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Kennedy Center To Hold First Live Event Since Spring


Live performance returns to the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts in Washington, D.C., tonight in a big way. Forty fortunate fans will sit on a specially constructed stage to hear, in person but at a safe and social distance, two of America's most accomplished performers. The event is called "A Time to Sing: An Evening with Renee Fleming and Vanessa Williams." And Renee Fleming and Vanessa Williams join us now. Thank you so much for being with us.

VANESSA WILLIAMS: It's a pleasure.

RENEE FLEMING: Thank you, Scott.

SIMON: And let me ask you in turn, Ms. Williams first because you're at the top of my Zoom screen, which is how we do things these days. How do you feel about performing before an audience again?

WILLIAMS: I'm very much looking forward to it. This is a spectacular venue. I was just here with an audience full of people last year. And crazy how time has changed so dramatically globally. So that's going to be really exciting, of course, to sing with Renee, who I've known as a friend, but to get a chance to share the stage is going to be spectacular. And to see smiling faces that are going to absorb all of this beautiful music - a deep program that will touch many.

SIMON: Renee Fleming, I'm going to guess that both you and Vanessa Williams, though - I mean 40 people in the audience. I'm going to guess more than 40 people watch the two of you buy a bagel on the streets of New York. Is that going to be a little disorienting just to - sing to just 40 people?

FLEMING: Listen. I'm so thrilled to have an audience at all after all of these digital performances in which we're singing our hearts out to little phones or iPads...

SIMON: (Laughter).

FLEMING: ...Or at a Zoom call. That's been very strange. And, of course, there's no applause. And we really miss it.

SIMON: Yeah. Wait. Wait. Hold on. (Clapping).

FLEMING: Thank you so much. Thank you, Scott (laughter).

SIMON: That's all right. Yeah, no. I do what I can. Multiply that times a thousand. All right.

FLEMING: Yeah, exactly.

SIMON: What do you know about the stage?

FLEMING: Well, we're each tested for COVID every morning when we come in, and it is the famous swab test. So what we do for our art. And everybody is socially distanced. We all wear masks, unless - except for Vanessa and I when we're actually performing and rehearsing. And if people are - the protocol is stricter than it is outside, actually, because these organizations that are trying to open cannot afford to have even one case.

SIMON: Yeah.

FLEMING: So they have to be special - extra careful.

SIMON: Now, the concert is presented as exploring. I'm going to read a quote here. "The healing power of the performing arts and the resilience and hope needed in our current time through a very personal collection of songs." We have a previous recording of you singing one of the songs here - "Song to the Moon," Dvorak. I could use a few moments of repose. Let's listen to it if we could.


FLEMING: (Singing in Czech).

SIMON: Oh, my gosh. Can you help us appreciate what the song means to you?

FLEMING: It's the aria that launched me, in fact. And the role was with me for many, many years, and I love it. She's absolutely a gorgeous character, beautifully written music. And I have Czech heritage, so it kind of makes sense.

SIMON: And Vanessa Williams, we have you, 1994 title track of your album "Sweetest Days." If we could listen to a little bit of that.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) These are the days the sweetest days we'll know. So we'll whisper a dream here in the darkness, watching the stars 'til they're gone. And when even the memories have all faded away, these days go on and on. Listen now.

SIMON: Oh, my. What has that song meant in your life?

WILLIAMS: Well, "The Sweetest Days" was written for my children. At the time, I had three, and I was recording at - in the afternoon and then doing "Kiss Of The Spider Woman" on Broadway at night, eight shows a week. So that was kind of enjoying the - having not only a career but also having the gift of children. So, you know, trying to remember how sweet these times are and how fast they will go. So I dedicate that one to my children every time I sing it.

SIMON: Boy, what has this period been like for each of you?

FLEMING: I mean, I've been home, which for me was a gift. I've been traveling my entire adult life. You know, opera and classical music are performed on the road, for the most part. So - but, you know, four months in, six months in, I'm thinking OK, I'm going to go back now. I'm ready to go back. And I thought I was this hugely disciplined person. But, in fact, I just had one deadline after another, like every three days. So now without deadlines, you have to kind of create a structure to keep in shape, keep the voice going.

SIMON: Ms. Williams?

WILLIAMS: Well, besides doing Zoom cocktails with Renee - that's how we came up with this whole idea.


WILLIAMS: When quarantine first...

SIMON: You did Zoom cocktails together?

WILLIAMS: Yeah. When that was...

FLEMING: Oh, yeah.

WILLIAMS: Yeah. We did a Zoom cocktail party.

FLEMING: Quarantinies.

WILLIAMS: Quarantinies, yeah.

FLEMING: (Laughter).

WILLIAMS: And that's kind of how we said, we got to do something. Then, where are we going to do it? Who's going to agree to do it? And Kennedy Center, you know, came up. And we were actually supposed to do it in August, but they were not prepared in terms of being a safe space at the time, so they delayed it.

SIMON: Renee Fleming, I noticed the Met announced they had to cancel their season. Won't be back until next year. And there's a part of me that thinks, you know, the Met will be all right. But when you get beyond the, you know, top 20 or 30 performing arts companies in New York, Chicago and LA - wow, I worry about the arts.

FLEMING: I do, too. And I think beyond survival in this long period without any income from ticket sales, also, young artists don't really - they're all gig performers, and they don't necessarily have any source of income. And so far, I don't see any initiatives that are specifically focused on them. So I'm very worried about the arts. And it's just like we're seeing an exodus from some urban areas. We may see an exodus from the arts as a livelihood, as a source of income.

You know, one of the things that I do - have used this time for - neither Vanessa nor I are really the types to sit around - is webinar music in my - live every Tuesday night. And I'm interviewing, of course, researchers and therapists and anybody in sort of the intersection of health and the arts because I'd like to encourage young artists to think about ways they can also be involved in that field and use their talents if they decide to jump ship from performing to help people, to actually help people because there will be tremendous need when this is all done, need in so many different areas. And we as artists can also contribute in that way.

SIMON: Yeah. Vanessa Williams, have we been reminded what music, voice, the sound and lilt of humans entertaining and reaching out to each other can do through this period?

WILLIAMS: Absolutely. Music is a universal language. And just within our rehearsal process of just listening to the lyrics and singing them for the first time together, we start our show with "Fragile," which is Sting. And talking about how fragile we are and how we can't even touch each other onstage, but we connect with each other through our music. So it's a tremendous time for people to be really introspective. And I think I've found a lot of growth in terms of myself and people that are around me. But music is one of those things that it's in your soul and it's so wonderful that we get a chance to share it.

SIMON: Vanessa Williams and Renee Fleming will be performing tonight at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Thank you both very much for being with us, and best of luck. It'll be great to see and hear you both. Thank you.

FLEMING: Thank you, Scott.

WILLIAMS: Thank you, Scott.


WILLIAMS: (Singing) Life is rushing by us. Hold it now... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.