Renée Fleming on the Healing Power of Music

I’m Alan Alda and this is Clear and Vivid, conversations about connecting and communicating.

Renée Fleming, has sung in opera and on concert stages around the world. And even if you’ve never been to the opera, you might very well have her sing on the soundtracks of very popular movies and recordings that span a range of styles. This year, she appeared for the first time on the Broadway stage in the Musical “Carousel.”

Renée has covered a lot of ground, and I think you’ll be surprised to hear about the project she’s passionately engaged in now.

Renee and I talked one afternoon at her apartment in Manhattan

It’s ironic that while I was talking with someone who possesses one of the most beautiful voices in the world, I was suffering from a hoarse throat. Renée acted as though she didn’t notice. Which shows what a good actress she is.

And, actually, our conversation started with talking about acting—and about one mysterious aspect of it that Renée seems to be blessed with.

Alan Alda: We saw Carousel the other night and were just amazed at your performance-
Renee: Thank you.
Alan Alda: … not just your incredible voice, but this thing that you have really amazed me. You have the ability to come out on stage and capture everybody’s attention without seeming to want to or try. We can’t take our eyes off you. Are you aware of that? Are you aware of the effect you have on the audience?
Renee: No, absolutely not. I have to say one thing about this experience in comparison with what I typically do, which is either on the operatic stage or in the concert hall, is that it feels more intimate to me.
Alan Alda: This does?
Renee: Yeah. I have much more of a sense of the audience, so I feel that the music is kind of flowing through me. We always want to be in kind of a flow state. That’s the ideal. But I never think about drawing attention to myself.
Alan Alda: I can’t stand it when I see a performer who insists that I pay attention to the exclusion of the other actors and even the script itself: “Look at me. I’m the main attraction.” You are the total opposite of that, and yet we can’t take our eyes off you. I wonder if it has to do with playing big opera houses, where you have found a way to fill the house without being extra big to do it. Do you make an effort to do things bigger in an opera house?
Renee: I would say that what I had to learn to do, and this was a kind of painful experience … I did a role in the mid-’90s that was extremely emotional. It was Susannah in the opera Susannah. I was crying onstage and just feeling completely caught up in the drama, and somebody came back and said, “Gosh, you really have to learn how to act.” I thought, “This is the best acting I’ve ever done.” The light bulb went on, because I thought, “If you don’t show it in a big, big house” … It seats 4,000 people … “physicalizing,” meaning with your gestures or, really, with your body more than your face, because past the 10th row they can’t see us, “then it doesn’t read.”
So, in this situation, I have really realized between the amplification, because in classical music we’re never amplified, and the more intimate venue … The stage is quite small … I have really felt like I don’t have to do much at all. So, it’s ironic-
Alan Alda: Yeah, it is ironic.
Renee: … that it’s reading better.
Alan Alda: You fill the place. That sensation of filling a place, sometimes I’ve been aware of that myself, and it a mysterious thing. It’s almost like a personal connection with everybody in the room, just by being aware that they’re there.
Renee: Yes. Oh, that’s interesting. I had a very traumatic experience, also, in college, because an acting teacher said, “You’re going to be great on stage. You have a very big face,” which for a young adult woman is about the last thing you should ever say.
Alan Alda: Exactly.
Renee: I was traumatized. I said, “I’ll never get a boyfriend.”
Alan Alda: But you got an audience.
Renee: Right, exactly.
Alan Alda: I had an acting guru once say to me when I was about the same age, “You don’t have to do so much. You have a very expressive face”-
Renee: There you go.
Alan Alda: … which was a wonderful way of saying, “Calm down. Just don’t be all over the place.”
Renee: Right. Right.
Alan Alda: You mentioned the business of being amplified on Broadway, where you are now, and not being amplified on the operatic stage. Did you have to change the way you sing to accommodate the microphone?
Renee: I’m trying to, yes, because I don’t want to add any distortion to the sound. In classical music, our bodies are the amplifiers. We’re really using as much, really, strength as we can to project the voice. When you’re amplified, of course, you don’t have to make a big sound at all. You allow the technology to do that for you.
Alan Alda: So, what do you change?
Renee: I use much less breath pressure. In classical music I’m always thinking about projecting. We’re kind of human ventriloquists. So, here I’m thinking about, really, just, “What am I saying? How am I singing it?” and trying to sing healthily and well, but without power.
Alan Alda: What’s it like doing eight shows a week for you? You don’t do that in opera.
Renee: Oh, no.
Alan Alda: How many times do you perform an opera a week?
Renee: Maximum three and typically more like two. I always say we’re the weightlifters of singers, because in opera we really have to have that downtime in between, because it takes so much power. That’s one of the reasons I’m trying to sing a little bit differently so that I can manage this eight shows a week.
I’m loving it. First of all, I’m home for the first time in my adult life. I’ve never been home for more than two months since I was a student.
