Renee Fleming's "Dark Hope": June Cleaver Does Muse

by Zachary Woolfe

Renee Fleming

Soprano Renee Fleming, “one of the most beloved and celebrated musical ambassadors of our time,” according to her website, has just released Dark Hope, a collection of pop covers of songs by groups such as Arcade Fire, Death Cab for Cutie and Leonard Cohen. How is it? Seth Colter Walls and Zachary Woolfe discuss the album and the artist, who it might appeal to and what it means for opera.

Zack: I’m hungover, and “Dark Hope” is not helping.

Seth: The diction is strange!

Zack: Yeah, it has that Renee Fleming way of sort of melting into your ear and then immediately hardening there.

Seth: Well-explain for the readers what it is about Renee that bothers some in the opera set. And do those objections also apply here? Or is it a totally different kettle of beans, etc.?

Zack: Well I should preface by saying that there are many in the opera world who have deep respect and love for Renee. But yes, there is also a large class of those who love to h8: Boring! Terrible diction! Awful mannerisms! Scooping up to notes, consistently singing flat… This is one sample review from a website in the late 90s: “Renee Fleming is a MESS. Yes, ‘Depuis le jour’ is about remembering your first sexual encounter, but it shouldn’t sound as if you still have a throatful of cum.”

Seth: Hahah.

Zack: People view her as, like, the June Cleaver of opera.

Seth: A June Cleaver who wants to also be a Vogue cover girl, weirdly?

Zack: Right. She is now going for June-Cleaver-As-MILF.

Seth: Which… I’m not immune to? I thought she was convincingly sexy as the Marschallin earlier this season?

Zack: Right, we had some disagreement about that performance, but no one is disputing that she is an attractive stage presence. for a-GASP!-50 year old.

Seth: Right. Not that old, exactly.

Zack: No. But older, for instance, than the Arcade Fire.

Seth: Haha, right!

Zack: So people dislike Renee.

Seth: But then there are people for whom she is the ONLY point of reference in American opera. Like, if they know anyone, it’s her. She’s been on billboards. On TV. Lounging on jazz recordings with Brad Mehldau. She’s been very well marketed to the lay audience.

Zack: Yes, and I think she resonates with the kind of opera that appeals to a lot of people-very professional, very smooth, nothing’s going to trouble your sleep, nothing is going to come across as weird or intense. It films well, it travels well.

Seth: Exactly. And there’s a corollary lesson here with the “indie rock” songs she’s elected to perform on “Dark Hope.” They’re all very NPR-safe. It’s not like she’s singing Pissed Jeans here. (A TICKET I WOULD PURCHASE, BY THE WAY.)


Seth: Which points to the essential conservatism of this material, in a weird way.
Despite its supposed street cred.

Zack: Right! I mean, there is more craziness, both dramatic and musical, in literally any opera than there is on this album.

Seth: What were the dullest moments for you?

Zack: The Mars Volta cover (I can’t believe I just typed that), “With Twilight As My Guide,” is pretty deadly. And I was shocked that “Hallelujah” was just seven and a half minutes long -it feels at least double that. A lot of the record is just soo effing lugubrious.

Seth: HAH. I will rep for two songs on this, and two songs only.

Zack: Yes, the Band of Horses moment is really lovely.

Seth: It’s her most … unfussy vocal take on the whole record?

Zack: And there’s a straightforwardness to the “Intervention” cover that works well.

Seth: That’s just such a diva song anyway. “Working for the church while your family dies”? Come on. You’re turning the Bruce pastoral signifiers up to 11 with that lyric.

Zack: Yes. Because to go back to what we were saying before, just because she’s not doing opera doesn’t mean that she doesn’t have the affectations and the mannerisms.

Seth: So when she sings “Who’s gonna re-set the bone,” and throws a little vibrato into that last word-it actually makes sense. Like my voice would tremble too, if you were re-setting my bone!


