Renée Fleming | A New York Minute with Renée Fleming

A New York Minute with Renée Fleming

25 July 2010

A New York Minute with Renée Fleming | by Jane Ridley

It was a huge gamble when Manhattan's Renee Fleming, 51, arguably the world's most famous female opera singer, announced she was recording a rock collection called "Dark Hope."

The three-time Emmy-winning soprano and Metropolitan Opera House darling sexed up her image - check out those bangs on the album cover! - and dialed down her voice to a tenor for the departure from classical music.

It paid off. The critics are raving about the new album - which includes covers of bands ranging from Jefferson Airplane and Tears for Fears to Arcade Fire, the Mars Volta and Muse - and, perhaps more importantly, so are her teenage daughters.

Why did you decide to step outside of opera?

The stars were aligned, I guess, and the right opportunity [a collaboration with Regina Spektor and the Strokes producer David Kahne] came along. I'm a person who has always loved new things and being challenged. Certainly this was off the charts in terms of that. It was a huge risk, and experience has taught me not to project in advance that it would be successful. But I'm actually quite surprised how positive the response has been. People have been shocked at how different my voice is because they were expecting a more operatic sound. I've taken that as a positive.

Your daughters, Sage, 14, and Amelia, 17, were initially skeptical, right?

Absolutely. I hadn't committed to the idea when I first raised it with them and played them some of the material. They know me purely as a classical singer and for me to be stepping on their turf seemed unnatural to them at first. In fact, they thought it was an insane idea. It's every way in which a parent can embarrass their child. But, in the end, it became a bonding exercise and they loved the result. Now, when Sage says she's going to a Muse concert, I know who she's talking about and I've become more respectful of their eclectic taste in music. They actually appear on the album because they and my sister, Rachel, contributed to the backing vocals. It was a lot of fun working in the studio together as a team. They are all talented musicians. Sage wants to become a professional singer like me, but in the pop field.

How did the experience differ from performing or recording opera?

Like apples and oranges. The main difference is amplification. We're not amplified on stage, which is why we can only perform two or three times a week. It just takes so much power and projection. But here I could go into the studio and sing in this quiet, subtle way which often felt like just a whisper. You use a whole different voice.

You've never fit the traditional image of the plump opera singer, but you have a new sexy look on the cover of the rock album. How did that come about?

The whole cliche of the overweight opera star has changed in the last 20 years. Operagoers want a visual experience as well, and we have to be believable in the characters we are portraying. The theatrical value is much higher these days. I keep myself active by doing Pilates and walking around the streets of New York City. I live on the upper West Side, so I love Central Park and Riverside Park. But it was really great to shoot the cover of "Dark Hope." Usually I'm featured in a concert gown. It was a change to go casual and say: "No gown, no major jewelry, no ultra- glamour." Before the shoot, I Googled female rock singers like Courtney Love and Patti Smith, everyone I could think of, to check out their image. They all had bangs and this disheveled, unplanned look. We kind of reproduced that!

So have you stuck with that style for every day?

No, but I sure do have a whole section of wardrobe I'd never have gotten on my own. Things like suede leggings. Basically, it now means that my children are borrowing all my clothes!

"Dark Hope" (Decca) is available now.