Diva Meets Indie: Renée Fleming's Dark Hope

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My feeling about "crossover" musical performances is that anyone gets to sing anything they want, as long as they don't make it sound stupider than the original. What makes opera superstar Renée Fleming's Dark Hope, her new pop/rock disc, far from stupid--at best, a gorgeous success--is that she understands the differences between this repertory and what she usually sings. She's made a point of singing at around her normal speaking range, not in the usual high-flying soprano territory. This ties in with a difference in technology--specifically, singing with or without a mike.

"Classical" singing is, at base, a matter of filling space--arcing your unmodified voice toward your listeners, bridging the gap with nothing standing between you and them. Purity of tone, accuracy of pitch, and clarity of diction are vital in making this happen, and thus became the ideals of classical performance practice.

When you sing with a mike, this sort of precision becomes less important. Which is not to say the standards are lower, but that a mike, and the decreased focus on carrying power, frees a singer; pop singers, ever since the first generation of radio crooners, have been able to play with pitch, rhythm, tone color, and, obviously, volume in ways that become more difficult without amplification.

As Fleming herself describes it: "Performing unamplified . . . takes real power, breath, and years of training. The slightly different genre referred to as 'crossover' usually has performers singing popular music in a classically trained style with amplification." She names no names, but she puts her finger on exactly what often goes wrong when divas sing anything outside their tradition.

The wonderful paradox is that because of these nuances, the interposition of technology between a singer's throat and a listener's ear can increase the feeling of intimacy. In live performance, an opera singer's voice can surround you, pervading the air; while, thanks to recording technology, a pop singer can get inside your head. Both can be thrilling, and Fleming seems to be able to make both approaches work for her, further her expressive intent.

It helps that she made good music choices for this disc. She could have picked gooey "semi-classical" ballads; the disc could have ended up Josh Groban's Mom Sings the Diane Warren Songbook. Instead Fleming chose songs by, as she puts it, "for lack of a better label, indie rock bands." Her daughters' tastes influenced her, but her main criterion seems to have been whether a song's lyrics spoke to her, said something she felt she needed to say. She therefore personalizes the songs in interesting ways.

Leonard Cohen's "Hallelujah," for example: k.d. lang turns it into a gospel shout, a testimony, a public moment--naturally, an appropriate choice for her performance in February at the opening ceremonies of the Winter Olympics. When Fleming sings it, it's a confessional; she could almost be narrating scenes from her life.

Similarly, Fleming's voice is a little shadowier, a little grainier, than Ben Gibbard's blithe pastel sound on Death Cab for Cutie's "Soul Meets Body." On the other hand, she's miked close, and the track does feel a bit airless compared to the original. Her voice sounds most stripped-down, least diva-like, on Arcade Fire's "Intervention," one place I actually did want her to let go a bit, to sound more expansive to match the song's church-bell grandeur.

In general, Fleming is not well-served by the arrangements; the ugliest is "Hallelujah," with a long, electro-cheesy, Tomita-like intro, and mellotron where, say, gospel piano would have been nice. I wonder if Fleming over-scrupulously avoided acoustic instruments to keep the album from sounding too classical, and I occasionally sense a little self-consciousness in the casualness of her delivery, as if she were reminding herself not to make her consonants too crisp. Still, considering the long and not-particularly-honorable history of what happens when opera singers don't sing opera, Dark Hope is a risk that paid off.

Hear excerpts from Dark Hope as Gavin Borchert discusses it with Dave Beck, at 2:40 (or thereabouts) Thursday afternoon on KUOW.

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