Seth: Or waver or whatever. Shut up, my voice would TOTALLY TREMBLE.

Zack: It’s the most honest vocal performance, in that it’s the closest to what she, um, actually is.

Seth: “Drop out the bass, son.” (Sorry.)

Zack: (Haha.) It is also the only song on the album where it seems like she actually enjoyed a second of recording it.

Seth: Yeah!

Zack: Though she seems to have something approaching fun with her Feist-imitation moment on that awful song “Oxygen.” (“I wanna speak louder than Ritalin”!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! SCREAM)

Seth: Yeah, I don’t understand the world sometimes.

Zack: We can speak louder than ignorance, Seth!!!! We can!!!!!!!!!!!!

Seth: I’m not sure I can actually. It’s pretty loud from over here.

Zack: Um, here too.

Seth: Why did the Times give this a pretty-good review?

Zack: Well, Tony Tommasini kinda skirted the issue. he was like, “SHE’S NOT SINGING LIKE HER. I DON’T GOTTA SAY NUFFIN!”

Seth: But then they gave it to Pareles.

Zack: And he was like “METICULOUS”! “9 STARS”! I guess that panning it would just be panning a dead horse? Or something?

Seth: Well, it wasn’t that glowing.

Zack: No, but it reflected the fact that it wasn’t as bad as it could have been. I actually think that the lame arrangements were worse than Renee herself. Though she keeps on doing the whole INFURIATING faux-plush thing.

Seth: Which arrangements pissed you off the most? Or made you feel condescended to?

Zack: The arrangement of “Endlessly”, the Muse song, is pretty awful. It is very ‘Sex and the City 2,’ with the whole middle eastern, overwrought sensuality thing.

Seth: Yes

Zack: (I worked in a ‘Sex and the City 2,’ reference!!!) And that’s, crazily, the first single off the album. Which brings me to the question of who is buying this thing??

Seth: Maybe no one! Or maybe the crazy Renee fans in the opera world. The ones who like to defend her on the blog posts where everyone else is (going over the top in) ripping her apart. Also: maybe some of the NPR-dad set. The set that likes Arcade Fire but not Pissed Jeans.

Zack: Right. I was explaining to my friend yesterday that if Sleigh Bells is for dancing, and Justin Bieber is for having sex, this Renee album is for going through menopause.

Seth: Oh man.

Zack: Comforting! Empowering! Vaguely melancholy! Vaguely hopeful! (“DARK HOPE”!) It’s the album equivalent of “The Lovely Bones.”

Seth: I also wonder if Renee thinks she is doing “advocacy” on behalf of opera by being a well-known person in the general famous-sphere. Like: “This is good for the art.”

Zack: Right, and as much as the reviews are emphasizing how much THIS IS NOT OPERA, the experience of listening to it is, for me, very much akin to a Fleming opera performance. For better or for worse. I mean, do you think this is good for opera? (As if that is the criterion of Goodness.)

Seth: Hm. I think it’s not bad. I’m not sure it’s “good.” I think people who are “not into” opera are pretty suspicious of crossover marketing entreaties at this point. It’s not like kids on the blogz are going to say, “Huh, an opera singer did something by Death Cab, I guess let’s snap up tix to ‘Thaïs’?”

Zack: right. Yeah, I think like so many of the “outreach” programs of operas these days, the youths are not the targets. The targets are just a wider swath of the olds. They are trying to get vaguely culturally-aware moms and dads. ‘cause if you’re dealing with moms who are seeking out Arcade Fire covers, you’re dealing with moms who are somehow culturally aspirational, who might very well feel like entering an opera house if it has this promise of plushness and “safe” emotion.

Seth: That seems right. So it could be good, in a very narrow sense, for a local opera house.

Zack: Right, I think so. Though I am always inherently wary of not being honest about what people are going to get in an opera house, which is, um, opera.

