Opera legend Renée Fleming pens new book on harnessing the arts for health and wellness

WTOP's Jason Fraley interviews Renee Fleming on new book and Kennedy Center Honor (Part 1)

She was among the most recent class celebrated at the Kennedy Center Honors this past December.

2023 Kennedy Center Honoree Renee Fleming arrives at the Kennedy Center Honors on Sunday, Dec. 3, 2023, at The Kennedy Center in Washington. (Photo by Greg Allen/Invision/AP)(Greg Allen/Invision/AP/Greg Allen)

Now, five-time Grammy-winning opera legend Renée Fleming has published a new book, “Music & Mind: Harnessing the Arts for Health & Wellness.”

“It’s a beautiful testament to the power of the arts for health and wellness,” Fleming told WTOP.

“I feel like the advocate or chief cheerleader, so I wanted to share the work with the public. I thought an anthology would be a good way to do it, to call on 41 different people to share their work as either researchers, creative arts therapists or artists, as well as major institutions like the Kennedy Center, Carnegie Hall and National Institutes of Health.”

Fleming has launched the first ongoing collaboration between America’s national cultural center, the Kennedy Center, and the nation’s largest health research institute, the National Institutes of Health, to find the intersection between the arts, health and neuroscience. The foreword is written by Dr. Francis Collins, former director of NIH.

“We have a couple of different institutes from NIH, one — integrated medicine — which is really key to this,” Fleming said.

“People can pick and choose their topics: childhood development and education, various therapeutic uses, the future, we’ve got amazing futuristic chapters about what this is gonna look like down the road. … Most of it’s music, because that’s really where I live, but you’ve also got architecture, theater and visual arts as well.”

She has also created a touring program by the same name, Music and the Mind, which she has presented in more than 50 cities around the world, earning Research!America’s Rosenfeld Award for Impact on Public Opinion. In 2020, Fleming launched Music and Mind LIVE, a weekly web show with 700,000 views from 70 countries.

She is now also an adviser for major initiatives in the field, including the Sound Health Network at the University of California San Francisco and the NeuroArts Blueprint at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

“[The arts help] mental health, pain, movement disorders like Parkinson’s and MS, but also traumatic brain injury and stroke,” Fleming said.

“If kids are engaged, they do better in school and their brains change after just two years. … One thing that has changed is technology. We can all measure this now. I had an FMRI experiment at NIH myself, so there will be enough proof and rigorous research to make a case for embedding this in health care.”

Few artists have more credibility on the subject of the arts. In Hollywood, Fleming has recorded songs for the soundtracks of two Oscar Best Picture winners, “The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King” (2003) and “The Shape of Water” (2017). While on Broadway, she has earned a Tony nomination for “Carousel” (2018).

In 2012, she received the National Medal of Arts from President Barack Obama. In 2014, she became the first classical artist ever to sing the national anthem at the Super Bowl.

Along the way, she’s performed at the Nobel Peace Prize ceremony and the Diamond Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth II at Buckingham Palace. More recently, the World Health Organization appointed her as a Goodwill Ambassador for Arts and Health in 2023.

Last year, her Grammy-winning album “Voice of Nature: the Anthropocene,” inspired the National Geographic climate change film, which she has been touring and screening in a recital.

In March, she portrayed Pat Nixon in a new production of “Nixon in China” at the Opéra de Part. This past May, she performed at the Metropolitan Opera by reprising her role in “The Hours” based on the Pulitzer Prize-winning novel and Oscar-winning movie.

Of all of her accolades, it’s hard to top the 2023 Kennedy Center Honors, sitting in the balcony alongside her fellow recipients Billy Crystal, Queen Latifah, Dionne Warwick and Barry Gibb of The Bee Gees.

“It was unbelievable, really not to be matched,” Fleming said.

“To be up there was intimidating and fantastic. … Billy Crystal was overwhelmed by the experience, he was low key the entire weekend; Queen Latifah was amazing, I fell in love with her family too, they were all fabulous people. Dionne Warwick was an idol, I was excited to talk to her. … I was stunned by my tribute having Sigourney Weaver, Christine Baranski and Titus Burgess. It was amazing.”

WTOP's Jason Fraley interviews Renee Fleming on new book and Kennedy Center Honor (Part 2)

Hear our full conversation on the podcast below:

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Jason Fraley

Hailed by The Washington Post for “his savantlike ability to name every Best Picture winner in history," Jason Fraley began at WTOP as Morning Drive Writer in 2008, film critic in 2011 and Entertainment Editor in 2014, providing daily arts coverage on-air and online.

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