Renée Fleming – Dark Hope – 2010
Artist: Renée Fleming
Title: Dark Hope
Genre: Vocal, Opera
Release date: June 8, 2010
Producer: David Kahne
Label: Decca Records
1. Endlessly – Chris Wolstenholme, Dominic Howard, Matthew Bellamy (Muse) 3:59
2. No One’s Gonna Love You – Ben Bridwell, Creighton Barrett (Band Of Horses), James Hampton 3:41
3. Oxygen – Willy Mason 4:15
4. Today – Marty Balin, Paul Kantner (Jefferson Airplane) 3:22
5. Intervention – Jeremy Gara, Richard Reed Parry, Régine Chassagne, Timothy Kingsbury, William Butler, Win Butler (Arcade Fire) 4:19
6. With Twilight As My Guide – Cedric Bixler-Zavala (The Mars Volta) 5:33
7. Mad World – Roland Orzabal (Tears For Fears) 3:53
8. In Your Eyes – Peter Gabriel 5:01
9. Stepping Stone – Duffy, Steve Booker 3:26
10. Soul Meets Body – Ben Gibbard (Death Cab For Cutie) 3:11
11. Hallelujah – Leonard Cohen 7:39
- Rusty Anderson, Nick Valensi – guitar
- David Kahne – bass, guitar, keyboards
- Will Lee – bass
- Shawn Pelton – drums
- Jesse Mills, Cyrus Beroukhin – violin
- Dov Scheindlin, William Hakim – viola
- Wendy Sutter – cello
- Alexis Pia Gerlach – cello
- Amelia Ross, Sage Ross (Flemings's daughters), Rachelle Fleming, (Renée's sister) – background vocals
- Mike Rossi – conductor
- Roy Hendrickson – engineer
- David Kahne – arranger, programming, producer, engineer
- Rebecca Meek – art direction
- The Observer, Sunday 28 March 2010
- Article history
Earlier this year New York musical manager Peter Mensch played a guessing game with a round-up of recording executives in London. He travelled across the ocean with an enigmatic white-labelled compact disc, and invited the assembled bosses of Universal Music to identify an anonymous performer in cover versions of songs by Leonard Cohen, Band of Horses, Jefferson Airplane and others. The bands Mensch represents include Metallica and Red Hot Chili Peppers, so the sagacious suits were expecting to hear primal howls or rapped invective. Instead they puzzled over a voice of bewildering versatility which punched out the seditious protests of Willy Mason's "Oxygen", sounded raw and sexually avid in Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes", then turned crazed and curdled in a demonic reverie composed by the Mars Volta, an American group based in Mexico whose sound is classified by those who know as post-hardcore krautrock.
Mensch paused the playback to enjoy the stupefaction in the room. "Could it be Annie Lennox?" someone weakly volunteered.
"Guys," said the burly and exuberant Mensch, "don't you have a classical division? Maybe in the basement somewhere? OK, here's a clue. She's signed to your label already!"
Bemused glances were exchanged. Mensch tormented them for a while longer, then quietly announced: "It's Renée Fleming."
After that he probably had to explain who Fleming was: the most acclaimed of operatic sopranos, vocally luxurious and also, in an age when people listen with their eyes, fetchingly glamorous. In the United States she has laureate status. She is referred to as "America's sweetheart" as if she were a non-silent Mary Pickford; perhaps because of her modest suburban upbringing in rural New York, where her parents were employed as music teachers, she is also known as "the people's diva". Her popularity decreed that President Obama could hardly have been inaugurated without her, and she strolled out on to the steps of the Lincoln Memorial to reassure him by singing "You'll Never Walk Alone" from Carousel. Admirers reward her for simply existing, dreaming up awards with which to bedeck her, among them the Ellis Island Medal of Honor, which she received, no doubt for some good reason, from the National Ethnic Coalition. There have even been prizes for parenting: after her divorce in 1998 from the actor Rick Ross, whom she met while they were students at the Juilliard School, she has had custody of their two daughters, now teenagers.
