicago. 20 N. Wacker Dr., 312-827-5600