A Hug from the Universe with Renée Fleming

A windy drive into the desert.

A windy drive into the desert.

Here is my one experience as a fan, told backwards. I’ll start with the end. There may be comedy, and errors, but also redemption.

Chapter 5:
Last night my daughter and I drove into the desert and experienced Ms. Renée Fleming in rapturous recital. Fourth row seats. Center of the row. Right in front of Ms. Fleming’s face. The house was sold out.


You may have seen Renée Fleming in this performance, which aired before 111 million viewers during the 2014 Super Bowl:

Throughout last night’s performance, I kept rising out of my seat, slightly. It was like Ms. Fleming had a wand, and she was directing my every breath, with hers. I wonder how it feels to control an entire audience this way.

Ms. Fleming was fully present, completely focused. How does she do that? It looked like nothing else was on her mind: not her kids, husband, manager, staff, benefactors, business, emails, wardrobe issues–nothing. Nothing but the piece. Her entire body, mind, and spirit was focused into every every song, its story, history, context, relevance, emotion, her phrasing, volume, and technique–she nuanced every note. Deeply interpretive. Perfectly focused energy. Incredible stamina. Two hours. Every moment: Fully present. Radiant. Beautiful.
Sold Out House

Sold Out House

I was so tired. The night before I stayed up late watching interviews and concert footage of Ms. Fleming. I was probably agonizing all the undone tasks in my own life, actually. By the time we got to the concert, I wanted a nap. Why do I sabbotage important moments? I get overly excited, then take the edge off by simply wearing myself out. I was actually happy to be not so, so nervous. So I rallied. I enjoyed every single minute of Ms. Fleming’s breathtaking performance. I let myself be manipulated–my every breath rising and falling with her interpretive phrasing.
I feel connected.

I feel connected.

 As soon as we got back stage after the show, Audrey suddenly had to poop–three times. I’m blaming her dad. It turns out her bottom was sweaty, and she was afraid something was sliding out. She panicked, turned in her toes, scrunched up her face, and said I gotta go…NOW! I felt like an overly-indulging parent, ushering her back and forth to the restroom. We were supposed to stay in the green room. But I couldn’t give Audrey issues by calling out her “business.” By the time Ms. Fleming came into the room, Audrey was still on her throne. The greenroom cleared. Ms. Fleming still waited. Finally Audrey returned, sleepy. It took some coaxing to get Audrey to put out her hand, and answer what her favorite part of the concert was (“The Sound of Music;” she had heard it on stage before, community theatre). Audrey seemed so gracious and confident when we talked about meeting Ms. Fleming before the show. Now she seemed reserved and reluctant. I felt like a failure for not coaching her to be more polite and charming. But. She is a child, and not my puppet. I shall let her moments be hers.

My role model embraces my daughter.

My role model embraces my daughter.

While Audrey was in the bathroom, I had a moment with Ms. Fleming, gushing aimlessly. I went through the list in my mind: #1–give her the present. I handed her a rock. Despite her grace and poise, I’m pretty sure I saw “What the hell?” flash across her face.” “Here is a piece of the desert,” I said. I had wanted to give her my favorite things: a lovely hike with friends in Torrey Pines, or a wetsuit and a delicious swim in the ocean. At a nursery that morning I saw the beautiful swirling lines in a piece of rock from the desert of Utah and thought, “that’s it.” It was exactly opposite of Ms. Fleming, though, who is polished, sophisticated, and refined. This was raw. But it represented to me what is most beautiful in life, and elemental. Like Renée Fleming’s Voice. I’m not sure that came across. So I moved on.
Ms. Renee Fleming welcomes Audrey.

Ms. Renee Fleming welcomes Audrey.

