Ms. Fleming said she would find the roles herself.
In 2017, the operatic soprano nonpareil Renée Fleming announced her farewell to the traditional canon, including parts like Tatyana in Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Desdemona in Verdi’s Otello, and the Marschallin in Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier—the bedrock of her 30-year career. She did so less as a move toward retirement, than as a way to free herself up to new work written with her once-in-a-generation instrument in mind. The first fruits of that decision will be borne next week, when composer Kevin Puts’s adaptation of The Hours premieres at the Metropolitan Opera in New York on November 22. Based on Michael Cunningham’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 1998 novel and Stephen Daldry’s Oscar-winning 2002 film, it is the interwoven story of three women across time: the author Virginia Woolf in 1923; Laura Brown, a housewife, in 1949; and Clarissa Vaughan, a book editor planning a party for her ailing ex-lover, in the 1990s.
Fleming visualizes Clarissa—a character previously portrayed by Meryl Streep—as a mix of the magazine editor Tina Brown and Jackie Onassis in her Viking Press days, but with a bohemian streak (she lives in the West Village). “It’s a relief to play a modern woman,” she says. “I can focus on her emotional journey, which is very specific. In opera, it’s usually: You’re happy, and then someone murders you—thats the soprano’s life! Here, she is wrestling with loss and regret in a much more subtle way.”
Fleming and Puts had long been looking for something to create together when she came to him with the idea for The Hours five years ago. He immediately saw potential in the way the text melds time, space, and memory—and of course was thrilled to be writing for Fleming. “The way she sings a line is like no one else. She allows her voice to bloom,” he says. He devised Clarissa Vaughan to highlight Fleming’s upper range, of which he is especially fond. “Kevin is not afraid to write beautiful music. He hits the sweet spot between tremendous quality and accessibility,” Fleming adds.
Tony Award-winner Kelli O’Hara and mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato will star as Brown and Woolf respectively, roles once played by Julianne Moore and Nicole Kidman. “The film starred arguably the three best actresses at that time, and we have arguably the three best singing actresses of our time,” says Yannick Nézet-Seguin, the Met’s magnetic music director, who will conduct. He hopes the built-in audience for the book and film will bring new visitors to Lincoln Center, in addition to those just keen to see its greatest star return. “Renée is in many ways our queen. She is a major event,” Nézet-Seguin gushes. For her to trade Wagner for Woolf on opera’s biggest stage has stakes worthy of any bel canto story line.