The silly red hat: it’s back. At first, when I see Elvis Costello wearing that questionable fashion choice once again atop his head while performing (an abridged) “All This Useless Beauty” at the start of tonight’s episode of Spectacle: Elvis Costello With… (airing Wednesdays at 9pm EST/PST on the Sundance Channel), I conclude that he must dust the thing off each time a devotee of opera appears on the show. Tonight’s guest, after all, is American soprano Renée Fleming. Alas, my conclusion is premature: halfway through the episode, Costello introduces, as a surprise guest, Rufus Wainwright, who appears wearing the same outfit from his previous episode. This episode, then, was taped on the same day, perhaps the only day that hat made it out from some whimsical closet and into public.
It’s interesting to hear Fleming’s speaking voice, tinged with a slight upstate New York accent, and then contrast it with her singing voice — when she belts out “Vissi D’Arte” from Puccini’s Tosca, she suddenly transforms into this beacon of beautiful sound and emotion. This is not the same reaction one has when Fleming sings something other than opera, as when she performs “Answer Me” (a song that was a hit for Nat King Cole) with guitarist Bill Frisell. Fleming explains how she drops her voice an octave for non-operatic pieces, thus reducing the potential for trained-voice flutter and pomp. This remakes her voice as something that’s part Nina Simone, part Jeff Buckley, part Celine Dion, a husky, dense thing that feels more contrived than it probably wants to feel. (This is underlined at the episode’s end, when Fleming, along with Costello, Wainwright, and Kate McGarrigle, perform the traditional folk song “In the Pines” — voices like Fleming’s and Wainwright’s do not bend to blues so easily.)
“Our singing is completely manufactured,” Fleming says of opera singers, describing how the trained voice is made from acknowledging potential and developing it, and then confesses that, when venturing outside operatic mathematics, “we spend all this time trying to be simple.” Fleming breaks down the particulars of an opera singer for the layperson — the choice of repertoire, the unamplified presentation, the quality of voice — and maintains a humble sense of humor that many will find contrary to their preconceptions of opera and classical music as bastions of pretension with no capacity for self-criticism.