We all need role models. Whether we aspire to be a great humanitarian or a Nobel prize-winning scientist, a mentor who shows the way (and may even help to smooth the path) is vital.
Mentors in the arts are a particularly strong tradition. The master-disciple relationship is still important in much of Europe, especially in Germany where visual artists such as Joseph Beuys, the iconic sculptor, served as mentors and teachers, building up circles of influence around them. Beuys said: “To be a teacher is my greatest work of art.”
Among musicians the notion of leadership through teaching is equally important and is exemplified by opera singer Renée Fleming. Her backing for young singers begins at school level – she is a supporter of the Chicago Public Schools Arts Plan, which is focused on making the arts a dedicated part of the curriculum in schools throughout that city. And in her role as Artistic Advisor at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts, Miss Fleming is developing new mentorship/educational roles there as well.
She also mentors teen vocal students as part of her role as creative consultant at the Lyric Opera of Chicago. This role sees her working with the Merit School of Music, where many students are tuition-free or on scholarship. Miss Fleming gives masterclasses and sometimes uses Skype to stay in touch.
Of her charges, she believes even though not all of these students will become professional singers or musicians, “they will take the skills that they’ve learned in mastering a difficult instrument to the workplace, to the rest of their lives.” Miss Fleming’s approach to tutoring and mentoring has been described as kindness mixed with enthusiasm by some past students.
Taking the idea of educating out of the classroom and on to the streets, Miss Fleming supports an organisation called Sing for Hope which places pianos in public spaces in New York City each year.
It works year-round to bring music and the arts to under-resourced schools, hospitals, and community centres throughout the city nurturing a roster of hundreds of artists, amateur and professional alike – from opera singers to jazz musicians, actors to dancers, painters to puppeteers. The artists are encouraged to participate in volunteer service programmes, where they bring the power of their art directly to those who need it most. Miss Fleming has performed repeatedly at their annual gala, and lends support and guidance throughout the year.
Of particular joy to fans of Miss Fleming, as well as students, are her Masterclasses, which she carries out whenever and wherever in the world she can. They reveal her natural grace, generosity, warmth and humour, and are inspiring and enjoyable to watch for anyone.
Perhaps it’s not surprising, then, to learn that she often says how much she enjoys and treasures this aspect of her art. Miss Fleming considers herself extremely fortunate to have been given guidance by Leontyne Price, Marilyn Horne, and Beverly Sills as her own career developed.
The magnificent American soprano Jessye Norman once said: “One needs more than ambition and talent to make a success of anything, really. There must be love and a vocation.”
Miss Fleming has inspired so many musicians in their careers. She is a remarkable role model, and all art is made richer by her generosity.
Bruno Wang, founder of the Pureland Foundation