Celebrated soprano Renee Fleming will talk about the connection between music and the brain at Mason Gross's Nicholas Music Center.
Celebrated soprano Renee Fleming has seen firsthand how music melds with the mind: As her husband’s aunt, who had Alzheimer’s Disease, neared the end of her life, she wasn’t able to recognize loved ones — but she could recall her favorite songs.
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“It’s the last memory to go,” Fleming said in an interview with NJ Advance Media. “The last year of her life, her only activity was singing. If you said two words of a song she knew, she’d launch right into it.”
That’s helped drive Fleming’s work with Sound Health: Music and the Mind, a collaboration between the National Institutes of Health, the National Endowment of the Arts and the Kennedy Center, where Fleming is artistic advisor at large.
The project is an on-going examination of the intersection between music and medicine. Fleming is in the Garden State this week to talk about the project at Mason Gross’s Nicholas Music Center Feb. 26 and to perform a live concert at State Theatre New Jersey Feb. 27.
“It’s really extraordinary,” she said. “Music has a broader effect on the brain the any other activity. It was with us before modern history.”
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It’s fitting that a history-making performer like Fleming is leading this work. The opera superstar has dazzled on Broadway and on the stage of the Metropolitan Opera House.
In the last two years, she’s been featured on three movie soundtracks, including the 2018 Academy Award-winning soundtrack for “The Shape of Water.” She was nominated for two awards during the 2019 Grammys: for the cast album of the revival of “Carousel” and for the opera recording of Strauss’s “Der Rosenkavalier.” She sang at a private birthday party for Prince Charles in November. She brought the crowd to tears when she sang “Danny Boy” at Sen. John McCain’s funeral in September.
“It was very moving to be part of that event that meant so much to so many people. I heard from people I never hear from, telling me how moved they were,” Fleming said. “In my career, I’ve seen how my music was helpful to different people in crisis, either illness or loss … Music has the ability to ground us emotionally, to make us feel, and to find beauty. That’s something people crave.”
The craving may be primal: Studies have shown that music can help fight depression and lower blood pressure. Videos of Alzheimer’s patients lightening up when they hear certain songs abound on the Internet. Fleming said she listens to jazz when she needs to relax and has found that singing the last four songs of Richard Strauss puts her into a state that “very meditative, very Zen.”
Fleming grew up surrounded by music – both of her parents were music teachers – and she hopes her work with Sound Health promotes not only music therapy and music as medicine but also early music education.
“They’ve found there are definite advantages (for children to) not only listening to music but to learning an instrument,” she said. “It helps the way the brain develops.”
“MUSIC AND THE MIND: A CONVERSATION WITH RENEE FLEMING”
Nicholas Music Center
Rutgers University, Douglass Campus
85 George Street, New Brunswick.
Tickets: Free, but reservations are required and can be made at https://www.stnj.org. Feb. 26.
RENEE FLEMING LIVE IN CONCERT
State Theatre New Jersey
15 Livingston Ave, New Brunswick.
Tickets: $49-99, available online at https://www.stnj.org. Feb. 27.
Natalie Pompilio is a freelance writer based in Philadelphia. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Find her on Twitter @nataliepompilio. Find NJ.com/Entertainment on Facebook.
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