It goes without saying that things haven’t quite gone as planned this year in the DC performing arts scene. The recent pandemic shuttered many of the region’s stalwart venues in March and continues to present a challenge to companies trying to offer people an artistic outlet during these times of anxiety and social unrest. The iconic Kennedy Center has never shied away from a challenge. To inaugurate this new and unusual era on stage, they repurposed their Opera House to present A Time to Sing: An Evening with Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams.
“Repurposed” is definitely the correct word to describe this moving and surreal concert. An audience of forty were invited to watch in person—safely socially distanced, of course—from seating that was set up on stage, facing what would normally be the audience. Fleming and Williams mentioned early on that this view from the stage is what they typically see when performing. However, I doubt their views very often consisted of endless rows of empty seats. The continual flashes of an audience absent from the place they would normally inhabit offered a bittersweet visual reminder that really drove home the reality that this concert was not quite “business as usual.”
Of course, none of this deterred either Williams or Fleming. Their joy at being able to perform for a live audience was obvious in the energy they brought to the Opera House stage. Though I was not in the audience myself, watching a livestream of the concert didn’t detract from the emotional impact of this groundbreaking moment. As someone who works in the local performing arts scene and who has seen dozens of shows at the Kennedy Center, I was unsure of how I would actually feel watching a livestreamed performance versus being there in person. I was concerned that this type of technology could seem restrictive and, frankly, depressing for those of us used to live shows. I am happy to report that neither of these fears bore fruit. In fact livestreaming, despite having been forced into play by the current circumstances, may represent a much-needed step forward in accessibility and access to the arts for more people. This is never a bad thing.
Williams and Fleming didn’t shy away from a broad range of material. Each woman is a powerhouse vocal talent in her own right. They opened with Sting’s “Fragile.” The lyrics of this song set the tone for the rest of the performances: “On and on the rain will say / how fragile we are.”
Fleming’s clear, operatic soprano really shone through on “Salley Gardens,” a Benjamin Britten piece set to a Yeats poem and in “Song to the Moon” from Dvořák’s Rusalka. Williams lent a personal touch by describing many of her personal experiences or telling stories of the experiences of Black women who came before her. She related a story about Lena Horne performing for Black service members before singing “Stormy Weather,” one of Horne’s standards. Williams sultry and intense delivery definitely did justice to Horne’s legacy.
Other highlights include Williams’s performance of “No One Is Alone/Children Will Listen” from her Tony-nominated role as the Witch in Sondheim’s Into the Woods. Fleming elevated Joni Mitchell’s “Both Sides Now” from its usual pop setting to one that was very much more theatrical in a way that makes the song seem like a long lost number from a musical.
Williams and Fleming also had the opportunity to premiere “The Diva,” a new song written by Andrew Lippa. The tune was catchy and upbeat while engaging the women’s talents for a larger-than-life presence on stage. The songstresses were clearly having a lot of fun with the concert, even adding in some choreography. As you may expect in these times, Fleming mentioned that the original idea for the concert emerged with a glass of wine over a Zoom chat. Divas though they may be, these two women are experiencing the pandemic much like the rest of us. They have clearly worked very hard to get to where they are at and we are blessed to be able to share in the gifts and results of that hard work.
Williams capped her performances with her hit song “Save the Best for Last.” While this pop tune is as enjoyable as ever, Williams is certainly not limited to this genre—as she has proven on countless stages over the past two decades. Fleming provided the closing number “Over the Rainbow.” She mentioned that this standard is the most popular song of the 20th century. Listening to her sing it certainly reminds us of the strength of the human spirit. The soul—that thing inside of us that no pandemic or person can ever really touch—reaches out from the most dire of circumstances with the hope that we can rise above it. We need art and performance and the transcendent joy of creation to bring us out of the messes we continue to get ourselves into as a species. Williams and Fleming have tapped into this and, through sharing their talent, extend a hand to those willing to listen.
Running Time: One hour with no intermission.
A Time to Sing: An Evening with Renée Fleming and Vanessa Williams played for one night only on September 26, 2020, at the Kennedy Center. The performance can still be viewed On Demand through 2020 on the Kennedy Center’s website online.