Alan Alda: No kidding. Wow. The thing about eight shows a week that I have always found, just acting … Singing is even worse. I’ve been in a couple of musicals. The thing is, from the time you wake up in the morning until after the show … I should make this personal. From the time I wake up in the morning until after the show, I’m thinking, “Did I get enough sleep today? When do I eat? How much do I eat?”
Renee: Ah, yes.
Alan Alda: If I feel a tickle in my throat, am I going to have a cold to cope with? Do you not get colds?
Renee: I don’t get them very much. I’m typically on a plane every three days.
Alan Alda: That exposes you to a lot.
Renee: Yeah. I’m very careful. You won’t see me handling door knobs and railings with my bare hands.
Alan Alda: Yeah. Yeah, I don’t either.
Renee: I always use a piece of clothing.
Alan Alda: Yeah, but then you can’t touch your jacket.
Renee: If you see this strange lady using her scarf to open the door, that’s me.
Alan Alda: I do the same thing, because I’m so afraid of getting a cold. I can remember so many times I got a cold, and I thought immediately, “Well, maybe this is the end. I’ll study mime.”
Renee: Oh, gosh. We performers, right?
Alan Alda: I know. You get crazy.
MUSIC BRIDGE
Alan Alda: Something that has really surprised me, as watching you from afar in the last a couple of years, is what seems to be an interest in science that I share with you. I mean, here we are both outsiders to science, but we’re both caught up in the … I guess for me it’s the awe of what they’re finding out about nature that just amazes me, about how we work, and especially the brain. Now you’ve got the same interest and have applied it to music.
Renee: It’s true, and we met, of course, at the World Science Foundation, one of the events there. I’m thrilled that you are involved, because it underlines and supports everything that they’re doing … Brian Greene. I happened to meet Francis Collins at an incredible dinner party.
Alan Alda: Francis Collins, for those who don’t know, is the head of the National Institutes of Health, the NIH. That dinner party story … This is an example of wonderful communication, because it seems to have been a turning point in your life, which is a good ear-catching moment to talk about, and it’s a wonderful story. Tell the story of that dinner party.
Renee: Well, it was a dinner that we were invited to. We didn’t know who the other guests were going to be. It turned out it was Justices Scalia, Ginsburg, and Kennedy right after the week of having decided for same-sex marriage and marriage equality. I was seated, because they’re both opera lovers … were, in the case of Justice Scalia … between Ginsburg and Scalia. I can’t say the people were making a tremendous amount of eye contact that evening. It took a while for everybody to relax. You could imagine it was a tense week; but, as a lesson to everyone, they came and were there to be together and enjoy the evening. Francis Collins brought his guitar, which I’ve come to find out he loves to do and does well, and we ended up having an impromptu singalong.
Alan Alda: What was the singalong? What were they singing?
Renee: Well, we were singing whatever I knew and what he knew, so things like This Land is Your Land, and Country Roads, and very kind of popular songs that would make sense to be performed with a guitar and that he knew. Everybody sang. We had a wonderful time. It loosened everyone up. It was a very magical evening. And at some point in the evening, I turned to Dr. Collins and said, “I’m a consultant now for the Kennedy Center. I noticed that there is a tremendous amount of press about neuroscience and the brain and music. Is this worth exploring? How would you feel about collaborating with a great arts institution,” because the Kennedy Center is our national center for the arts. He immediately was interested. So, we’ve embarked on an extraordinary journey, and I feel so privileged to be part of it.
Alan Alda: And it’s called Sound Health?
Renee: Sound Health. The first Music in the Mind was the first iteration, and it took place last June, two days of exploring, really, so many strides that have been made in terms of childhood development for many different types of therapies, from PTSD, Alzheimer’s, autism, Parkinson’s, you name it, and then also the research itself and how it plays out, and how it explains to us as human beings why music has been so much a part of our history. It far pre-dates modern history, just like cave paintings do.
Alan Alda: Mm-hmm. One of the efforts in the music and the brain correlation is, as I understand it, to study what happens in the brain when music hits the brain.
Renee: Yes.
Alan Alda: So, are many people going through functional MRI machine scans to determine that?
Renee: Well, I participated myself-
Alan Alda: Yeah, you were one of many.
Renee: … in a two-hour experiment.
Alan Alda: Two hours in the tube, huh?
Renee: In the tube. I didn’t really quite know what I was signing up for, I have to say.
Alan Alda: What did it feel like?
Renee: I’m very task-oriented; so, once I knew that we were going to repeat me singing, imagining singing, and speaking over and over and over again, I’m the kind of person who says, “Okay, let’s buckle down and do it.” I was fine. I was absolutely fine.
Alan Alda: What were you singing when you were in the FMRI?
Renee: I picked Dave Grusin’s set, The Water Is Wide and Shenandoah, for me. We call them the river songs. So, I picked a little bit of The Water Is Wide. I wanted to do something about folk music. There are these iconic songs: Amazing Grace; Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah; O Mio Babbino, anything by Puccini pretty much, that people universally love. Certainly, You’ll Never Walk Alone is one of them.
Alan Alda: Mm-hmm. Amazing Grace always has an effect on me.
Renee: Yeah.
Alan Alda: The Water Is Wide. Can you remind me how that goes?
Renee: (singing) It’s a beautiful folk song. I think there’s something on the internet about this experiment. It’s not going to win a Grammy, I’ll tell you that, hearing me with the FMRI machine in the background.