Much as Fleming is loved at home, her dominion is global. She sang at the Beijing Olympics, and a typical concert tour will be a truly global affair, with sold-out halls at every stop. She is celebrated for the heady sublimity of her sound, which enables her to float the melodic lines of Richard Strauss like a glider balancing on thermal draughts. But the voice on Dark Hope, as the new CD Mensch played is called, doesn't stick to those shining heights. Colloquially salty, occasionally guttural, it is invigorated by its offences against classical etiquette. In "Soul Meets Body", composed by indie band Death Cab for Cutie, an unexpectedly demotic Fleming dirties her pristine art and growls about scraping up handfuls of soil "with our palms cupped like shovels". Operatic heroines are exalted, transcendent beings but here the soaring angel, who leaves a vapour trail of beatific tone behind her when she sings Desdemona's "Ave Maria" from Verdi's Otello, has come down to ground. The woman you hear on Dark Hope shares our reality. She complains about her job and nurses emotional wounds. In "Mad World", originally by English duo Tears for Fears, Fleming seems to remember her nerdy adolescence as a girl who thought that she might at best turn out to be a teacher like her parents, never daring to imagine her transformation into a soprano whose vocal allure can corrupt a starch monk, as in Massenet's Thaïs, or bewitch an army of pious Christian crusaders, as in Rossini's Armida.
If the Universal executives were astonished, then so was Fleming when Mensch and his colleague Cliff Burnstein asked her to make the recording. "I was open-mouthed," she told me in New York earlier this month. "I wondered what they were thinking – how they could possibly imagine my voice in this music. They gave me an Excel print-out with a list of possible titles. The only piece I'd ever heard of was Leonard Cohen's 'Hallelujah', because I'd taken my kids to see Shrek – and I soon found that what I remembered from the movie wasn't the real thing at all!" As Fleming fragrantly limoed away, Mensch and Burnstein looked at each other and shared a fatalistic Jewish shrug. "We were like, 'Who knows?'," Mensch recalled. "But she decided to try. She got back to us eventually and agreed to make a demo."
I'm not surprised that she allowed herself to be tempted. Fleming's musical loyalties have always been divided; she is a complex character, at once heady and earthy. True, she exercised the diva's prerogative by arriving a little late at the hotel suite reserved for our interview. With her came a hairdresser, a personal assistant, and a baggage train of clothes – Miyake, Armani, Valentino, all negligently tossed on a bed for inspection — to be worn for the photographs and then for appointments elsewhere later in the day. But her comment as she surveyed the expensive labyrinth above Fifth Avenue showed how unpresumptuous she still is. "You could put a kid through college for what this costs," she said. Although Fleming sings in a voice of molten gold or glistening silver, her speaking voice is throaty, retaining the flat vowels and downbeat realism of upstate New York. The artifice of operatic expression amuses and sometimes embarrasses her. "It's a kind of controlled screaming. Basically we holler – in an extremely cultivated way, of course!"
Her American eclecticism means she cannot be satisfied with playing aloof aristocrats like Donna Anna in Don Giovanni or serenely wise matrons like the Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier. She has always hankered after music that is more unbuttoned, and as a student at one of the State University of New York's more obscure campuses had a weekend gig singing jazz at a pub. The great saxophonist Illinois Jacquet heard her there, and invited her to tour with his band. This scared her into signing up for graduate school: she was alarmed by the prospect of premature independence, and dreaded life alone freelancing in Manhattan.
"I was so reticent and studious back then," she told me. "At school I was crippled by shyness, though I longed to smoke and wear stockings and have cat fights with the other girls. For jazz, you need an immense personality, like Ella Fitzgerald or Sarah Vaughan, which is what creates the rapport with the audience. I was still inside my shell." It's hard now to picture Fleming – whose fingers flash with sparklers, whose slim wrist bears a Rolex she endorses, and who has a meringue, an iris and a Coty perfume named after her – as a frumpy swot. Nowadays elegance is a job requirement, as I realised while watching her study a plate of shameless, sinful chips on one of the food carts ferried up from the hotel kitchen. I thought for a moment that I might see the diva eat a French fry, which would have been a world exclusive. Instead she turned her attention to a chocolate muffin. "Hmm," she said, "those baked goods look excellent." When I checked later, the muffin was intact except for a tiny cavity at the side; it didn't after all have a happy death in Fleming's honeyed throat. She had moved on to take control of the photo shoot, coaxing the photographer to alter his angle and checking his Polaroids against snaps taken on her assistant's mobile phone. The purpose was self-protective: her image is a property as valuable as her voice.
