Show artwork for Wild

Renée Fleming On 'Penelope' and Working with André Previn

Posted on: June 6, 2023

A few years ago, the Emerson Quartet and I were discussing contemporary composers, and we found that we shared an admiration for André Previn. We instantly thought we should try to commission him to compose something; we knew he wasn’t traveling anymore, but he was still his witty, brilliant self. I knew that one of André’s good friends was playwright Tom Stoppard, of whom I am also a great fan. I thought, “Well you never know, why not ask them?” It turned out that they both liked the idea and had actually discussed writing something for my voice. I believe it was Tom who suggested Penelope, the classical heroine, as a subject. I had the privilege throughout this process of joining their meetings every so often. It was wonderful to see André and Tom Stoppard together. Stoppard is charming, so erudite, and a great storyteller; and of course André was as creative and urbane as always. The closeness that they had, and their rapport as artists, was incredibly touching. 

André writes beautifully for the voice. His own compositional style is quite lyrical, and the prosody is impeccable; he sets text so that it can be understood. I have always responded to his musical language, and collaborating with him was simply a joy. He was very open-minded, and if I needed something, he immediately understood. He was also willing to say “the orchestra is too loud there, cut it.” I never saw anybody do that so easily. I assume that was from his incredibly vast experience, years of arranging and orchestrating for symphony orchestras, television, and film. 

He was astonishingly facile as a composer. I remember gathering some material for Julie Harris, for an Emily Dickinson theater piece I did with her and my friend Charles Nelson Reilly. I was reaching out to composers and asking, “Do you have any Emily Dickinson settings?” because most people did. André said, “No, but I will tomorrow.” That’s what he did; he was remarkable in that way. A Streetcar Named Desire was our first collaboration. He wrote a beautiful concert work for me, The Giraffes Go to Hamburg, he set three Emily Dickinson songs, and he set some beautiful Yeats poems that I premiered in 2017 at Carnegie Hall. 

André was, at heart, just a lovely person. Unfortunately, our lifestyles didn’t allow us to see each other as often as I would have liked. But when we did get together, it was always a very warm, unreserved encounter, and I treasure those times. Having lost my dear friend, I’m overjoyed that we are able to bring his final work to Los Angeles, a city that figured so prominently in his creative life.