fMRI INSERT

Renee: Whoo! Not pretty.
Alan Alda: It’s a horrible experience.
Renee: Yes.
Alan Alda: I did the science show, Scientific American Frontiers, for 11 years, and I was constantly taking part in the experiments of the scientists. About a dozen times I was in FMRI machines.
Renee: Oh, my.
Alan Alda: Usually the procedure is, they give you a bulb to squeeze. Did they give you a bulb?
Renee: Mm-hmm (affirmative). Yeah.
Alan Alda: In case you’re in trouble, you squeeze the bulb-
Renee: Yes.
Alan Alda: … and they immediately take you out.
Renee: Right.
Alan Alda: They were so concerned that they were sticking a sort of a celebrity in the machine, telling me how they liked all the movies I’d made-
Renee: Oh.
Alan Alda: … they forgot the bulb.
Renee: Oh, no.
Alan Alda: So, I let them slide me in. I’m thinking, “I don’t have the bulb. What if I need the bulb?” Accidentally, I raised my hand two inches, and I realized the tube was two inches from my face.
Renee: Oh.
Alan Alda: And, really, I got claustrophobic.
Renee: Oh.
Alan Alda: I didn’t have the bulb, so I started waving my legs.
Renee: Oh.
Alan Alda: They were in the other room photographing the machinery. Then nobody looked at me.
Renee: Oh, no. Oh, no.
Alan Alda: It got worse and worse. I never wanted to go into a machine again.
Renee: Oh, my goodness.
Alan Alda: But I have.

After the break… we talk about a subject that has fascinated me most of my adult life: improvisation. Renée talks about what research is telling us now about the surprising effect of improv on the brain. When we come back.

