CHICAGO — There's a reason Renee Fleming has been dubbed "The People's Diva."
For the past school year, the famed soprano has been mentoring teen vocal students as part of her role as creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.
She works with the Merit School of Music on Chicago's West Side, where many students are tuition-free or on scholarship. Fleming has used Skype video to digitally visit their classrooms and has also given in-person master classes.
"I just know there have to be amazing voices here that would otherwise not be discovered if they didn't have the opportunity," said Fleming, speaking after a recent performance with cellist Yo-Yo Ma and a choir of high school students in downtown Chicago as part of an arts education initiative.
At a recent class, Fleming, the daughter of two high school vocal teachers, sat onstage in a small school auditorium, listening to five teenagers sing and as she gave tips. She sometimes stood next to a Steinway grand piano and tapped out a note or sang parts of the songs with the students.
Crystal Arrington, 17, a vocal student at Chicago High School for the Arts, chose a piece from the musical "Porgy and Bess," giving a sweeping, emotional performance.
When she finished, Fleming got up right away and had Crystal stand with her heels and head against the wall and sing sections of the song again.
"When you breathe, and you should all do this, you want to really expand your ribcage," Fleming told the class. To Crystal, she said: "You really have a great voice. You owe it to yourself to work these things out."
Crystal appreciated the guidance.
"Hearing the things come from her, someone as important as she is, made it more important for me," she said.
Teachers also value the singer's instruction.
"One student wrote on Facebook, 'Renee Fleming told me I'm a fantastic singer. A good day,'" Merit School of Music vocal jazz instructor Jade Muze said. "Each little light bulb that goes on, they see one person do it and they start teaching each other."
Many artists who give master classes can either be too complimentary or aggressive in their criticism, but not Fleming, said Lyric Opera general director Anthony Freud.
"Renee is honest, she's down to earth but she finds a way of saying what she means so it's motivating rather than scary," Freud said. "She has a way of getting on their wavelength so she can really communicate with them meaningfully and effectively."
Fleming has made this kind of community outreach a priority since joining the Lyric Opera in December 2010. She has said the main goals of her "Renee Fleming Initiative" at the opera are providing access to opera for young people and finding and nurturing promising singers.
Students have gotten to go on backstage tours at the Civic Opera House, seeing scenery, the wig and makeup department and costumes. They've also been able to observe opera singers through the "Opera Buddy for a Day" program.
Another issue on Fleming's mind is access.
"I remember so clearly, even in my highly musical childhood, when I heard somebody who was at the highest level, it stuck with me and it inspired me," Fleming said. "And for sometimes decades afterward, I would still remember that one performance and think, 'But I haven't achieved that yet, so I have to keep working.'"
Fleming said she wants to make sure children have the chance to express themselves in all of the arts.
"Frankly, most of these students will not become professional singers or musicians even," Fleming said. "But they will take the skills that they've learned in mastering a difficult instrument to the workplace, to the rest of their lives."
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