At Northwestern University, soprano Renée Fleming tells graduates to “find your voice,” “get out there and use it”

By Michael San Gabino |

Renée Fleming at Northwestern University [Photo courtesy of Northwestern University]

Plastic ponchos are not typical graduation garb, but they were necessary additions to the purple robes at Northwestern University’s rainy 160th commencement ceremony on Friday, June 22. Internationally renowned soprano and Lyric Opera of Chicago creative consultant Renée Fleming certainly wasn’t going to let the weather hinder the celebration of 6,151 graduates and over 10,000 loved ones at Ryan Field in Evanston.

In her commencement address, “the people’s diva” focused on an overarching theme: use your voice. “Find your voice, develop and care for it, and make it heard for years to come,” Fleming proclaimed. “A successful singer has a unique timbre, one that is immediately recognizable. And your time at Northwestern has already helped you find your own distinctive sound.”

Fleming’s talking points were punctuated by the sounds of the Northwestern University Gospel Choir under the direction of Doug Peck. The musical interludes woven throughout Fleming’s speech ranged from reflective to funny (some bars of Prince’s “Purple Rain” were even included). The choir members were elated to perform with the opera star and rehearse with her prior to the commencement ceremony.

“Performing with Renée felt like a fever dream,” laughed Mariah Lorraine Copeland. “She really used her time with us to help us figure out what’s most important to us. She did not impart her own values or her own priorities about what our futures will be like. She shared with us what helped her to get there.”

Fleming attributed her success to “10% talent and 90% sweat.” While she acknowledged the importance of hard work, Fleming also talked about the importance of self-care and self-reflection in achieving life goals. “Is there a balance in your life? Who are your backup singers? Thank your parents and families. They supply the harmony. Are you taking time to be present? To listen, to honor their sacrifices?”

She also urged graduates to use their voices to speak up for marginalized groups. “Remember, your voices are a privilege,” Fleming stated. “You will have a platform that not everyone has, and [you] have a responsibility to amplify those who don’t.”

Fleming invited several graduates on the stage to share how they will use their voices. “Having struggled to cherish the unique value in my own voice, as a queer black woman, I will relentlessly fight for and lift up the communities I represent, so the world sees the value in us that we’ve fought so hard to see in ourselves,” Casey Brown said.

Fleming was granted an honorary doctorate degree from Northwestern, along with Northern Trust Corporation CEO William Osborn and Nanyang Technological University (Singapore) president Subra Saresh. Chicago native and lyricist Sheldon Harnick, who is noted for his contributions to musicals like Fiorello! and Fiddler on the Roof, was also granted an honorary doctorate.

In her closing remarks, Fleming asked the class of 2018, “Do you have voice?” An emphatic “yes” echoed from the sea of purple robes. Fleming beamed, “Now get out there and use it!” A melodic “amen” appropriately concluded the festivities.