Renee Fleming

By Ann Patchett, March 2011

Imagining the lives of famous people has always been a favorite American pastime. There are a whole raft of magazines designed to help us picture the inner worlds of the very talented and the very beautiful and the very rich. We envision the people we admire with such clarity that our ideas about them can seem, at least in the little movie theaters in our heads, quite true. Renee Fleming, for example. I imagine that she is always singing. I imagine her singing while she brushes her teeth in the morning. I imagine her wearing a modest rack of diamonds from Harry Winston while she trills like a lark to wake up her daughters, who pop up from bed, bright as daisies, singing in reply.


“Waf—fles for break—faaaasst?” Renee Fleming would sing.


“Yes, Mo—ther, pleeeeease,” the girls would harmonize.


When I was asked by this magazine to write a profile of Renee Fleming’s dog, the story spilled out before me like so much red carpet on opening night: Of course this would be a dog who lived for music, a dewy-eyed Lassie who stayed hidden in the folds of her mistress’s Ferrer gown, a dog who slept beneath the piano, her tail brushing trustingly beneath the pedals. She would run from any corner of the apartment when the first scale was sung to be near the singer, leaving behind half a bowl of good canned food without a second thought in hopes of being present for a bright and shining high C.


This dog would never tire of rehearsals, and on performance nights she would pace vigilantly near the door, keeping an eye on the children while Renee took her fourth curtain call on the stage of the Metropolitan or Carnegie Hall. When Renee came home in the small hours of the morning, she would drop all the roses in her arms to scoop up the dog whom she loved, who loved her, who was, in fact, her muse.


Something like that.


There is a great deal of barking when I knock on the door, the kind of frenzied viciousness that implies protection of home and hearth. Renee Fleming greets me, looking extremely smart in high-heeled boots and a long black jacket, exactly the way I had imagined an off-duty opera star would dress. “That’s Rosie,” she says, and I catch a glimpse of my subject, a silky flash of pale fur who is both barking and backing up down the hall. Then she’s gone.


“She’s not great with strangers,” Renee says, leading me into the living room. I look wistfully over my shoulder, but there’s nothing there. I want to tell her it’s the dog I’m here to talk about, but then I realize not even Rin Tin Tin could give a good interview. The best way to get to the Diva’s dog is through the Diva herself.


And the Diva’s daughters. Sage and Amelia, 8 and 11, respectively, come and sit with us in the living room. They are anxious to tell me the story I want to hear.


“Her name is Rosie and she’s a Cavalier King Charles Spaniel,” Amelia says. “She has mahogany spots. She’s like a cow, only mahogany and white instead of black and white.” She tells me Rosie was born in Ireland.


“She came from Ireland before we met her,” Sage says.


“We got her four years ago,” Renee says. “It was after Christmas. It’s hard to find a puppy after Christmas, like trying to find a rose after Valentine’s Day.”


Even though the story is very clear in my mind, I take the time to ask them about their dog’s relationship to opera. The beautiful woman and her beautiful daughters stare at me. The little one blinks.


“What does Rosie do when I sing?” the soprano asks her daughters.


“She runs away,” the older one says.


“Sometimes she makes a weird noise before she runs away,” the little one says, “like a whine.”


The older one thinks it through carefully. “Or she sleeps.”


“She barks at oxygen,” Sage says.




“She barks at the air, at nothing, and she’s afraid of pigeons.” The girls explain to me that she is both ferocious and cowardly, that she was impossible to house-train, that she sheds, and that they love her madly.


I’m beginning to worry a little. I am not here to write a story about a dog who is afraid of pigeons, a dog who will not come out into the living room. I ask again, isn’t there some connection between Rosie and opera?


They are trying. Renee tells me a story about an Irish Wolfhound who howled along through her aria in Manon. She mentions that all of her mother’s Great Dane’s puppies were named after characters in Wagner. They continue to mull it over with great earnestness until I feel as if I’ve asked a heart surgeon how the family Basset Hound enhances her surgical skills. Why should a nervous Spaniel be artistically connected to the greatest singer of our time? Wouldn’t it be enough simply to be Renee Fleming’s dog?


But suddenly Renee is onto something big. “There was a King Charles in a production of Der Rosenkavalier,” she says, and I wonder how she could have failed to tell me this before I had my coat off. “Every night I played the Marschallin they brought me this lovely King Charles on stage, and we fell in love. That’s when I decided I wanted one.”


“And her name is Rosie,” I say excitedly. “Is it short for Rosenkavalier?”


Renee looks at her daughter Amelia, the namer of dogs.


“Rosie was just the first thing that popped into my head,” she says.


“So maybe Rosie could play the Cavalier King Charles in the next production at the Met?”


“No!” the three of them say in unison.


“She would start barking and try to run away,” Amelia says. Journalistic ethics prevent me from telling the story my way: Rosie was the puppy understudy for that King Charles Spaniel, and one night the famous dog mistakenly ate a box of bonbons meant for a tenor and was too sick to go on. It was Rosie’s big chance, and when she was handed to the famous soprano dressed as the Marschallin, their big eyes locked onto one another and in an instant, each knew she had found her destiny. Rosie gave up the stage to be a lap dog. Renee’s heart nearly broke with gratitude.


I think the story is better my way, but I’m not the one who gets to make those choices.

Ann Patchett is the author of five novels: The Patron Saint of Liars; Taft; The Magician's Assistant; Bel Canto, which was awarded the PEN/Faulkner Award and the Orange Prize for Fiction; and Run.

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