Diva Fever

Spending 36 hours in Athens for a single concert by "sopramodel" Renee Fleming is anything but a Greek tragedy.

Renee Fleming represents a new phenomenon, the opera celeb, or "sopramodel." She is a model for Rolex, featuring in the company's ads, and is high up on lists of best-dressed women. There is even a perfume named in her honor (La Voce by Renee Fleming ). Her portrait has been taken by Annie Leibovitz and other famous photographers, she has been the inspiration for well-known American painters, and she has published a book, "The Inner Voice," which has been translated into many languages. And most important, the star French-American chef Daniel Boulud has created a dessert named after her, "La Diva Renee." Looking at her, though, it's clear Fleming doesn't indulge in this pastry invention too often.

I had never heard of Fleming, but I can imagine no better way of becoming acquainted with her charm and great talent than from the offer I received: The chance to join a small group of journalists on a trip to Athens, organized by the directors of the Jerusalem Season of Culture, to attend one of her concerts.

Illustration (Avi Ofer)
Avi Ofer

The Season of Culture is a stunning project established by the Schusterman Foundation; the project's artistic directors are Itay Mautner, who joined us on the visit to Athens, and Naomi Bloch Fortis, a former director of the Batsheva Dance Company. Planning for the program, which will feature special artistic events during the summer, has been ongoing for two years.

The philosophy festival held earlier this month opened the season, and a concert by the Israel Philharmonic Orchestra, under the baton of maestro Zubin Mehta and starring Renee Fleming, will be the closing event on July 28. "Well, someone has to do it," I sighed with a sense of mission when I got the offer to hop over to Athens for a day and a half in order to attend a concert, even though people have been telling me for years that Athens is one of the ugliest cities in the world.

Well, let them talk. It's true that parts of it are even uglier than the most neglected areas of Tel Aviv, but still, you can see the Acropolis from everywhere and also the hill opposite it; the food is tasty; there is a fine atmosphere in the streets; and, to quote my friend Nurit, who you go with is a lot more important than where you go, and I was very lucky in that respect.

Greece was the schooling ground of the ultimate diva, Maria Callas, and the Greeks are great opera lovers. Fortunately for Fleming (and, with all due respect, Callas will always be one of a kind ), she was not forced to sing in the hall where Callas once performed. She appeared in the new concert hall, the Megaron, which has a huge organ in the rear and also plenty of legroom between the rows. Moreover - with apologies to all Tel Aviv conservation purists - my impression is that it's far more attractive than the Mann Auditorium.

Concert audiences look the same the world over. Mostly older people (though Fleming's celebrity status drew some rich young people, too ) dressed alike. Still, the respiratory system of Greek music lovers is apparently different. With the exception of one sneeze - which I myself managed to stifle with only partial success - no coughing was heard in the hall. Also, there was no rustling of programs or candy wrappers, and the habit of applauding rhythmically has also not taken root there.

The vast auditorium was packed, the orchestra was led by a young and lean conductor from Estonia, Kristjan Jarvi, and Fleming - who is a lyric soprano - changed gowns and diamond jewelry at the same rate that I went through sticks of chewing gum.

Two rows ahead of me I imagined I saw the twin of Aristotle Onassis, the shipping magnate who broke Callas's heart when he married Jacqueline Kennedy (who sang a lot less well ). His head swayed with excitement, and I thought that maybe Fleming - who is a divorcee with two adolescent daughters - had found her Aristotle. "Look how he's trembling with passion," I whispered to the woman sitting next to me. But she said it was probably Parkinson's.

The truth is that Fleming absolutely did not look as though she were in need of Onassis. Her dramatic ability does not stem from heartbreak and unrequited love, nor does she devote her whole being to music and amour. She has a life and she lives in the best place in New York. She is very beautiful and looks relatively young for a woman of 52, like someone who could star in a soap opera. Fortunately, her face has not been subjected to Botox and her lips are not bloated, so from the fifth row it was possible to see her rich expressiveness, which transforms her perfect singing into an extraordinary demonstration of emotional depth and acting skills.

Fleming, who sang at the Obama inaugural, is also a jazz artist and has recorded covers of famous jazz hits. She also sang Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" on a television show in England and may also perform it in Jerusalem (the program has not yet been finalized ), but opera is her musical mainstay. She has performed 50 opera roles to date, most of them dramatic. In Athens she sang Richard Strauss, Massenet and Puccini, among others, and two encores also gave us a taste of Gershwin, including a marvelous "Summertime."

The greater the audience expectations due to her fame (she has won three Grammys ), the greater her stage fright becomes. And like every singer, her musical understanding improves with the years, but the voice demands increasingly complex training, as we learned in a press conference at the Hilton. She will be accompanied by her daughters on her visit to Israel - they have already been to many countries with her. They're good kids, but mom is worried because they are constantly on Facebook, whereas in her generation children from good families played a musical instrument, read books and went to museums. Classical music and opera, which were once an international language, are also fading across the world. The era of the divas is over. But maybe opera celebs like Fleming will put opera back on the charts.