Skip to main content

Renée Fleming and How Things Get Made

Dear Friends,

I’m watching master classes with soprano Renée Fleming. You don’t have to be a musician to appreciate master classes. Like watching a rehearsal, they offer in their own way a peek under the hood to see how things get assembled. Not that any of this is mechanical! I like how Fleming is able to take each student on his or her own terms: The fuller, more operatic voice; the straight tone (Fleming asks in one case whether the singer has done a lot of choral music); the performer who needs help in acting, or in breath control. Fleming likes to know — and finds out quickly, segment after segment — where students have come from and where they’re going, in their practice, performance, and career.

Here’s (Opens in a new window) a Fleming master class with a series of students working on a variety of pieces, with audience Q & A at the end. Each segment is a gem. Throughout, Fleming is interested in technique, expression, and interpretation — with the composer’s intentions at center stage.

It’s a wonderful thing when students are allowed to develop their unique gifts. The great French composer Nadia Boulanger was known for taking each student on his or her own terms. German composer Paul Hindemith was infamous for the opposite. “I had the impression,” wrote one of his Yale students in the 1940s, “that [your] composition had to follow his style or he lost interest in it.”

Fleming loves teaching. Her background helps to explain why. She comes from “a madly industrious” family, she says in her autobiography (Opens in a new window). Her great-grandparents came from Prague. “My father’s family was inexhaustibly capable,” she writes. “Need a house? We’ll build one! Don’t know a thing about foundations, plumbing, electricity? We’ll figure it out! It seemed like every one of them could rebuild an engine, shingle a room, fix a refrigerator,” says Fleming.

Fleming is the daughter of two music teachers. Born on February 14, 1959, in Indiana, Pennsylvania, she grew up in Churchville, New York (west of Rochester, part of the town of Riga — pronounced “rye-guh,” unlike the capital of Latvia — population barely two thousand). Central Europe somehow always stuck with her. Her great-grandmother left Czech lands for America to escape the unwanted advances of a Russian soldier.

After studies at Juilliard, Fleming got her big break at the Met at age 29, and developed a career known for extraordinary range — opera, jazz, musical theater, indie rock. She always made time for new music and never shied away from experiment, from the avant-garde to the silly. She learned to sing in elf language for Lord of the Rings.

Fleming learned early that to be a good teacher one must be a good student. German “lehren (to teach) and “lernen” (to learn) are close to being the same word, just by the way.

After the 9/11 attacks on the World Trade Center, Fleming performed at Ground Zero. On November 14, 2009, she performed in Prague at a concert organized by Václav Havel to celebrate the 20th anniversary of the Velvet Revolution. Havel’s friend Joan Baez took part, and Fleming sang a duet with Lou Reed.

On September 1, 2018, Fleming sang “Danny Boy” at the funeral service for John McCain at Washington National Cathedral. Fleming, a staunch supporter of Ukraine, discusses in a snippet here (Opens in a new window) the ban by some organizations of Russian musicians.

* * *

Our friend and writer Paul Kroeger is devoted to Ukraine. Paul is a tenor from Dallas who has sung at regional opera houses in Germany, and who now finds himself at Texas A&M University working toward a master of international affairs at the Bush School of Government and Public Service. Of late, Paul has been in Croatia. He’s been working as a volunteer for a Texas businessman who has hustled to produce and provide demining equipment for Ukraine — at no cost. Paul shares his experience from this part of his life in a piece we’ll publish next week.

On Ukraine and across the board, let us keep hearing from you. We depend on your feedback and support.

• Keep an eye on our work (Opens in a new window); it’s a balanced and integrated mix of foreign policy, domestic reform, and history, arts, and culture — all in the defense of liberal democracy.

Sign up (Opens in a new window) for our newsletters and join our discussions (Opens in a new window), in-person and virtually. Listen (Opens in a new window) to our podcasts (Opens in a new window) with hosts Frank Fukuyama, Charles Lane, and Richard Aldous.

Support (Opens in a new window) American Purpose. We welcome new members (Opens in a new window) — and we’re eternally grateful for connections to new donors.

Next week, much more about our pipeline for April and politics and public policy in the offing. For now, though, more music — and notes on master classes and rehearsals.


Franz Liszt is credited with having established the modern idea of the master class for music. His master classes first started in the mid-1850s and became famous in Weimar around 1869. Sessions were held late afternoons on Mondays, Wednesdays, and Fridays in the music room of the Hofgärtnerei, Liszt’s residence. The classes, designed primarily for pianists, also drew singers, composers, violinists, and cellists.

Liszt was a piano virtuoso who loved teaching. He once recorded in his diary that his days were so packed with private lessons, from half past eight in the morning through ten at night, that he hardly had time to breathe. For a lens on his teaching, The Diary Notes of August Göllerich, a student of Liszt, is available in book form (Opens in a new window) in English.

Liszt insisted on a variety of repertoires in his master classes. He was precise and exacting. He even banned two works: his own Hungarian Rhapsody No. 2 and Chopin’s B-Flat Minor Scherzo, complaining that students played these pieces too frequently.

As for Liszt’s own work, if you want to sink into something, here’s (Opens in a new window) Liebestraum No. 3 played by Georgian pianist Khatia Buniatishvili.

Otherwise: Here’s (Opens in a new window) another master class with Renée Fleming, this one for the Riga Jurmala Academy in Latvia in 2021. Here’s (Opens in a new window) a master class with pianist Emanuel Ax and music from Mozart.

I like these rehearsals with great conductors:

Georg Solti (Opens in a new window) with Mussorgsky

Bernstein (Opens in a new window) with Mahler

Riccardo Muti (Opens in a new window) with Berlioz

Finally, and for good measure and fun, here’s (Opens in a new window) Fleming on the role of Violetta in Verdi’s La Traviata. I mention this because the Met’s spectacular Traviata this season just wrapped up in New York. I had the good fortune of attending Saturday night’s performance. Angel Blue sang Violetta.

My best,


Only members who support American Purpose can read and write comments on this post.