Then I handed Ms. Fleming a box and said, “here are magic beans,” (again her forehead scrunched, and in the dark room she tried to read the writing on the box, probably afraid I was handing her poison, or something illegal) “because everyone loves dark chocolate sea salt caramels.” She was visibly relieved. Then I handed her a card, and one for her staff member. Her shoulders relaxed and she smiled warmly, “Thaaaank you.”
Elemental, beautiful, spiritual, as a song

Elemental, beautiful, spiritual, like a song

In the car on the way home, Audrey and I talked in the dark. I shared how I felt weird. Ms. Fleming didn’t actually seem pleased. I think she had to wait for us. The green room was too quiet. I had hesitated, trying to let others go first, assuming they had a personal connection or higher importance. But it all felt awkward. Why didn’t I trust that a star loves attention, and rush her? We made her wait. I gave her a rock–that was strange. Audrey intoned, “you know mom, the big thing is that we got to shake her hand. We went back stage, we met her, and we got to shake her hand. All the other stuff, you know, that’s not the main thing.”

The intense, dramatic, evil People Pleaser inside me who won’t let me sleep, who jumps up and down and screams “oh, noooooooo! You did it all wrong! Now they all hate at you!!!!” all the time, whether or not it’s a big deal, who racks me in agony, she had to shut up and listen to the wisdom of an eight year old girl. “You are right, Audrey,” I said. “We got to shake her hand. That is the main thing.”

Chapter 4:

Being a fan does not feel like a “good look.” It feels gawky, and groveling, like “I’m not worthy.” The truth is, though, I have heroines. Surely everyone does. We need people to admire, and to look up to. When I reach out to someone I admire, especially a preeminent, world-famous artist, it’s easy to assume she won’t have time for me. It’s easy to think she won’t appreciate who I am. It’s easy to feel like I am not enough. But that’s not what happened this time.

My role model, a world-famous soprano superstar, responded positively, in a warm and welcoming way. It still feels affirming. It feels like the Universe said “yes.” It feels like what I want and need in life is something I have to ask for. And sometimes the answer is yes. And truthfully it’s  dazzling to meet her. She is highly accomplished, artful, and at the top of her game. I’m gaga for Renée Fleming. I keep crying. I’m trying to pull myself together as I write.

Audrey, my daughter, finally agreed to go with me to hear Renée Fleming (the opera singer) in recital. It took a hand written invitation on a handmade card with very special paper and a hand made envelope, delivered in person at her school during recess–and the promise of dinner out and/or sugary treats along the way. My Honey said yes. She is the perfect date; I need her on this outing. I want to do this with her.

The night before the show, I reached out for advice from baritone Peter Tuff and music and worship director Richard T. Hunt. What gift should I take? What should I say? They told me not to be nervous. One told me to ask her how she came to love jazz, and encouraged me to ask for  a photo with her. The other said, “giving comes out of the overflow of receiving. Receive love. Receive love without any efforts to deserve it.” So many lessons.

After the show I realized Ms. Fleming must be so generous because of her own overflow. She has taken care of her voice, her body (oh, she is beautiful!), her spirit, her heart, her life in such a way that she is full of joy, she is enthusiastic, confident, and accomplished. She gave three encores–so generous. Her performance was connective and engaging. She gave of herself in a way that makes people connect with her art form–not just her–it makes everyone love the music.

This didn’t happen because she stays up late fretting over what other people need. Loving the self is loving others.

Chapter 3:

You may have heard Renée Fleming sing beautifully, hauntingly, and believably in a completely made-up language in the OST for Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King. She took a cartoon higher on the OST for Rise of the Guardians. The epic Tintin got a true diva performance with Renée Fleming as Bianca Castafiore. She sang at the Diamond Jubilee of the Queen of England. She has sung to celebrate Nobel peace Prizes. My favorite performance on YouTube by Renée Fleming is her duet with Susan Graham, Lakme de Leo Delibes, “Viens, Mallika.” She has had an illustrious recording career. Her Broadway debut beings April 1 with Living on Love. She sang for President Obama, and I think I needed to hear this, too: You’ll Never Walk Alone.


Ms. Fleming signed in pink for Audrey.

Ms. Fleming signed in pink for Audrey.

Chapter 2:

Tuesday, March 17

I awoke to a personal email from an address I didn’t recognize. When I read it, I gasped. No way!!!!

Hello Ms. See,

Ms Fleming would be happy to greet you following her performance on Wednesday. At the conclusion of the performance, you may ask an usher how to access the dressing room area, and note that you will be on the backstage list.



Mariel O’Connell

Office of Renée Fleming

Spectacular evening.

