Three Cheers for Renée Fleming
by David Yearsley, June 30, 2010
The musical terrain stretching between the entrenched aesthetic positions of parents and those of their teenage children is dotted with mines and ordnance laced with mustard gas. After enduring countless bombardments of Lady Gaga singing “Alejandro, Alejandro” over the car radio, with one of my kids having fed the coordinates into this long-range howitzer, I fear that my shellshock may be permanent.
One strategy to find a way out of this war of attrition is to burrow into enemy trenches and infiltrate their lines. In this scenario the elders start liking — or pretending to like — what the next generation listen to. This is the approach of the celebrated America opera singer, Renée Fleming, whose just-released CD, Dark Hope is a compilation of eleven tracks of what she categorizes in her liner notes as “indie rock.”
As always, the armistice is full of noble sentiments: “One of the great joys of this project was collaborating with my sister Rachelle and my two daughters, Amelia and Sage. Although my daughters enjoy opera and classical music, it was gratifying to them to see me making the effort to perform their kind of music. With this recording, I’ve become even more respectful of their sophisticated and eclectic tastes.” Intergenerational concord is so much easier to attain when there is a major record deal ushering mother and daughters into the studio: the victorious girls get to sing back-up on several songs.
It all sounds pretty rosy — not that I doubt Fleming, whose public persona is one of warmth and sincerity. Still, the “even more” in the above-quoted passage does sound suspicious. But I’ll bet this family of sopranos had a great time contributing to this record, though given the over-produced studio feel of Dark Hope I can’t imagine that any of this was sung all together. While the familial harmony embodied by the disc may be real enough, the musical concord is literally a fabrication, technologically pieced together from its disparate parts, which often hang together tenuously.
Actually, the teenage daughters contribute to just four of the eleven tracks. They’re joined in the back-up ranks on two of those songs by their aunt, Rachelle Fleming, whose voice sister Rénee praises in the notes as “glorious and rich [with] a timbre that goes directly to the heart.” These qualities are largely lost in the mix and sidelined by the arrangements. As for the daughters, they are first heard midway through the fifth song, “Intervention” by the Canadian band Arcade Fire, supporting mom as all sing the rather ominous words “Working for the Church / While my family dies / Your little baby sister’s / Gonna lose her mind.” The younger generation’s own interventions on this disc seem if anything somewhat taciturn and distant, a mood that is more the result of the baroque production values than a true reflection of the familial relationship. All the Fleming women can sing, but often it’s a little too hard to tell.
At first I thought that this was a CD for the mostly middle-aged — and older — fans of opera and of Fleming: an innocuous attempt to let the hopelessly out-of-date pretend at being hip. Much is made at the Met, where Renée is queen, and at other opera houses, of successful attempts to lure younger audiences, but I seriously doubt if the median age of her devotees is getting any younger.
Would the daughters’ friends really listen to this stuff, its mostly minor melodies pumped up with dubious studio effects? A fifty-one-year-old diva singing her teenage daughters’ playlist with full-own arrangements has something of the feel of mom getting a tattoo and a nose ring as a preemptive strike against the corporeal designs of her adolescent offspring. You don’t really want to bring this cursed progenitrix to the high-school mixer and let her strut her new-found stuff on the dance floor. If she’s got to come, better to let her lurk in the somber shadows of her own freshly-minted “indie” music, out of sight and earshot, if not out of mind.
After my own initial and enthusiastic survey of the disc, I put Dark Hope on in the car stereo where the local pop station has supplanted the long-mandatory Suzuki Violin School propaganda music, enlivened with Bach, Miles, Beethoven, the Beatles and other relatively high-brow miscellanea. When Fleming started singing, my own pre-teens daughters listened, enraptured. Lady Gaga was gagged for many glorious road miles. Once back home, Dark Hope made its way inside the house and onto the stereo and then back to the car in my elder daughter’s clutches later that day for the next trip out onto the roadways. Hey look, the kids dig it!