MIDROLL
This is Clear and Vivid, I’m Alan Alda, and I’m talking with Renée Fleming about research on the effect that improvisation has on the brain.
Renee: Well, there’s quite a bit out there at this point. One of the things that Charles Limb, who’s in San Francisco, talks about is the fact that the most powerful thing you can do is improvisation.
Alan Alda: Tell me about that, because that really interests me a lot. When we teach scientists to communicate better, we start with improvisation exercises.
Renee: Fabulous.
Alan Alda: Not for the purpose of making them funny or making them actors, but for the purpose of getting them used to being connected to the person they’re talking to, to have this awareness of the other person. You can’t do these exercises without really closely observing the other person.
Renee: I think of beginning actor classes, too, when you had all of these mirror exercises.
Alan Alda: Yeah, the mirror exercise is a fundamental thing, because you learn that the other person isn’t going to be able to follow you as you mirror, unless you make it possible for them to do. So, the communicator has the responsibility of the other person’s understanding.
Renee: Oh, fantastic.
Alan Alda: It not like, “Here’s my communication. You either get it or you don’t. If you don’t get it, it’s your fault.” It’s not that at all. It’s, “I have the responsibility to help you get it,” and the mirror exercise really shows it. So, you’ve been through that?
Renee: Maybe you should be training professors, too.
Alan Alda: Well, we do. We do.
Renee: Yes. No, I had some of that, but the improvisation piece, I think, is interesting. In fact-
Alan Alda: Yeah, tell me about Charles Limb.
Renee: Well, Charles Limb is one of the extraordinary researchers, actually, in this field. He in particular is interested in jazz, so he’s done FMRI studies on jazz musicians and even on musicians who’ve had a traumatic injury of some sort. It’s fascinating to note that the activity that occurs in the brain is most powerful when people are engaging in improvisation. I would suggest that classical musicians learn how to improv, too, if I were running a conservatory.
Alan Alda: What would you hope to be the outcome if they did? What would improve?
Renee: Well, there’s no question that your skills would improve. I so wish that I could play jazz harmonies, for instance, so that I could accompany myself, because I love jazz … just for the fun of it. I think this idea of improvisation feeds into who we are as creative people as well, because what we do in classical music typically is read music. We have the skill, and in many cases extraordinary skill, to read even the most challenging things immediately, and we’re also interpreting that and making music out of it. But someone improvising is composing in time, in real time, and that’s amazing.
Alan Alda: What I love about it is that it brings about spontaneity.
Renee: Absolutely.
Alan Alda: Something is happening for the first time, whether it’s acting or singing. If you phrased something a certain way before, it actually can be fresh and for the first time if you’re trained in improv, because it can spontaneously come out of you almost the same way it came out of you at the best time it ever came out of you, but with a little flavor of now about it that’s different.
Renee: Yeah, something quite a little different.
Alan Alda: One of the things that I was thinking about when [I was thinking about talking with you just suddenly occurred to me, because we talk on this podcast a lot about communication, that performing is an ultimate communication. You could think of performing as doing, how you perform a task. You do a task, and it’s just the doing of it, and you try to do it as well as you can. But there’s something about connecting with the audience that can change it, where you’re giving them something.
Renee: Absolutely.
Alan Alda: Didn’t you have an experience reading a book by Beverly Sills that had to do with-
Renee: Yes.
Alan Alda: For instance, first of all, I was surprised to hear that you had at some point some performance anxiety.
Renee: Oh, I had terrible stage fright. I’m not by nature a performer. I don’t have the gregarious sort of desire to be in front of people. I liked the practice room. That was my favorite spot. So, I had to learn how to perform. The second time I had stage fright, it took me almost a year to get out of it.
Alan Alda: A year. You were suffering with performances for a year-
Renee: Yeah, terrible.
Alan Alda: … or you just didn’t perform?
Renee: No, you can’t stop. You shouldn’t stop. You and I could think of several examples of people who made the mistake of stopping. Then sometimes they never go back. Sometimes they go back, famous people, 20 years later.
Alan Alda: I had it once. I was doing a play in London.
Renee: Oh.
Alan Alda: I was in the middle of a long monologue, and I heard this voice inside my head say, “Well, you got that line right. What makes you think you’ll get the next one right?”
Renee: Oh.
Alan Alda: I immediately felt sweat dripping down my body.
Renee: Oh.
Alan Alda: It was instantaneous. A fraction of a second later, I came up with the next line, and the voice said, “Okay, you got that line. Now, what makes you think you’ll get the next one?”
Renee: Oh, no.
Alan Alda: It went on like that for a minute or so.
Renee: Yeah. Oh, my goodness.
Alan Alda: It’s the worst feeling.
Renee: Yeah, it’s terrible.
Alan Alda: So, what did you learn from Beverly Sills about that?
Renee: She didn’t tell me what not to do. She was talking about public speaking. She was talking about feeling that she was a benevolent force when speaking with the audience and that, in a sense, that she was sharing something. So, basically in my mind it was] changing the flow of energy from the audience judging me and, therefore, the flow coming at me in a negative way. I would imagine them thinking all kinds of horrible things, and ratings, and you name it.
Alan Alda: Yeah, judging.
