A little over a quarter-century ago, a gifted soprano stepped onto the Lyric Opera stage for the first time, playing the title character in Carlisle Floyd's "Susannah."
Listeners were impressed.
"Fleming's creamy, flexible, steady soprano rose to the dramatic pages without compromising the purity of her lyrical singing," wrote my colleague John von Rhein, the Tribune's former classical music critic. "Her aria and ballad were ravishingly sung, welling up as from deep emotional pools."
Since then, Fleming has been much more than just another remarkable soprano with a luxuriant voice worth savoring regardless of repertoire. As Lyric Opera's first creative consultant, a post she assumed in 2010, she has helped reshape the company in tandem with general director, president and CEO Anthony Freud, music director and principal conductor Andrew Davis and others too numerous to name.
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"Having lived in New York so long, I remember the first time I went into one of the stores downtown (Chicago), and (sales) people kept coming up and saying: 'Can I help you?'" recalls Fleming.
"I was so alarmed. I so wasn't used to that. My first thought as a New Yorker was: 'What. Do. You. Want?'" adds Fleming with a hearty laugh.
Chicago's small-town-in-a-big-city ambience, in other words, took a little getting used to and helps explain, she believes, why she has developed such close and ever-deepening ties to Lyric, where she continues as creative consultant.
"Part of it is Chicago," says Fleming. "Part of it is who people are in the Midwest, the kind of down-to-earth warmth.
"I was also immediately impressed by the fact that the people who are supportive of the opera, those donors are supporting (other) organizations in Chicago. So there's this sharing of resources, of information, that does not happen in New York.
"In New York, people are very protective of their pet projects and institutions. And in Chicago, it's amazing to see how many people – either the Ryans or the Crowns or other families are supportive of more than one major institution."
It would take quite awhile to articulate all that Fleming has given Lyric and the city, but several examples stand out.
"The curation of 'Bel Canto' was enormously valuable," says Freud, referring to the 2015 world premiere of composer Jimmy Lopez's and librettist Nilo Cruz's politically charged opera, based on Ann Patchett's novel of the same name.
"And of course, 'Bel Canto' marked our return to the national TV screens for the first time in (more than) 20 years," adds Freud, referring to the "Great Performances" PBS broadcast in 2017.
Then there was "Chicago Voices," a vast community outreach project that connected Lyric with singers of multiple genres and culminated in a multifaceted concert in February 2017. Never before had the likes of Fleming, tenor Matthew Polenzani, blues diva Shemekia Copeland, folk legend John Prine, rapper Lupe Fiasco and others shared the Lyric stage in a concert also subsequently broadcast on PBS.
"'Chicago Voices' would be the other thing I'm really proud of," says Fleming, for whom embracing alternative sounds "always has been important to me. I love singers in different genres. I hope we continue that collaboration with other kinds of singers, other kinds of music. I think it's important to continue to do that. I think we've brought in a new audience.
"Audience development has always been the focus that I have, and I think people were very excited by that. Ironically, the thought behind that was to bring opera back into the mainstream conversation."
Meaning that Fleming believes the project had somewhat the reverse effect, drawing mainstream musical idioms – and their passionate devotees – into the supposedly rarefied world of the opera house.
But Fleming's efforts here have pushed into other realms, as well. Freud points out that both Lyric Unlimited, which presents contemporary opera in smaller houses off campus, and Lyric's musicals initiative "arose at the start of her tenure as creative consultant – they were part of our original discussions with her."
And the "Second City Guide to the Opera" – another Fleming inspiration – attracted an overflow audience to the Civic Opera House in January 2013.
"That relationship began when Renee and her husband, Tim (Jessell) had a night off and went to a Second City show ... and heard one of her own recordings being used as part of a comedy sketch," explains Freud. "She went backstage at the end to say hello to the music director, and the music director went completely pale when he saw her coming: What is she going to say?!"
What did she say?
"Let's get together," says Freud, the turn of events illustrating "how the least predictable collaborations in many ways are the most successful and most rewarding."
Considering this track record, perhaps it's no surprise that "they've put me in charge of the next major commission," says Fleming. "I'm working on that now, which is a privilege," though one about which neither she nor Lyric Opera is yet releasing details.
But if Fleming has done so much to change, expand and enrich Lyric Opera, one wonders what the experience has done to her.
"It's made me think much more broadly about what the role of an opera company can be in society," she says.
"It's made me think creatively about how to maintain a position for the arts in our society, which is important. I believe so strongly that we as human beings need – first of all – this creative outlet. It develops our children, it makes them – it gives them a voice."
But the recent belt-tightening at Lyric Opera, reflected most dramatically via last year's short-lived strike by the Lyric Opera Orchestra, makes one wonder how long this most extravagant – and extravagantly expensive – form of artistic expression can flourish.
"I'm extremely optimistic," says Fleming. "I see a proliferation of new work everywhere. It's small, it's shorter, it challenges us – and that is growing. This kind of melding of genres will continue and probably insert itself into opera.
"The struggles are with the very big houses ... and Lyric is one of them, of course," adds Fleming. "It is a bigger challenge to fill those seats, because we want instant gratification now, and we have it on every screen that's available to us, in terms of entertainment.
"But I also feel strongly that people will want to be part of a community," which institutions such as Lyric Opera and the Chicago Symphony Orchestra clearly provide at a high artistic level.
"Performing arts organization can supply that sense of community, if we can provide a more social network for citizens."
That's precisely what "Chicago Voices," Lyric Unlimited, the musicals and Fleming ventures in the Chicago Public Schools and elsewhere have sought to build.
Which is why Chicagoans can feel fortunate that Fleming continues her work here.