Renee Fleming’s ‘Chicago Voices’ transforms the Civic Opera House with soaring melody

What would happen if some of the greatest voices to come out of Chicago joined forces on a single stage?
You'd hear more than just jazz and rap, gospel and blues, classical and folk.

You'd encounter the sound of the city itself, for Chicago has nurtured and shaped all those idioms, and then some. Without the blues innovations of Muddy Waters and Howlin' Wolf, the gospel thunder of Mahalia Jackson, the folk incantations of Steve Goodman, the jazz seductions of Nat King Cole and the contributions of uncounted other Chicagoans, American music would be much the poorer.

Anyone who doubts that proposition probably was not at the Civic Opera House on Saturday evening, when opera star Renee Fleming and a stylistically far-reaching cast of singers staged a three-hour marathon aptly titled “Chicago Voices Concert.” More than just a gathering of musically wide-ranging performers, the event made tangible this city's enormous impact on how America — and, arguably, the world — sings.

You didn't have to be a Chicagoan to be struck by the caliber of these performers and the musical lineage that led up to them, the city's musical history illuminated via several videos shown between songs. Though the evening certainly had its minor flaws and programming omissions, the sheer sweep of the proceedings and breadth of musical languages made this a concert like none other (it was filmed for broadcast March 30 on WTTW-Ch. 11).

True, we hear plenty of jazz, blues, gospel, classical, pop, rock and you-name-it at the city's summertime music festivals and all year long in Chicago clubs and concert halls. But when an event packs so much content into a single night and flows this smoothly (despite so many moving parts), you realize that you're encountering more than just another entertainment.

For “Chicago Voices” amounted to an unapologetically proud statement about what this city has meant to the art of song, the evidence mounting one full-throated tune at a time.

How wise of Fleming, musical director Doug Peck and colleagues to have opened the night with Chicago blues diva Shemekia Copeland igniting “The Battle Is Over (But the War Goes On).” Blessed with the most enormous instrument in the cast, Copeland offered an object lesson in what rousing Chicago blues is all about. Even the vast expanse of the Civic Opera House could not quite contain her mighty alto, the singer piling up one fortissimo after another without a hint of strain in her voice (nor any indication that she had given birth to her first child last Christmas Eve).

Jazz vocalist Kurt Elling had the unenviable task of following both this gale of sound and a Howlin' Wolf video, Elling's performance of “Steppin' Out” somewhat bland by comparison until he launched into the scat singing at which he's so compelling. He hit his stride with “Goin' to Chicago,” a tune he has been singing for ages and has brought to a high polish.

But the concert began gathering real momentum when operatic tenor Matthew Polenzani dared to take on “Be My Love,” a song universally identified with the unrivaled Mario Lanza. The tenderness of Polenzani's opening notes instantly marked this as an interpretation apart from Lanza's, as did the ardor of Polenzani's phrasing and inexorable swell of his crescendos. Alas, the first-rate instrumental ensemble that conductor Peck led for the occasion sounded stingy: Polenzani's clarion tones needed a fat cushion of plush strings beneath it.

Fleming made the most stunning entrance of the night, by far. As a video biography of Chicago opera legend Mary Garden was coming to a close, we heard a recording of Garden singing “Beau Soir.” While those sweet tones wafted through the auditorium, Fleming stepped quietly onto the stage, her voice melding with Garden's, then picking up solo where the historic diva left off. A startling piece of stagecraft rendered all the more effective by the tonal sheen of Fleming's soprano.

Few things in music are more painful than an opera singer taking on populist fare, but Fleming dispatched “Summertime,” from George Gershwin's “Porgy and Bess,” with a rare combination of vocal purity and colloquial delivery. She brought forth a subtle but unmistakable rhythmic sway (bordering on swing), her alternate melody notes and jazz-tinged inflections thoroughly appropriate to this music.

If Handsome Family singers Brett and Rennie Sparks sounded too demure for the large house and sometimes were overwhelmed by the band, rapper Lupe Fiasco shook the place with “Kick, Push.” No, it was not possible to discern most of his lyrics, but his percussive rhythms and self-styled choreography got the point across, and in a fashion not often encountered in the home of Lyric Opera.

Add to this folk legend John Prine's soft-but-searing performances of his “Angel from Montgomery” and “Hello in There” (which brought the room to a hush), Broadway singer Jessie Mueller's slow-build-big-finish version of “She Used to Be Mine” and gospel vocalist Michelle Williams' jubilant account of “How I Got Over” (backed by the sumptuous Voices of Trinity Mass Choir), and you had a deeply satisfying tour of melody-making forged in Chicago.

Yet that was the just first set, a rather ambitious curtain-raiser for the duos, trios and other ensemble pieces yet to come. It's difficult to say which of these were most effective, considering the eloquence of the best of them.

Who could forget Terrence Howard and Jussie Smollett (from the filmed-in-Chicago TV series “Empire”) chanting “A Change Is Gonna Come,” their imploring voices intertwining in a series of cascading climaxes? Or Mueller and Polenzani duetting on “The Prayer,” their unison passages as exquisite a blending of two voices as one might hope to hear? Or Fleming and Prine bringing a light touch to “(We're Not) The Jet Set,” Fleming's implied country twang dovetailing beautifully with Prine's Nashville-by-way-of-Chicago drawl?

In effect, Fleming and colleagues created what felt essentially like two full concerts. Even the between-song patter from various celebrities wasn't too annoying, the Rev. Jesse Jackson offering a particularly touching benediction.

The video documentaries, narrated by Tribune columnist Rick Kogan, gave welcome historical context to the evening. How much of all this can be packed into the forthcoming TV broadcast remains to be seen and heard. But clearly there's more than enough material here to make for a singular program.

And though one wishes Chicago singers Tammy McCann and Paul Marinaro — who own magnificent pipes — had been included, “Chicago Voices” got so much right as to transcend expectation.

Bandleader-orchestrator Peck was its unsung hero, Fleming its guiding spirit, and we in the audience its fortunate beneficiaries.