Mensch decided he wanted her for his recording project after seeing her on the side of a Manhattan bus with frizzed hair, insinuating lidded eyes and a pouting mouth in a poster for the Metropolitan Opera's Thaïs. Cycling to his office through the midtown traffic, he almost fell off his bike. "Renée," as he said to me, "is definitely not some big Viking biker moll in a helmet!"
When Fleming escaped from the camera's inquisition to talk to me, she let down her guard. "I do everything in the third person," she admitted. "Performance is about being someone else. I'm reserved, so I've always needed to find a way of opening up. Jazz helped me do that." It was her education in taking liberties discouraged by her classical training, indulging a voluptuousness that is no part of her cautious, analytical personality: her recording of three Ellington songs with Daniel Barenboim at the piano wickedly combines the slurred, elastic informality of jazz with the swooping and swooning of her operatic voice, and culminates in squeals of erotic delight. She has also recorded a Broadway album with Bryn Terfel, belting out a tirade from the musical Parade with gutsy ferocity. But Mensch's project shunned the compromises of such crossover repertoire, and challenged Fleming to find a new voice and a persona to go with it. The songs he chose make a point of this novelty and of the courage it required. "I cannot guess what we'll discover," Fleming sings on one track, and in the Muse song "Endlessly" she teasingly announces: "There's a part of me you'll never know, I'll never show."
"It was scary to shed so much of what I knew," she said. "Most of the singing on this disc is easier than speech. I just whispered into this enormous mic in the booth; the technology did the rest. I got incredibly frustrated because I wasn't using my whole body. With classical singing you have to put out so much air – you project, you emit force. We add timbre to the text, we colour it by using vibrato, and in the end the words just become abstract sound. Here there's none of that, so the voice had no physical support and at first couldn't stay in tune – and I'm a fanatic about pitch! You're not allowed to improvise either, the way you can in jazz. The words really matter, you can't scat like Ella! Those kids cared about what they were saying, and you have to respect that – the political protest in the Willy Mason song, or the nightmare about women being treated as devils in 'With Twilight as My Guide' [by the Mars Volta]. It needs a much more straitjacketed vocal technique. They had to police my diction, for instance – they wouldn't let me use explosive consonants, so no dental sounds on d or t. As if that's not enough, the register is way below the entire soprano repertoire. In the Arcade Fire song 'Intervention' I'm using keys no soprano has ever sung in. It's the kind of sound you hear from whales as they're booming on the ocean floor! Most of these pieces were first sung by young men at the extreme top of their range, almost shrieking. I was the inverse: the sound had to come from deep down. It helped that we recorded in the early morning, when I was a bit phlegmy, since the voice gets higher as the day goes on."
Her taskmaster in the studio was producer David Kahne, described by Fleming – who, as a true Manhattanite, deduces IQ from address – as "a real intellectual: he lives across from the Museum of Modern Art!" Kahne reminded her of the wizard of Oz. "There he was in this dark little room with 16 computer monitors. He was the arranger and the engineer, he even played all the instruments. I'm not a person who easily gives up control but he persuaded me to trust him. My mantra through it all was that I must be sounding bland, I didn't think I was imposing myself, making an interpretation. He told me to wait for the finished product."
Here was right: comparing Fleming's covers with the originals, I can't help feeling that she has a musical finesse and an emotional authority to which those whiny juveniles could hardly aspire. Welsh singer Duffy gargles her scales in "Stepping Stone" while Fleming skips up the ladder with exhilarating exactitude. Songs about being crossed in love sound petulant and self-pitying when delivered by teenagers; the same words are given gravity by Fleming, who without resorting to operatic exaggeration can suggest adult disillusionment and heartbreak. "Well," she said, "what I have to contribute is life-experience, not all of it good!" She meant her divorce, and the equally painful realisation that her career makes any other permanent relationship unlikely: few men are willing to dwindle into a consort, smiling from the sidelines as the diva is mobbed by worshippers.