The disc succeeds for two generations and two sexes of Musical Patriots not because of the lyrics, ranging from purple poetry to obscure prose, or because of the purported richness of the songwriting, which doesn’t always far outstrip the compositional complexity of the repertoire of the above-mentioned Ms. Gaga.
The often cloying, oppressive quality of the overall studio sound of the recording does not subdue Fleming either, just as she triumphs over the fussy arrangements of producer David Kahne, who plays keyboards on all of the tracks, and guitar and bass on some of the songs. The opening track, “Endlessly” from the American rock group Mercury Rev, begins with a short keyboard fantasy featuring High Plains pitch-bending that gives way to a galloping synthetic ostinato and the dull thudding hooves of an electronic beat. The mood is somber, yet a little frightened. Who wouldn’t be nervous when trying to shift generations musically, with opera fans ready to emit groans of exasperation and the teenyboopers lining up to be embarrassed?
Fleming enters above Kahne’s soundscape singing two octaves below her normal soprano: “There’s a part of me / You’ll never know.” Who cares that this choice of an entrance line seems to be asking permission to join another musical faction and therefore descends a bit too far into self-justification? As far as I’m concerned, Felming needs no excuse to enlist in the ranks of indie rock.
With these first lines it’s as if she’s talking, exhaling melody and breath in equal parts. One can almost hear and feel the condensation of her breath on the microphone, and with it the magnificent richness of a voice full of complexity and knowledge. It’s not just erotic knowledge that is being represented in this performance, but musical knowledge, too — assuming there’s any difference between the two. Fleming has mastered many elegant, compelling details of pop performance practice, an approach often far more direct and persuasive than that of classically trained and constrained voices.
The gradations are infinite along the intimate spectrum of her voice. On the second track, “No One’s Gonna Love You,” from the stable of the Band of Horses, her voice brightens and seems to lose a couple more years in its girlish excitement. The tessitura is higher and the breath less moist. The subtle shift in timbre imbues the sound with a carefree bounce that ironizes the line she sings: “It’s looking like a limb torn off” — a good enough metaphor for the dismembering procedures of studio production.
As its title suggests, the CD inclines towards the shadowy but is enlivened by the unapologetic superficiality of numbers like “Oxygen,” a hit of the Swedish pop bombshell Marie Serneholt.
Fleming closes the disc with Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah” composed way back in 1984, long before the Fleming daughters were born. The song his been covered many times since, most recently by the likes of androgynous Rufus Wainwright. Kahne’s introduction to the track retreats from baroque into the downright gothic, with seasick synthetic voices lurching queasily through the chromatic mist. The string quartet sermons and asides that occur intermittently are perhaps too direct and annoying an allusion to Fleming’s classical day job. Why the whole family didn’t join in the church choir of the Hallelujah refrain is the biggest puzzle on the album. Have the girls gone off in a huff? Throughout all of it, the conviction in Fleming’s performance, conjured though her control of ornament and affect, escapes the coffin of the studio chamber; it is her voice alone that turns us toward the song’s light and then back towards its darkness.
Fleming closes her liner notes by addressing that deep ontological question: “So what is DARK HOPE?” Her answer speaks of the pleasure of paradox, before reverting again to another profoundly rhetorical question: “How do they fit together?” Dark hope, it seems, is “an outlook that comes with maturity.” Daughters take note! Listen to your mother.
But I think this disc is about something else. I think it is about getting through the middle years and getting through the adolescent years. Against the fusillade of bad reviews that have met this latest attempt to the expand scope of her singing in unexpected ways, Fleming’s compelling and brave musicality is a gift to both generations. ¥¥
(David Yearsley teaches at Cornell University. He is author of Bach and the Meanings of Counterpoint His latest CD, “All Your Cares Beguile: Songs and Sonatas from Baroque London,” has just been released by Musica Omnia. He can be reached at email@example.com.)