Renee Fleming's new CD, Dark Hope, has the soprano exploring indie rock.
When you think of Renee Fleming, perhaps you don't think next of Death Cab For Cutie. Heck, if you frequently think of Renee Fleming, perhaps you don't even care about Death Cab For Cutie, and vice-versa.
But Fleming, a Grammy-winning soprano, is branching out with her new album, Dark Hope, which features covers of songs from not only Death Cab For Cutie, but also Arcade Fire, Peter Gabriel, and Jefferson Airplane. I got a chance to speak to Tom Huizenga, NPR's resident classical expert, about his impressions of the record and what makes a project like this successful or unsuccessful.
Hear Renee Fleming perform Death Cab For Cutie's "Soul Meets Body"
Linda Holmes: Now, you're very much in the classical world, so explain to my pop-culture types who Renee Fleming is, roughly speaking.
Tom Huizenga: Renee Fleming is one of the opera world's biggest stars. She's an American, from New York state, and she is what's called a lyric soprano, meaning that she sings a lot of opera's most beautiful music -- by Mozart, Donizetti, etc.
Linda: And now, she's got this album called Dark Hope, which is her take on ... well, indie rock, mostly, though there are some other things in there, like Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," which apparently everyone has to cover.
Tom: Yes, even I'm working up a cover version of that now.
Linda: Me too! Now, you were telling me that this kind of effort is certainly not unique to her.
Tom: Let's just call it what it is -- and that's a crossover album. She's actually done one before, called Haunted Heart, where she covered some torchy songs and jazzy numbers, backed up by Fred Hersch and Bill Frisell. And that was not a surprise, because before Fleming became the world-famous opera star, she actually sang in a jazz trio. So she actually has a feel for that music. But Dark Hope is, I think, a different story.
Linda: ...Yeah. We've both listened to it -- what was your reaction to the way she used her voice on this particular record?
Tom: For those who know her work in opera (and I must confess up front that I'm a fan of her as an opera singer), her voice on this record may come as something of a shock. It's a low-pitched, breathy sound, very different. Reportedly, people in her own record company did not recognize the demo tracks when they first heard them. They thought perhaps it was Annie Lennox.
Linda: I can sort of understand how you'd get Annie Lennox from it. In terms of the voice itself, anyway. But the production is very ... hmm. Celine? Something like that. The music is indie-rock, but the production struck me as very adult-contemporary.
Tom: This woman has one of the most opulently beautiful voices in recent history. I feel, with this CD, that I just want to hear it. I feel like she's a prisoner of her own (or her producer's) devices. The breathy, soft and husky tones, the tamped-down emotion.
Linda: I don't have as much of a frame of reference on the voice, but much of the rest of it is very synthetic, which is an interesting choice for someone who everyone knows has acres of natural ability.
Tom: In opera, it's all about the expression of the text. And I find it ironic that few of the words here are delivered with any emotion or meaning behind them. I was particularly disappointed in "Stepping Stone," a song I like, and presumably a song of defiance: "I'll never be your stepping stone / I'm standing upright on my own." At around 2:00, at the end of the refrain, there's an opportunity to let that defiant emotion show. But instead of letting her hair down and feeling it in her gut, Fleming, as if on Thorazine, spins out an elegant, rising little flourish, more akin to ornamenting a Handel aria than expressing any emotion whatsoever.
Linda: Yeah, I cannot disagree. There's a real sameness to the songs, even though they're as different as "Hallelujah" and "Stepping Stone" and Willy Mason's "Oxygen" -- which started its life as a raw ditty and comes out here very much like everything else.
Tom: I should add, so that my opera buddies won't yell at me, that there can be a world of expression in ornamenting a Handel aria. Fleming's riff in "Stepping Stone" could have been so much more.
Linda: Consider the opera buddies pacified! Were any of the songs more successful for you than others?
