Renée Fleming - Kudos

Dark Hope

More about the album

USA Today | July 6, 2010
By Elysa Gardner

USA TodayNEW YORK — When opera star Renee Fleming told her two teenage daughters she might record a collection of modern rock songs, their response was mixed.

"First, they completely validated the music for me," says Fleming, 51. "Then they said: 'Mom, we really don't want to hear you singing this. You're going to embarrass us.' "

Fleming wasn't quite sure herself, she concedes, when rock managers Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein approached her with the idea that eventually materialized asDark Hope.

The album, Fleming's first to make its debut on Billboard's album chart (at No. 151), finds the world's most famous living classical soprano covering tunes by alt-rock favorites such as Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie, Muse and the Mars Volta. (The last two are represented by Mensch and Burnstein's company, Q Prime.) Doing so, she reveals a sultry lower register that presents a marked contrast to the soaring lyric voice known to opera fans.

Chatting in her Upper West Side apartment, Fleming admits that she was unfamiliar with most of the material Burnstein and Mensch presented. Of the tunes that wound up on Dark Hope, in fact, the only two Fleming already knew were Leonard Cohen's Hallelujah and Peter Gabriel's In Your Eyes. "And, of course, I'd heard of Jefferson Airplane," whose Today is included.

But Fleming was "completely bowled over" by the other songs — if initially doubtful of her affinity for them. "I just thought, how are they imagining that I would sound? I'm not sure they knew."

Mind you, Fleming is hardly a stranger to popular music. A self-described Joni Mitchell fanatic, she wrote her own songs as a teen and sang with a jazz band in college. She covered Mitchell, The Beatles and Stevie Wonder on her 2005 album Haunted Heart, teamed with jazz pianist Brad Mehldau for 2006's Love Sublime and sang bluegrass with Elvis Costello and Rufus Wainwright on Costello's Sundance Channel series Spectacle last year.

Still, the quirkier, electronically fueled fare on Dark Hope, and the approach of rock producer David Kahne, posed a challenge. "In opera, you have no microphone, and you're propelling the biggest sound you can make into a huge hall, often over an orchestra, with a chorus in the background. This was the complete opposite: The quieter you are, the more the technology will do its job."

So Fleming would show up in the studio — often the morning after an evening performance at the Metropolitan Opera— "and go into this little room, where I'd just basically whisper and croak. But then David would play it back, and I'd hear this enormous, round, rich sound."

Veteran critic J.D. Considine, a contributor to Canada's The Globe and Mail, doubts Dark Hope will affect Fleming's classical credibility. "Her fans have been more adventurous," he says. "This isn't a typical classical crossover effort — that's a middlebrow market, this is hipper. So it shouldn't hurt her base and will likely bring a few new listeners in."

Fleming has played the album "for a few people who are diehard classical fans, and they like it. I think that's because it sounds authentic. It doesn't sound like an opera singer singing music that isn't appropriate for her."

Even Fleming's kids, both aspiring singers in their own right, came around. Amelia, 17, who "has a spectacular classical voice," and Sage, 14, who has her sights on a pop career, contributed backing vocals to Dark Hope.

"Including them helped, of course," she says. "I thought, this is an experience I can provide for them, something we can share."

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New York Times | May 28, 2010
By Jon Pareles

“THERE’S a part of me you’ll never know,” Renée Fleming sings as she begins her pop album “Dark Hope,” in a voice her opera and lieder fans might not recognize. It’s two octaves below her renowned lyric soprano, with a lushly melancholy tone that’s closer to Tori Amos and Sarah McLachlan than to Kathleen Battle or Sarah Brightman.

She revealed that voice in 2005 on “Haunted Heart,” her more-or-less jazz album. That was a collection of sparsely accompanied ballads, carefully sung and ultimately lugubrious (even Stevie Wonder’s “Ma Cherie Amour”). But with that plunge into her lower register, Ms. Fleming began to solve the longtime problems of opera singers’ pop crossovers.

From the pop side the path is barricaded by, among other things, pop’s preferences for (the illusion of) a natural performer rather than an elite conservatory-trained virtuoso, and for believability over sheer technique. When pop singers do show off, it’s with African-American flourishes: gospel and jazz, not coloratura.

Then there are the minefields of taste: how songs are chosen, how rhythm is used, how arrangements work and how emotions are signaled. For most opera crossovers the results are slushy and overwrought. There’s also the strange, stubborn fact that even American opera singers often pronounce English as if it were their second language. Singing pop the way they sing opera just sounds outlandish — and not, usually, in a way that’s fun.

In her liner notes for “Dark Hope” Ms. Fleming freely admits she was unfamiliar with what she (imprecisely) calls indie rock. She let rock professionals — Metallica’s managers, Cliff Burnstein and Peter Mensch — suggest a selection of songs spanning recent college-radio rock (Arcade Fire, Band of Horses, Death Cab for Cutie) and baby-boomer memories (Jefferson Airplane, Peter Gabriel). The arrangements came from the producer David Kahne, whose clients have included Kelly Clarkson, Sublime and the Bangles.

They all made shrewd choices that add up to an album about obsessive love rendered meticulously — not so different a task from playing Desdemona at the Met, but with a new vocabulary. To suit Ms. Fleming’s somber low range, the songs are generally brooding, though not lachrymose. They often have lyrics that are fraught yet downright enigmatic. Wisely, the tunes don’t call for Ms. Fleming to swing or shout. They’re on the hymnlike side, with foursquare rhythms and melodies she can linger over.

The arrangements recall the originals without copying them, adding reverberant space. Some, like Leonard Cohen’s “Hallelujah,” end up too plush and fussy, while Muse’s “Endlessly” teeters toward cheesy Euro disco. But Mr. Kahne came up with a few inventive variations. “Oxygen” replaces Willy Mason’s plucked acoustic-guitar notes with booping keyboards, while “Mad World” trades the brittle electro pop of Tears for Fears’ version for something more organic, with synthetic jolts.

In the end Ms. Fleming treated her rock hymns as an idiom that required certain authentic performance practices, and she learned them. She got friendly with the microphone, turning the songs inward instead of projecting operatic melodrama. The richness of her voice can make some of the original versions’ vocals — like Ben Bridwell in Band of Horses’ “No One’s Gonna Love You,” or Duffy in “Stepping Stone” — sound twerpy by comparison.

“Dark Hope” is a good start not for operatic fusion — it’s opera free — but for a side career. Ms. Fleming’s next step is figuring out how to sound, now and then, just a little less serious about it all.

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