Fleming is particularly fine in "Hallelujah", so often inflated – by Justin Timberlake in a recent fundraising concert for Haiti or by kd lang at the opening of the Winter Olympics in Vancouver — into a breast-beating humanistic anthem. Fleming slows it down, reduces the volume and treats it confessionally. Restoring verses usually expurgated, she underlines Cohen's fusion of religious rapture and orgasmic pleasure: here a man moves inside a woman like the fluttering of the Pentecostal dove. "We worried about including 'Hallelujah'," said Mensch, "because it's been covered by everyone. But no one has sung it like she does – and when you hear the words, you realise it's a song about a sex fiend! Maybe that's why they don't want to let her sing it at the Last Night of the Proms this year, as a lead-in to 'Rule Britannia'. I've been arguing about that with Roger Wright, who programmes the season, and so far he won't give in. What is his problem?" It's a question that music lovers everywhere should address to Wright if they want to hear Fleming's soulful, sensual performance of an antidote to the usual nauseatingly jolly sea shanties and disgracefully jingoistic hymns.
Dark Hope reaches across musical generations, and to negotiate the gap Fleming used her daughters as a focus group. "Amelia, who's 17, encouraged me to do it. The 14-year-old, Sage, moaned, 'Oh, Mom, you're so naive, we'll have to pretend we don't know when the disc comes out!' Eventually I won her over because I got David to hire them both as back-up singers, along with my sister Rachelle, who's a cabaret and music-theatre singer with a voice that can bring tears to your eyes. I also have a young stepbrother who's studying voice in Houston, though he's not on the record. Amelia has a spectacular voice already, a real operatic instrument, if she wants to go that way – no, no, I don't exert any pressure! You can hear her sing a B-flat on one of the tracks: she hit it while they were warming up and apologised for showing off, but I said: 'Honey, just go for it!' Sage's voice is smokier, better for pop. She writes her own songs. Her idol is Regina Spektor."
Fleming often jokes she is merely the CEO of Renée Fleming Inc; it's a family firm, with dynastic tendencies. "My mother had us all singing when we were kids, like the Von Trapps. Her mother was a church organist. The family came from Prague, and I've inherited their china, which has a pattern with scenes from Smetana's Bartered Bride, the Czech national opera. And my father's father was a fiddler in a bluegrass band, which is why I love that music so much." All these entwining influences turn Fleming into a one-woman melting pot. Listen to her many voices – glutinously southern in André Previn's A Streetcar Named Desire, funkily urban in Ellington, yearning across the vacant prairies when she recalls the wide Missouri in "Shenandoah" – and you hear America singing.
When we spoke, however, she had temporarily silenced her American self and was retuning her exotic, imported European voice, with its long-breathed lushness and its starbursts of dazzling coloratura: next month the Metropolitan Opera stages a new production of Rossini's Armida for her, which will be relayed to cinemas around the world in HD on 1 May. "Ah, it feels great! I even get to sing a sustained high E when I go ballistic at the end. I love Armida for being so far from my good-girl upbringing: I always had to be Little Miss Perfect, and it's such a burden to be so proper and well-behaved!" The heroine is a sorceress, backed up by troops of horned imps, but her most irresistible means of controlling the starchy Christians is her voice – ripely languorous when she entices knights into her garden of delights, spitting acid when they escape and return to the pursuit of glory. Characteristically, Fleming views Armida as a victim, demonised by male fears. "Sure, she manipulates men. I love it when she simpers, 'OK, now I'm just gonna go die', all in order to get her way. But it's kind of tragic: feminine wiles are all she has. She's traded back and forth, and she has to rely on the tricks that we still go on using today. She's almost a caricature of what a woman is – or what society demands that a woman should be."
It was a sharply self-aware, self-critical comment by someone who plays the commercial game with skill and determination but also sees through it, worrying whether success and celebrity have penned her in a gilded, fluffily cushioned trap. "No risk, no gain," she said, referring both to the gruff depths she plumbs in Dark Hope and to the dizzy heights of virtuosity to which she'll be vaulting in Armida. "We love it when people fail, of course. But if I don't stretch the limits and break the rules, I'll bore people – I'll even bore myself! So I just have to continue pushing the boulder uphill."
Dark Hope is released in June. The HD relay of the Metropolitan Opera's Armida is in cinemas on 1 May
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