Tom: Well, I have problems with most of it, frankly. "Today," the old Jefferson Airplane song, is simply overdressed. It's luxuriously upholstered with pinging synths, string synths, a chorus trapped in an echoplex, "serious" strings and washes of unfocused synthesized sound. The song is so gorgeous and sad that it could have been more successful had it just been her and a guitar. I think "No One's Gonna Love You" (originally by Band of Horses) may be the tune where her voice seems most connected, possibly.
Linda: I'm very curious, with a project like this, about what makes the artist want to do it. She's already very well respected in her own world; this seems to me to have more downside than upside.
Tom: Exactly. It doesn't seem like she has been aching for years to sing indie rock; we are told that she did not know this music, but instead these songs were suggested to her by her producer. That's why her earlier CD, Haunted Heart, is actually a logical tangent for her, as she had experience as a jazz singer in her youth. My big question is: Who will buy this album? Who is it aimed at?
In this clip, Renee Fleming performs the Muse song "Endlessly."
Linda: My assumption is that the marketing hope is that a certain chunk of the people who listen to Renee Fleming also listen to soft pop-rock. They also, perhaps, do listen to Celine Dion, or whoever the big voices in that area are. It's definitely not intended for the audiences of the bands who did the songs originally. It has to be aimed at the people who already like her, and if there are commercial hopes for it, I think they have to revolve around her existing fans. I don't know. It's very confusing.
Tom: For the most part, I think that Fleming's fans are older and either aren't the least interested in indie rock or, more likely, just don't have the time and energy to try much that's new since Paul Simon's Graceland, or some late-period Talking Heads. Their kids might be downloading songs by Muse and The Mars Volta, and so a handful might be game to check out the CD, but those numbers are probably negligible.
Linda: There's definitely an audience for interesting versions of well-known songs, and there's an audience for her voice, but it's pretty depressing that when listening to this great singer doing "Mad World," I kept thinking, "I think I actually liked this song better on American Idol."
Tom: Jon Pareles, in his New York Times review, says she is "turning the songs inward instead of projecting operatic melodrama." I don't need overblown melodrama. I go to the opera for that. But as a listener -- as a potential purchaser of the disc -- I need to connect to a real human being, with real emotions. She might approach that in Arcade Fire's "Intervention," but more often than not, I'm sad to say, it sounds like no one's home.
Linda: Which is perhaps consistent with what you mentioned earlier, that it wasn't that these were songs she really wanted to sing, but they were songs the producer wanted to produce.
Tom: As far back as the gramophone reaches, opera singers have scaled down their voices to fit popular songs. Many have tried, but precious few opera singers have been successful.
Linda: It's harder than it looks, the popular music.
Tom: And I must say, I really give her a lot of credit for putting this record out there. Dark Hope, even more than a month before its release, was already stirring up opinions on opera blogs like Parterre Box, with comments that ranged from "insane" and "Is Renee going to the heroin chic look?" to accolades like "consummate artist" and oddities like "Renee is turning into a sort of operatic Cindy Sherman."
Linda: Oh, certainly. The fact that something doesn't wind up seeming successful doesn't make it misbegotten, or nobody would ever do anything interesting at all.
Tom: Maybe we should ask the readers: What kind of album would you like Renee Fleming to record next? I'd vote for heavy metal.
Linda: I'm going to suggest rap.
Tom: I'll return an earlier question. Was there anything on Dark Hope that worked (or came close) for you?
Linda: I found myself enjoying "Oxygen" the most, oddly, but I think that's the catchiness of the song. As I said, it kind of sounds like everything else on the record, but the song is so addictive that it sort of grabbed me anyway.
Tom: If I were playing the DJ role right now, I'd rack up "Blues in the Night" from Eileen Farrell's 1960 album I Got a Right to Sing the Blues. She is an example of an opera singer who crossed over seamlessly. She was compelling whether singing Brunnhilde or Broadway.
Linda: As you mentioned, perhaps the key to that is working in the areas that came to you organically, as Fleming did with jazz.
Tom: I think I've said all I can, except to wish her better luck next time. I'd rather hear her stick to her sweet spot, or perhaps launch a crossover project that she's entirely in control over.