NEW YORK — It’s been nearly five years since Renee Fleming sang her last Metropolitan Opera performance of Richard Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier,” a work that culminates in a sublime trio for women’s voices.
Now Fleming is planning her return to the Met in a new opera that also has three major roles for women, with plenty of opportunities for harmonizing.
She’ll star as Clarissa Vaughn in an adaptation by composer Kevin Puts and librettist Greg Pierce of “The Hours,” a Pulitzer Prize-winning novel by Michael Cunningham and then a movie starring Meryl Streep as Clarissa.
“I haven’t been singing ‘Rosenkavalier’ in a long time, and the idea of a trio with three women wasn’t lost on me,” Fleming, 63, said of the new venture.
Fleming and Puts had first worked together when he wrote a song cycle for her based on letters by Georgia O’Keeffe, which premiered in 2016. As they discussed the idea for “The Hours,” Fleming agreed to see if Peter Gelb, the Met’s general manager, might be interested. He was.
“I always had a desire to have Renee come back to the Met,” Gelb said. “And I knew the way to get her back would be with a new work. … She obviously doesn’t want to be in competition with herself in all the roles that she has done.”
Fleming suggested Puts talk to Gelb, and the composer — a Pulitzer winner himself for his first opera, “Silent Night” — said he went to the meeting with low expectations.
“I was sitting in his office,” he recalled. “I said thank you for entertaining this idea. I assume you’re planned out for the next 15 years, and he said, ‘Well, actually we have a space for it.’ I was completely floored. I was just astonished at what Renee Fleming could accomplish if she wants to do something.”
The opera, like the novel and film, gives us a glimpse into the lives of three very different women in widely separated time periods, all connected in some way to Virginia Woolf’s novel “Mrs. Dalloway.”
There’s Woolf herself (to be sung at the Met by mezzo-soprano Joyce DiDonato), in a London suburb in 1923; Laura Brown (soprano Kelli O’Hara), an unhappily married housewife in 1949 Los Angeles; and Vaughn, a career woman in New York City at the end of the 20th century.
Fleming, who was a reigning star at the Met for more than two decades, said she relishes the idea of portraying a character who is “dealing with the finer points of life.
“A lot of the operatic canon deals in broad strokes with the extremes of human existence: death, revenge, greed,” she said.
Clarissa’s character, she said, “turns on this sense of regret she has about perhaps making a wrong choice when she was 19.” That choice was not to stay with her lover Richard, a gay poet who years later is dying of AIDs. In turn, Clarissa is now living with a woman.
Fleming said that depiction of sexual fluidity “wouldn’t have rung so true to me 15 years ago.
“But today, in a period when young people are just kicking down some of those barriers in terms of gender and sexuality, I think it’s much more believable,” she said.
Once the Met commissioned the opera and slotted it for fall of 2022, Puts and Pierce set to work and quickly realized a crucial advantage their version could have over the book and movie.
“What you can do so well in opera is tell these stories simultaneously,” Pierce said, “whereas in a novel or a film you have to cut from story A to B to C.
“If people are singing in an opera,” he added, “you could actually watch Laura baking a cake and singing about it and you could watch Clarissa doing something else at the same time. And that was immediately exciting to us.”
Puts said he developed a different “musical environment” for each woman: a “sort of American, post-minimalist energy” for Clarissa”; a “1950s, domestic bliss, kind of Lawrence Welk” mood that suits Laura’s husband but is “the world she can’t be part of”; and for Virginia “a much more spare and reserved quality.”
“Then there has to be a kind of music for when the stories begin to cross, the lines are blurred,” Puts said. “You can have somebody singing in the ’50s and then Virginia Woolf enters into the picture singing counterpoint. That was what really interested me. You can have duets and trios that transcend time.”
The piece, which has a major role for chorus and is scored for a large orchestra, will have its world premiere in concert form in Philadelphia on March 18 and 20. Fleming and O’Hara will perform and the role of Virginia Woolf will be sung by mezzo Jennifer Johnson Cano.
Yannick Nezet-Seguin will conduct the Philadelphia Orchestra, of which he is music director — a role he also plays at the Met, where he will lead the staged version next fall.
Watching three different stories being played out, often simultaneously, without scenery will pose challenges for the concert audience. “Obviously we have supertitles and we’ll have some extra stage directions,” Puts said. “I hope it’s somewhat clear what’s going on without the staging.”
Once the Philadelphia performances are done the Met will conduct extensive workshops and rehearsals over the summer to make any needed changes and to make sure the staging runs smoothly.
Phelim McDermott, who has overseen several previous Met productions, will direct, with sets and costumes by Tom Pye and choreography by Annie-B Parson.
“It’s a very tricky opera to pull off … because the action zips back and forth between time periods,” Gelb said. “It requires a very specific visual and scenic language to make clear to the audience what the hell is going on. They’ve come up with a successful formula for that, but they need to practice it.”