Renee: Exactly, and thinking about it and just turning it around as that the flow of energy was coming from me to them in a beautiful light, in something that was wonderful to be able to share, and we’re having, of course, a community experience. This really helped me. It was about how I thought about performing.
Alan Alda: That to me is an essential element of communication, is the awareness that they’re there, but they’re not there to judge you. They’re there for you to share something of value with them and maybe get something back in exchange from them, if it’s that kind of an exchange.
Renee: Then I started talking to the audience.
Alan Alda: You talk to the audience when you’re performing music.
Renee: In performance, exactly. I spent for 15 years now most of my time touring in concerts, and I discovered, especially in regional concerts, that I’m a closet comedian. Nothing give me more pleasure than making people laugh.
Alan Alda: Isn’t that great? It’s that a wonderful feeling?
Renee: I developed a sort of repertoire of one-liners that accompany a serious work. I have] found that it doesn’t take away from the performance. In fact, I think it helps the audience enjoy more of the music.
Alan Alda: Well, for one thing, it’s a human performance. It’s a human action that you’re performing for them, and they see you as a person, and that person who just made them laugh now can bring them to an exalted feeling with the singing.
Renee: Exactly. Exactly. That’s what we hope. Exactly.
Alan Alda: It’s wonderful.
Renee: I enjoy it very much, and I also now can really sense] the audience and if they’re with me, if they’re enjoying it, and it’s a much more of a shared performance than what we used to do, which was to stand there in the temple of art and say, “You people are so lucky.” I mean, the word diva comes from goddess. “To be in my presence, you are so fortunate.” That doesn’t work very well anymore.
Alan Alda: No. No, and I recognize what you’re saying, because the other night I was about to go on and give a talk, and I’d given the talk a number of times, but still I wondered, “Will I forget that section? Will I be spontaneous? Will it be good?” All of a sudden, almost by chance, I just pictured going out and meeting the people, seeing them, and I started to smile.
Renee: Ah. Huh.
Alan Alda: I’ve noticed that until I reach that moment where I smile about the anticipation of meeting the people I’m going to be with, I’m not really ready yet; but, when I have that, it’s like just what you were saying, it’s a community experience.
Renee: Mm-hmm That is a gift. What a gift you just shared with all of us. First of all, I’m just happy to know that you sometimes have those doubts.
Alan Alda: Sure, sure. I believe we all must, and it’s probably no good to deny it. It’s just to recognize it and think, “What can I do about this?” What you were talking about is exactly what you can do about it. You can recognize that they’re there, and they came to have a good time.
Renee: Right. Absolutely.
Alan Alda: They didn’t come to give you a rating.
Renee: Absolutely. No. No. No, absolutely. This idea of what a performance means is changing to me, also, because when Vivek Murthy last year talked about the epidemic of isolation and loneliness and how serious it’s becoming-
Alan Alda: He was the former Surgeon General?
Renee: Yes, exactly.
Alan Alda: He said this amazing thing about loneliness, that it causes more death, or as much death as smoking does.
Renee: Isn’t that amazing?
Alan Alda: That’s unbelievable.
Renee: It is. I think technology to some degree is also isolating us. One of the ways that we can come together is by going out into the community and participating in a performance or a talk, and it’s our job, I think, in the performing arts to make that more social.
Alan Alda: Yeah. You do that when you talk to them. Is this an understanding that’s growing among musicians? I remember 50 years ago seeing concerts where there was what you described, that church-like silence before the performance. I’ve seen over the years a few people begin to talk.
Renee: Well, I think it’s more common, for instance, in theater. When we produced Ann Patchett’s Bel Canto at the opera, the new composition for Lyric Opera of Chicago, we had talkbacks after every performance, and 700 people stayed almost every performance to talk about the opera. So, it is powerful when it’s offered. I do think that people are interested. As Opera America said, “Ideally, in a perfect setting, you want to have wine. You want to have a short performance and then allow people to sit with people they care about.” So, yeah, that’s the future, I hope.
Alan Alda: You just completed work on the movie of Bel Canto, written by our mutual friend Ann Patchett.
Renee: Yes, yes.
Alan Alda: So, you’re the singing voice of Julianne Moore?
Renee: Right. Yes. Exactly.
Alan Alda: Did you work with her at all to help her find what it’s like to look like you’re singing?
Renee: Well, she’s a consummate professional. So, when I was recording the music, she actually sat five feet from me to try and really absorb what happens to my body and what I do with my face, et cetera, when I’m singing. If people don’t really pay attention, they assume that you’re just opening your mouth really wide. When I see a photograph like that, I always say, “I only do that in the dentist’s office. I don’t do that when I’m singing.” She was incredible, and asked me a lot of questions, and, in fact, worked with my vocal coach, Gerald Moore, a little bit. It’s a beautiful film, so I hope it will come out sometime this year. This is my film year between that, and The Shape of Water, and Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri.
Alan Alda: Yeah, isn’t that wonderful?
Renee: You can’t pursue these things. They come to you in a wonderful way, as Carousel did, actually.
After the break… We explore one of the mysteries of performing: How do you prepare so thoroughly that you pay attention to every detail, and yet when you’re out onstage you’re able to be spontaneous and inspired in the moment?

