"The People's Diva", the great contemporary American soprano, cranks down her voice a couple of octaves and makes a game go at rock music.
What are the criteria for judging cover albums of rock songs by contemporary opera stars? Sure, Pavarotti and others have recorded pop using their operatic voices, but these results were mismatches between technique and style -- like using ten sledgehammers to play a lullaby on the piano.
But Renee Fleming's Dark Hope is a different matter altogether. Fleming is an acclaimed soprano, likely the most beloved American operatic singer of her generation, with scores of roles under her belt, singing music composed in Europe hundreds of years ago in a range approximately 47 octaves above Middle C. Her new disc not only features songs written in recent years by the likes of the Arcade Fire, but it features rock instrumentation and a voice -- mostly stripped of showy vibrato or ornamentation -- singing in talking range.
That is to say, Dark Hope is not an operatic take on rock songs but, rather, an actual rock album that happens to feature a singer mainly known for her operatic voice. But she is singing like you or I would sing... sort of.
Perhaps, then, Dark Hope should just be judged as a pop album, period. How would Dark Hope stand up against something new by Dar Williams or Annie Lenox or... Madonna?
Fleming's voice on this recording is rich but odd. While she purposefully achieves a certain rock folksiness -- flattening out the "brilliance", dropping as much as two octaves, losing her vibrato, and generally affecting a rock nonchalance -- the result is also bleached of distinction. It is as if Einstein were asked to teach pre-algebra and, with his brilliance necessarily turned down, was a slightly lugubrious 7th grade instructor. That's not a knock on middle school teachers but, rather, a comment on how different skills really do lend themselves to different tasks.
So there are a good number of tunes on Dark Hope that seem peculiarly numb to feeling. The Arcade Fire cover, "Intervention", finds Fleming putting across lyrics like "Working for church while your family dies" with a plain-spoken earnestness that could be cool remove or could be an inability truly to connect with the tune. When the band kicks in and starts rocking, Fleming pushes a bit more at the edge of her voice, but you can almost hear her backing away from her technique, not soaring like she could but also not yet able to make her voice raspy or soulful or yearning in a rock way.
The Duffy tune "Stepping Stone" sets up a funky neo-soul groove, so it asks something different of Fleming -- something different that she can't quite deliver. The song requires some bent tones and blues feeling, places where the "ohhhhh" in middle of "stone" has to be moaned in a way that will convey the song's essence. Fleming sings these blue notes accurately -- but that accuracy is the death of them. Renee Fleming is not yet a soul singer. Gladys Knight need not worry that the Pips will defect, at least not yet.
Alas, the tune that seems most clanging and odd, to my ear anyway, is the opener, "Endlessly", by Muse. It starts with some synthesized strings and then creepily starts in with a sanitized techno groove. The song, however, is put across as a husky-voiced Broadway number, like one of those Alison Moyet hits from the 1980s, updated. The pseudo-classical touches in the arrangement are exactly wrong to establish this as anything credible in a rock context.
Which is a shame, because there are other tunes where it all works. Some songs seem like credible middle-of-the-road pop. The Band of Horses tune "No One's Gonna Love You" is matched nicely to Fleming's smooth alto as it rises on the phrase "no ooooooone". "Today" by Jefferson Airplane gets a cool arrangement that juxtaposes acoustic guitar and effective synthesizers, and Fleming reaches particularly low with a feeling whisper. Even better is "Oxygen", where Fleming clips off her words and puts a vinegary sass in her tone and articulation. This tune, by Willy Mason, is the weirdest thing she tries here -- the lyrics are the furthest from her life position and the style is the least operatic -- and it seems to free her most of all.
Dark Hope came about because some rock/pop producers had been looking for an opera singer to pair with modern rock material. And the disc is clearly more their record than Fleming's. The arrangements occasionally make it sound like Fleming has a real "band" behind her, but more often there is a feeling that she is fronting a bunch of carefully synthesized grooves. "Mad World", the Tears for Fears song, is slightly reminiscent of the remixed version of Suzanne Vega's "Tom's Diner" -- a song where a newer-sounding production style has been grafted onto an appealing but flat vocal performance. "Soul Meets Body" (Death Cab for Cutie) is terrific, with the double-time drums putting a little jump under Fleming's voice. But the rehash of Peter Gabriel's "In Your Eyes" is less intriguing—a classic rock song that smacks a bit like Renee Fleming doing some high-end karaoke. Really high-end karaoke, but... still.
For all my reservations about Dark Hope, it is hard not to applaud Renee Fleming for her daring and willingness to leap beyond safety. This disc is perhaps a B-minus compared to really great, infectious rock and pop, but still works more often than not. Some will find her "Hallelujah" (the ubiquitous Leonard Cohen song) mesmerizing. "With Twilight As My Guide" (The Mars Volta) is transformed into a kind of rock lieder, and Fleming inhabits it eerily. I don't think any other singer could manage it, rock, opera or otherwise. Even amidst the failures here, there is something strong going on.
I hope that Renee Fleming gives this approach another shot. In the art work of the disc, arguably, is the answer. On her classical recordings, Renee Fleming is usually gussied-up as if she was some kind of German countess from the 19th century -- attempts perhaps to turn a lovely young woman into something more mature and serious. Isn't it a little false? But on Dark Hope, there is a photograph that makes Fleming look almost exactly like Fiona Apple -- an attempt to turn a lovely middle-aged woman into something self-consciously young. Also a bit false.
The answer, most likely, is in a natural middle ground. Fleming has previously recorded two kind-of jazz records (Haunted Heart with Bill Frisell and Fred Hersch, Love Sublime with Brad Mehldau), both of which kept Fleming in her vocal wheelhouse while also forcing her to think in different stylistic bags. In making popular music, Fleming needs to retain an emotional connection to the stories she is telling, to mute herself less, to empty herself of operatic chops, sure, but not the flair and surge that makes her a great actor as well as a great technical singer.
Imagine: a batch of new, original rock songs, this time with a real band backing her and a renewed sense of letting go, yet with the rich control that Fleming will always have when she sings. That's right, Renee: give it at least one more try. Some of us are rooting for you. It's not a mid-life crisis -- it's a chance to reach for something original.
Puccini will always be there for you. But this opportunity to thoroughly crack through a barrier is still a few inches ahead of you. Take another swing.