Seth: True. Also, I think the velvet-rope, plush-cushion approach has mostly drawn in all the people that it can draw in. What’s left, really, is fronting the jagged stuff and trying to attract an edgier crowd as a result. Which this doesn’t contribute to at all.

Zack: I agree. This is much more conservative than any CD that, say, Dawn Upshaw has ever put out. Also, it’s really crucial to believe in, and do vibrant performances of, the less jagged stuff.

Seth: Is it your sense that the less jagged stuff is not believed in?

Zack: Yes! I still think that younger, cool, hip audiences can like ‘Traviata’ as well as ‘The Nose.’ but they have to be shown that ‘Traviata’ is as powerful, as affecting. There’s so much… stuff that builds up around these pieces

Seth: Oh, don’t “stuff” me. Tell me all about the plaque that’s really building up alongside traditional rep’s gumline. Creating all kinds of terrible gingivitis.

Zack: I mean, I think a lot of operas are taken for granted. And not really thought about even when they’re given a new production. Like, the new Met ‘Carmen’ was screaming “BOLD THEATRICALITY”, but then it had a lot of the same tired shit.

Seth: That’s why you loved ‘Don G’ at City Opera so much last year. (I loved it too.)

Zack: Right. there are infinite ways to do ‘Don G,’ but I loved that Chris Alden’s direction had a specific point of view, and that everyone was on board, and that it respected the music and really thought about what the piece might mean.

Seth: Anyway, just cuz we’ve been a little hard on Renee… what’s your favorite recording/performance of hers? If people want to get the best Renee experience possible, they would go to…

Zack: Well! I was really hard on her performance in Rossini’s ‘Armida’ at the Met a couple of months ago, but when she did that in 1993 (there’s a recording) it was pretty thrilling. Her voice was in good shape, and even if she was never the most specific actress, there was a passion that was great. AND. You can go on YouTube and get a clip of the very end of a concert ‘Armida’ at Carnegie Hall from 1996. She interpolates this arpeggio to a high E flat at the very end.

Seth: Huh!

Zack: It is the kind of risky exciting singing that Renee NEVER does.

Seth: Do you think she lacks confidence now? Or technique? Or is she just bored?

Zack: Mix of all three, with maybe a boredom most of all. She has only added 3 new roles in all of the last decade. (I checked this morning!)

Seth: Right-this is my major problem with her. She has what PASSES for star power in the opera world. People will BUILD new productions around her She should use her powers for GOOD. What should she be leading companies to try out that they otherwise wouldn’t?

Zack: I mean, ‘Armida,’ which had never been seen at the Met, was a great opportunity to hear a masterpiece, but the production sucked and her voice just isn’t up to it anymore. I would have loved to have her make them do Donizetti’s ‘Lucrezia Borgia.’ Rossini’s ‘Semiramide.’ She could be a force for the early 19th century!

Seth: I think that’s right, Apparently she has also sung the big aria from ‘Das Wunder der Heliane’ at a BBC Proms concert? I wouldn’t mind a production of that built around her-if she could handle the role today.

Zack: I think she is a case of a singer who no director has ever been really able to access. She is always SO safe onstage.

Seth: Hmm. Calling Peter Sellars, I guess? “We’ll put you in a neon jacket and MAKE YOU EMOTE.”

Zack: Hahaha. Whatever it takes! But that is the similarity to this “Dark Hope” nonsense. The emotion is so vague.

Seth: Oh, that video. That European ad. With her gang of “toughs” ambling down the avenue. I was laughing nearly uncontrollably.

Zack: I mean, that is such camp. Which the album, for better or worse, is really not.

Seth: So it’s supposed to be funny. I almost always miss the point with camp.

Zack: I don’t think so! I don’t think camp is supposed to be trying to be funny. (I should know this! This is on the Homo 101 test!)

Seth: Yeah, don’t give me shoddy notes here!

Zack: Susan is dead! Long live Susan!

Zachary Woolfe writes about culture here and for the New York Observer. Seth Colter Walls does something similar at Newsweek