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In her 2004 autobiography, “The Inner Voice,” Fleming wrote with candor — and surprising eloquence — about overcoming terrible stage fright and insecurities about her talent in an attempt to “spell out for young people” what the business is really like (“You have to have a thick skin and an ability to be exhausted a lot,” she says dryly.)
It turns out the book was written with her close friend Ann Patchett, whose 2002 novel, “Bel Canto,” chronicled the kidnapping of a group of dinner-party guests in South America, including an American soprano. Patchett listened to Fleming’s music while writing the novel, but the pair didn’t become friends until after it was published.
“All the beautiful parts of my book, that’s all Ann,” Fleming says. And the performance anxieties she writes about aren’t exactly in the past tense. “I saw ‘Tropic Thunder’ the other day with the kids, and it’s so much about insecure actors, and [singers are] exactly the same,” she laughs. “But with us, there’s also the element of this instrument having a life of its own, and walking out onstage and thinking, well, this may be the night when I can’t sing the high C. Or that it cracks, or that I’m humiliated! It’s almost like being an athlete in the sense that your body has to perform at a high level. It’s not just an artistic expression, it’s also a physical one.”
Now arguably the world’s most famous soprano, Fleming has stopped leaping at requests to take on well-known roles, preferring to commission new works (a habit that has made her many fans among classical musicians) and do concerts, though she will be headlining “Thais” at the Met in December. “The good thing at this point is that I don’t need to take any risks,” she explains. “You need to do it when you’re building and when you’re introducing yourself to the world, it’s what brings attention to you, but at this point it’s not necessary, and frankly…[I’m] less interested in learning a whole bunch of new opera repertoire.”