Thursday, January 5, 2017

Renee Fleming, Pop Star

Photo by Andrew Eccles
As a jazz singer/rock drummer/opera critic, I have never liked the crossover attempts by opera superstars. The pop songs come out overblown and sappy (I'm talking to you, Domingo), and the jazz... well, let's just say that opera singers think of swing as that thing you sit on in the playground. I didn't expect much better when, scouring a clearance rack at a used CD store, I discovered a 2010 album, Dark Hope, by Renee Fleming.

Two tracks in, I had to check to see if there hadn't been some kind of switch. The sound I was hearing was not an opera singer at all, more of a troubador, singer/songwriter type, a little bit of Suzanne Vega, Natalie Merchant, Norah Jones. The range was alto, and the style was gorgeously understated. Also, the songs were amazingly cool. (You know, for an opera singer.)

From the liner notes, I learned that some folks at Universal Music thought it would be a fun idea to match up a classically trained voice with songs from indie rock bands. Switching from the unamplified projection of the opera stage to the uber-sensitive recording studio, Fleming decided to go to the "other side" entirely. "We quickly discovered that I should sing this music in the range I speak in," she wrote, "often two octaves lower than I generally sing, in order to allow for a more authentic sound."

The results are beautifully intimate, blessed with the surety and deft phrasing that come from decades of opera. Fleming finds her best results when she goes dark (appropriately enough), especially with The Mars Volta's "With Twilight as my Guide," backed with haunting, vinegar peals of electric guitar, and offering the chance for a little more dynamic range than the other tracks.  With Gary Jules' increasingly revered "Mad World," producer David Kahne ups the creepiness with whistling sounds, bits of accordion and sudden cuts and interjections. I also enjoyed "Soul Meets Body," if only for the geeky wonder of a world-class diva singing a song by Death Cab for Cutie. Kahne uses strings for many of the tracks, providing a sort of aural bridge between the genres.

The only misses came from a little bit too much reverence. Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" sounds as exact as a karaoke version. And despite its hallowed lyrics and gorgeous melody, Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah" is highly repetitive, and needs a little more improvisational play than it gets here. But then again, think of the criticism I'm making there: an opera singer is undersinging.

I apologize to Ms. Fleming and all involved for missing this by a mere six years. Now I'm going back to that clearance rack and see if I can find that reggae album by Bryn Terfel.

Find Dark Hope on

Michael J. Vaughn is a 30-year opera critic and the author of 19 novels, including Operaville and Gabriella's Voice. (Photo by Janine Watson.)