Renée Fleming, Susan Graham to sample French songs at Disney Hall

By Christopher Smith
Special to the Los Angeles Times

Dueling divas, yes, but has anyone ever heard of a diva duo? That rarity, delivered with a decidedly French accent, will be onstage Saturday at Walt Disney Concert Hall when soprano Renée Fleming and mezzo-soprano Susan Graham team for a recital of Belle Époque -era songs.

As Graham quips, “With an intermission, that gets you four dresses instead of just two!”

Since the late 1990s, Fleming and Graham have been familiar faces locally. Each has sung roles with Los Angeles Opera and performed in concerts with the Los Angeles Philharmonic, the two groups co-sponsoring the recital. (The brief pairing repeats Wednesday at the McCallum Theatre in Palm Desert, concluding with dates in Chicago, New York and Boston.) During recent separate phone interviews, each expressed enthusiasm at the opportunity to explore French song.

Renée Fleming

You seem to seek out French opera to sing — why?

After singing in English, it is definitely my favorite. For purely vocal reasons, I find the nasality of the language and the way it is really fluid are two things that blend themselves wonderfully well.

Since the go-to romance language for most singers is Italian, how did you fall into French?

For many, French is hard to learn, but only because it is so hard to pronounce. I learned French in high school, which was a definite help. Once you get past the long period of time it takes to learn how to sound authentic in French, then vocally, technically, it was easier. But that’s just for me.

Beyond the actual words, is it different singing in French versus Italian?

It always depends on the context — language is only one of many elements we have to somehow coordinate. Singing is a very hard thing to grasp and learn. And that’s what makes singing well so difficult — otherwise, everyone would do it.

So no worries the first time you sang French opera in front of a French audience?

[Laughs] You kidding? The first time I did it was quite terrifying. At that particular period, the start of my career [the mid- and late ’90s], I had a lot of “What am I doing, how did I get here?” — singing Wagner at Bayreuth and bel canto in  HYPERLINK “” \o “Italy” Italy. Because the demands were not just vocal and musical, but cultural.

In terms of the challenge factor in France, “Manon” at the Paris Opera is one I remember. It’s a huge role, quite long and requires a lot of stamina. And French audiences are most interested and particular in understanding you — it wasn’t that every syllable had to be perfect, but they minded singers who were incoherent.

Given the French flavor of this recital, what would be your intermission beverage of choice?


What will people hear in this program?

It is within the French Romantic period, music from Debussy, Fauré and others. Largely duets, though we each have a solo part where we chose our own music.

It’s definitely not two divas up there randomly strutting out their best stuff. We are trying hard to create an atmosphere taking us into the intimate setting of a salon, which is where these songs were composed for.

The contrasts between soprano and mezzo voices makes for a logical pairing, but do you and Renée have any professional similarities?

You know, neither of us really made careers out of the warhorse operas. For me, being a mezzo, I have to hunt around in the repertoire. As a soprano, she can sing “Traviata,” but she doesn’t sing “La Bohème” or “Turandot,” and by the same token I don’t sing “Carmen.” Our careers have come from lesser-known repertoire and what sensibilities each of us brings to what everybody doesn’t know.

One difference between mezzos and sopranos — is it me, or do mezzos usually face a grimmer fate?

It seems so. Two mezzo roles that come to mind are “Carmen” and  HYPERLINK “” \o “Dido” Dido [in Berlioz’s “Les Troyens,” which Graham just finished at the Metropolitan Opera]. Each goes violently — Dido kills herself with a knife, and Carmen dies of a similar weapon. Sopranos seem to expire slowly and sadly, the lingering disease in a fluffy bed, everyone nearby weeping.

What’s the one thing you would advise audiences at the recital to listen for when Renée sings?

Just above the middle register, the upper part of her voice, there is no percussion, soooo smooth. The way she moves between notes — it’s like liquid gold. She can sing these endless long phrases, breath that goes on for weeks. I don’t think in our generation has there been another voice so God-given gorgeous.

Given the French flavor of this recital, what would be your intermission beverage of choice?

A Champagne cocktail, with Chambord in it.

If someone does this, I’m curious to hear how good our second half sounded!