Spectacular evening.

Chapter 1:

Friday, March 13

I wrote this, sent it to Renée Fleming’s manager. As soon as I hit “send” my cheeks burned, embarrassed. Did I write that I wanted to see her…strong, polished teeth??? and the way the air around her mouth quivers? Oh, no. I didn’t. Oh, yes, I did! Oh, no!!!

Between moments of panic I re-assured myself with opposing hysteria: “they” will never read it. I figured there must be filters for drivel, “gushy fan filters.” That’s it, I told myself. “They” will filter it out. If I can use a filter to spiffify photos of mushrooms in my yard, delude myself into thinking those images prove that I am a goddess and an elfin queen, and that people will know and recognize, so I share on Instagram, and then get “likes,” which means the whole world agrees that I am indeed immortal and sublime, then, yes, there, see, the wonders of technology. My email will get lost in cyberspace. Because the very wealthy, powerful, accomplished, well-connected, and divas of the world protect themselves and everyone around them from drivelers like me. Right?

That is how I sleep at night. Self delusions. Call it what you will. I don’t care. It’s the only way to dream. So here’s the very embarrassing, but totally heartfelt email I sent to Ms. Fleming’s hot-shot manager:

Dear Ms. Fleming,

Your stunning face appeared in my news stream, announcing your Palm Desert performance. Something inside me sprang on a trampoline, bouncing fervently, feeling I needed to be there for that concert.

I had to ask myself why. I just turned 40. I don’t sing–anymore. I’m not around music–anymore. I recently stepped back from my photography business–to make time to write. I’m still trying to figure out how to make writing work, professionally.  I raise two kids. I’m married, following a US Marine all over the place. My life is full, and I’m grateful. But there’s something missing.

I found myself on the phone with a ticket agent, saying yes to very expensive tickets on a school night for my daughter and me, two hours from home (she is eight years old). There are a million other ways for me to invest our resources and time that feel typical and expected, or even reasonable. But I listened to my heart, and booked the tickets.

Why was I doing this? Would I find a sitter for my younger son? Would that purchase really hurt me? Would my daughter mind her manners through the performance, and appreciate it? Why was I determined to go to a concert given by an opera singer?

We listened to your music. We YouTubed videos of you singing, giving interviews, giving master classes. Finally, it hit me. You have a voice. You have mastered it–beautifully. I’m writing, trying to find my way professionally, feeling I have something to say, something that bubbles to get out. But I’m struggling at being new, even at middle age. I need to let myself take risks. And I need to listen to your voice.

You are accomplished and acclaimed–the pinnacle of your craft, your art. You are charming, beautiful, and stunning.  You have grace, ease, and a breezy demeanor (when we were watching you on YouTube, my kids said, “Mom! You look like that–sometimes. When you’re, you know, happy!”). I want to tap into that.

I want to bask in the air that quivers around each note you sing. I want to see your delicate, beautiful lips tenderly wrap around your strong, polished teeth as high (and low) notes leaps forth with power and grace. We women can create our high notes. We can.

You are my role model. You remind me what is possible as humans, especially as women. I need to find my voice. I’m looking to you in admiration, in sisterhood, in a tie that music does especially well–binding our hearts in the simplest, most profound way. Shared breath. Shared air. Shared vibrations. Shared hearts.

Your recital approaches at the McCallum Theatre, and I can’t wait. I’m proud of myself for staying open to the Universe and for booking tickets. I wish I could meet you in person, just to say “thank you.” I’m looking forward to sharing this experience with my daughter.  I intend to make it a special date with her, and to relish our love, to revel in art together, and to hear your voice. I can’t wait to hear your Voice!

With love and admiration,


I LOVED Ms. Fleming's choices of song. Breathtaking, every one.

I LOVED Ms. Fleming’s choices of song. Breathtaking, every one.

I got worked up over this concert. I’m grateful to Ms. Fleming and her staff for their kindness. And I’ve decided never again to get so worked up over meeting anyone. It’s exhausting. I feel almost grown up now–unless I am ever at brunch with Ms. Fleming. In that case I’d probably need corrective surgery and a clean pair of panties.

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