What makes cross-cultural exchange so important for society? I believe it is a movement for peace, a way for countries and their citizens to reach out and engage with each other, finding common ground.
This sense of unity is often best expressed through artistic exchange: exhibitions which travel the world exposing us all to the masters of modern art or Impressionists. Think of the theatre and dance productions which tour the cities of China as well as wowing the crowds who enjoy Broadway or London’s West End or books that become bestsellers in multiple translations encouraging us all (from Moscow to Sydney) to share in the latest questions of philosophy at the same time.
With that in mind, is it wrong to think great artists can be the best ambassadors for their country? The soprano Renée Fleming is a good example of this. She exemplifies the best qualities of her home nation, the United States – she is hardworking, positive and an advocate for the life-changing power of education. And I admire her versatility: a quality often found in American singers is that they are happy to perform across numerous platforms – in concerts and at recitals, for example.
Miss Fleming is also at home anywhere in the world, sharing her extraordinary talent with musicians and fans.
Brought up in music, Miss Fleming’s parents were high school vocal music teachers. She has said she cannot remember a time when she was without it. “We performed together as a family, sang on road trips in the car, and shared our school concerts, and church choir performances. In my early teen years, music became an absolute necessity for me, because I composed songs when I was too shy to express myself easily in any other way.”
That was the ground work. But her development as an artist came through international travel. Miss Fleming won a Fulbright scholarship, and travelled to London where she admired the Chagalls in the National Gallery and went to the theatre with half-price tickets almost every night for five weeks, before she went on to Germany to study.
Now, she travels the globe singing for royalty and governmental officials, for Nobel laureates, the Olympics, and even Queen Elizabeth’s Jubilee. She undertook a recital tour of China in 2003, offering masterclasses in Hong Kong, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Taipei.
Of this experience, she has said: “By sharing my experience and knowledge, I hope I am helping to expand the boundaries, ever so slightly, of what it means to be an opera singer. Performing in what began as a western European art form, when I sing in capitals all over the world, my very American identity, and my love of investigating music of all kinds, may challenge some older notions of what a soprano has to be.”
Miss Fleming is also on the advisory board of the Polyphony Foundation which works to bridge divisions and foster concord by bringing together Arab and Jewish youth in Israel through the power of classical music-making.
This winter, she will be in London at the Royal Opera House to perform in Richard Strauss’s Der Rosenkavalier. In a time of global upheaval and mistrust, it is comforting to think of artists such as her travelling the world to share the enlightening power of music, which still has the power to comfort and unite us.
One must hope that universal ambassadors of culture never cease to spread joy and help us to understand each other’s worlds. Right now, it feels like we need them very much.
Bruno Wang, founder of the Pure Land Foundation