MIDROLL
So, how do you go out on stage, having rehearsed meticulously, yet still looking forward to – still hoping for — some magical thing that will happen unexpectedly, spontaneously?
Renee: Frank Langella gave me some good advice recently. He said, “Live your life fully. Just before you walk onstage, say, ‘What’s my first line?’ and go.” I said, “Wow.” So, everybody’s a little bit different.
Alan Alda: Well, that sounds like he goes for a kind of improvisational approach: “How’s it going to come out tonight?” How much of that is in your performing? How much do you want it to be the way you rehearsed it, and how much do you welcome an inspiration in the moment?
Renee: That’s such a good question. As an interpretive performer … I take what someone else created and interpret it to the best of my abilities … I’m always searching for something new, but it’s very subtle. “What if I stretch that word a little bit? What if I emphasize that word? What if I gave that a tiny crescendo or a decrescendo? so, all of these elements in a phrase, in any given phrase, or in the sound, the color of my sound?” or “What if I held that note a little bit longer and then pushed off so that it’s like leaping into the pool?” This is what I’m doing, and it’s endlessly fascinating. I don’t get bored singing the same thing.
Alan Alda: There are a million ways to do it. I was once talking to a director about being in a play he was going to direct, and we were talking about comedy. Just to make conversation, I said, “Well, of course, there’s a thousand ways for something to be funny,” and he said, “No, there’s only one.” I thought, “I guess that’s his way.” I thought, “This is not a guy I want to work with.”
Renee: Yeah. Yes, exactly. No, I have never thrived when I’m working, say, with a conductor who’s very oppressive. I don’t do great work.
Alan Alda: If you don’t have the freedom to come up with what you were just describing in the interpretation of a piece, then it’s not yours. It’s not an expression of your creativity.
Renee: No.
Alan Alda: There used to be a distinction made, and maybe, I guess, many people still make it, between the creative arts and the interpretive arts. I think there’s so much creativity that has to go into interpreting a piece that it’s hard to make that distinction.
Renee: Well, absolutely. That’s why the great performers … That’s what they bring to the table. I mean, in our case, you also have an instrument that’s distinctive; but, beyond that, if you’re not doing something extraordinary with the music that [00:31:30] you’re sharing, then it’s not going to last.

Renée does do something extraordinary with the music – and yet like me, and many other performers she’s had to deal at times with performance anxiety.
Surprising, in a way, because music has such an extraordinary capacity to heal.
Renee: I’ll just give two examples that are interesting.
If a stroke victim loses the ability to speak, through plasticity, which is a new extraordinary piece of information about the brain, which is that it can change, and grow, and re-utilize what it exists of for new tasks, using singing … Actually, this is one of my favorite things … can actually help someone regain speech within one [00:12:30] session with a music therapist.
Alan Alda: This was true for my father when he was aphasic, couldn’t speak-
Renee: Oh.
Alan Alda: … after a stroke. He had music therapy, and the things he couldn’t say without music, he could say when he sang.
Renee: Huh. Well, what a gift, to be able to communicate again. Extraordinary. With childhood development therapy, one of the other things I really love is that actually studying an instrument … They haven’t done studies on just singing, but studying and playing an instrument absolutely improves school behavior. It certainly improves how people do in school, because their auditory skills are improved.
Alan Alda: I wonder if the discipline you have to go through to learn music: to learn to read, to make the connection between the keys on the piano and the fly specks on the paper-
Renee: Definitely. It’s a challenge.
Alan Alda: It must train you to pay more attention.
Renee: Definitely. That’s another by-product, is the focus, is the ability to pay attention to something for a long period of time and the self-discipline that comes with practice.
Mind over matter. One of the things that brought me to the subject, too, was that I, along with stage fright, had a lot of somatic pain throughout my career that absolutely I know was related to performance anxiety.
Alan Alda: Ah, where you would get, like, a pain in your back or something?
Renee: Oh, just neck [00:36:00] tension, back tension, you name it. It’s a form of tension. Over the years, you just have to really work with your mind in order to force your body to do what it needs to do. That creates a certain kind of sensitivity. It’s definitely the same for you as an actor.
Alan Alda: Yeah, very much so. A lot of it is relaxation. I ran into the acting guru from The Actors Studio once in an airport, and we [00:36:30] just chatted. He said, “You know, what the actors in the movies in the ’40s had that was helpful to them was, they knew how to make themselves relax on camera, because most of them were not experienced or trained actors, and they had to be comfortable.” That’s why you constantly saw them lighting a cigarette or sitting on the edge of a desk, anything to help them relax.
Renee: Oh, how interesting.
Alan Alda: In that relaxation, which you can get other ways, if you learn, [00:37:00] comes spontaneity, creativity, the ability to connect with the other person, because you’re not worried about yourself. You’re not thinking, “How am I doing? Am I too fat?”
Renee: Oh, the anxiety is really hard.
Alan Alda: But there you came onstage in Carousel the other night, effortlessly. It was a beautiful thing to see.
Renee: I’m loving this. I have no anxiety doing this. I don’t know if it’s because I’m away from [00:37:30] my other world, and so I feel like I’m a visitor, and so nobody’s really paying attention. I may have some warped idea about this. Also, June Is Busting Out All Over is pure joy.
Alan Alda: Oh, yeah, I love that.
Renee: I feel it, and hopefully the audience feels it. We come off stage smiling.
Alan Alda: Isn’t that great?
Renee: Yes.
Alan Alda: When that smile happens, you know everything’s okay.
Renee: That’s right.
Alan Alda: Well, I’ve been smiling during our whole conversation.
Renee: Oh, good.
Alan Alda: Thank you so much.
Renee: Thank you.
Alan Alda: It’s been a great time to talk with you.
Alan Alda: There’s one more thing, if you don’t mind. [00:38:30] If you’re game for it, we’re asking everybody to do seven quick answers to seven quick questions.
Renee: Okay, I’ll try. I’m terrible at this, but I’ll try.
Alan Alda: Okay. First question: What do you wish you really understood?
Renee: Wow, that’s great. Gah, there’s so much. Where do I begin? Really understood? Human nature.
Alan Alda: Oh, good. What do you wish other people understood about you?
Renee: Well-intentioned.
Alan Alda: That you are well- [00:39:30] intentioned?
Renee: Yes.
Alan Alda: What’s the strangest question anyone ever asked you?
Renee: I get, “Are you Katie Couric?” a lot.
Alan Alda: You get what?
Renee: I get, “Are you Katie Couric?” Yeah. It’s not strange. It’s complimentary.
Alan Alda: Yeah. I’m dying to know what you answer.
Renee: Yes.
Alan Alda: You say, “Yes”?
Renee: Oh, yes, yes. I nod politely.
Alan Alda: [00:40:00] How do you stop a compulsive talker?
Renee: I interrupt.
Alan Alda: And then that works?
Renee: Yeah.
Alan Alda: Oh, good. Is there anyone that you just can’t feel empathy for?
Renee: Oh, dear. That’s really loaded right now. That’s so loaded right now.
Alan Alda: Got you. All right, that’s the answer. Now, how do you like to deliver bad news? In person, on the [00:40:30] phone, or by carrier pigeon?
Renee: Always in person.
Alan Alda: Always? You prefer that?
Renee: Always, even if hard, you have to.
Alan Alda: The last question: What, if anything, would make you end a friendship?
Renee: I have the most difficult time with dishonesty, with lying.
Alan Alda: Great. Well, I’ll be careful. Thank [00:41:00] you so much, Renee. Great.
This has been clear and vivid, at least I hope so.

Renee was wonderful to welcome us into her home for this very special episode. Renee can be seen on Broadway right now in her starring role in Carousel, tickets are available online or at the box office. You can find all of Renee’s, projects, past albums, and current work on her web site at: reneefleming.com

Renee mentioned the book Bel Canto during our time together. I interviewed the book’s famed author and NY Times Bestseller, Ann Patchett. That was a great conversation and I encourage you to check out that podcast too.

This episode of Clear+Vivid was produced by Graham Chedd with help from our associate producer, Sarah Chase. Our sound engineer is Dan Dzula, our Tech Guru is Allison Coston, and our publicist is Sarah Hill.
You can subscribe to my podcast for free at Apple Podcasts.
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Thanks for listening.

Bye bye!