Renée Fleming recently sat down to discuss her upcoming album "Dark Hope," which the opera star describes as a "visit to a new, parallel universe." The album was produced by David Kahne (Regina Spektor, Shawn Colvin, Paul McCartney, Bangles, Sublime, and countless others) in New York City, and features a diverse and adventurous track listing:
Endlessly (Muse) No One's Gonna Love You (Band of Horses) Oxygen (Willy Mason) Today (Jefferson Airplane) Intervention (Arcade Fire) With Twilight As My Guide (The Mars Volta) Mad World (Tears For Fears) In Your Eyes (Peter Gabriel) Stepping Stone (Duffy) Soul Meets Body (Death Cab For Cutie) Hallelujah (Leonard Cohen)
Tell me about the album title, "Dark Hope."
We discussed many potential album titles. Throughout the recording process, David Kahne and I had long conversations about the meaning of the song lyrics and the concept behind this project. He felt that the songs represent two opposing viewpoints: one of youthful ardor and the fight against establishment, and the other a more mature perspective of someone who has already experienced life. So what is "Dark Hope"? We know that hope is light, something positive. Dark we associate with the opposite. So "Dark Hope" is an outlook of maturity, of someone who's really lived, and been through it all, and who says to the young, angry person, "You have to stay hopeful, you have to stay positive." I love the title, because it's a paradox. It immediately makes you think.
Where did the idea for this project start?
For ten years, Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein from Q-Prime Management had the idea of pairing an opera singer with the best recent songwriters. Unbeknownst to me, they had been asking Christopher Roberts of Universal Music on a regular basis if I would consider a project like this. When we finally met, I was pleasantly surprised to learn that Peter played the cello when he was young and had some knowledge of classical music. Cliff and Peter were really enthusiastic about their idea, and it was contagious. I've always been inspired by artists who have shown musical and intellectual curiosity and the courage to take risks. Because everything about the voice interests me, I felt it would be fascinating to learn a completely different style of singing.
How did you find your way into these songs?
What many people do when they venture outside of their normal genre is continue to sing with the same voice, although in music that is more contemporary, as in crossover. "Crossover" suggests that one is in between two worlds, and this album is NOT crossover. It's so much more interesting to me, because there's not a hint of "middle ground;" it's completely at the other extreme of the spectrum. It's been amazing to visit a new, parallel universe.
I was simply trying to find a voice for this music that made sense to me, one that sounded stylistically authentic. Singing in the lowest part of my voice was key to making this work.
How did you actually begin working on the album?
In our very first meeting, Cliff Bernstein handed me a CD. He had the most wonderful little Excel sheet print-out that said "Love it," "Like It," "So-So," "Not My Cup of Tea," "Would Love to Sing It." Ultimately they gave me about 40 songs, mostly by - for lack of a better label - indie-rock bands, and I was impressed by the sophistication of the music and the texts, and by the seriousness of the material. Soon after this meeting, I had a whirlwind of performances on five continents, and I brought my family with me. When we weren't hiking or swimming in the Galapagos, or on safari in South Africa, I played this CD. My children both said, "Mom, these are some of our favorite bands," and my youngest brother, who is a voice student at Rice University, said, "We're all studying music, but this is what we listen to for fun." It really grew on me, but I still don't think anyone knew how my voice could possibly combine with this music.
By the time I got home, I felt positive about at least trying to make a demo. Then Cliff and Peter paired me with the wonderful producer David Kahne. David is so articulate, detailed, and demanding about style that I become even more fascinated by the prospect of singing with completely different vocal technique. The challenges were by and large the opposite of what I face as classical singer on stage, since the technology plays such a strong part in creating the sound. It was stimulating to me artistically to be in a new process.
Is there something that unifies the final song selections for you?
Usually when I record an album, it's centered on a concept, theme, period, or a particular composer. We are held to a stringent musicological yardstick. But these songs didn't seem to fit together, since there were a few songs from earlier decades, and I'd ask, "How do you see these songs fitting together?" Cliff would say, "They're just really good songs, they don't need to fit together." Eventually I accepted that, and what I've discovered is that David provided the unifying voice with his arrangements.
Anytime I'm choosing music of any style, I have to make sure that the texts make sense for me. I was surprised by the inventiveness and edginess of the writing; the harmonies and the vocal lines; and even the instrumentation of this music. I find it interesting that so many of these young musicians are using stringed instruments like the cello or, for example, an organ, as in Arcade Fire's "Intervention."
It's become clear to me that lines are blurring in a way that promotes collaboration across musical genres. It's not clear yet where this will lead, but the choices are endless. It's possible I can well imagine that this type of collaboration will help classical music move out of the "museum" and into the 21st century, since for example some young musicians are using string quartets to form bands.
What is different about singing these songs from singing the material you usually perform?
David was constantly coaching me, and the process was taking off layer after layer of training. In classical music, we perform unamplified in halls that seat up to 4,000 audience members, plus we're required to project over large orchestras and often a chorus. We're kind of the weightlifters of singing; we have to have power, stamina, and projection. In this music, I had to let that all go, sing in my own language; and then sing in what often felt like a whisper. I was recording in a small, acoustic booth, with a microphone that's very close, in this very intimate style, which is the complete opposite of how I usually sing. David worked with me very closely so that there was no hint of drama, cheesiness, or "Las Vegas," as he would call it. He was exacting about the minutest detail, even those barely audible to the trained ear. It was a wonderful learning curve, one reminiscent of my early days studying Mozart as a Juilliard student.
How was your family involved in the making of the album?
This was one of the great joys of this project, because my sister and my two daughters were the back-up singers on this recording. This was music that my daughters already knew and loved, and for me to take the time to enter and learn about their music was a reversal. Although they love opera and classical music too, it was meaningful to them to see me making the effort. So 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 sophisticated and eclectic taste in music. In the beginning, they were skeptical about this project, more than anyone else, because obviously teenagers don't want to be embarrassed by their parents. But they've really come to like it and are very supportive now.
My sister has always had the most glorious, rich voice, and a timbre that goes directly to the heart. She sounds so beautiful, and it was just fun for us to share this together.
You're used to going into a role when you sing. Did these songs mean assuming a different kind of role, or was it an entirely separate process?
I do everything in the third person - I'm now divulging a secret. I'm an innately reserved person, so in order to become who I've become, when I'm onstage, I'm thinking "She does that, she feels that, she is that." The way I can come out of my shell is to think that I'm someone else.
David and I talked for hours about the songs and what they mean and how I might sing a song that's clearly from an angry young person's perspective, and what I might bring to it. The young person might be saying "The world is tough, it's a really hard place, so let's fight against the establishment," and I'm coming from a more experienced, nurturing place saying, "Yes, it's tough and it's hard, and this is how you can deal with it." We found an interpretation that enabled the point of view to sound authentic coming from me. Many of the songs have this similar vein, so this whole idea of enacting or playing a role is doubly true for this music.
Which of the songs stand out as being especially meaningful for you?
These songs fit broadly into two categories: love songs and songs about change and social injustice. "No One's Gonna Love You" is really just a beautiful love song. All of these texts are quirky in a way that makes them interesting. I always thought of pop music as being a bit more simplistic, but many of these songs are complex, if not completely enigmatic. I was especially fascinated by the Mars Volta song, "With Twilight As My Guide," which is operatic in its scale and musical complexity. I was however a bit concerned about the text, specifically the reference to "devil daughters." I said, "As much as I love this song, I really can't sing it for that reason." Peter Mensch offered to contact Cedric Bixler-Zavala and asked if the text could be changed, since the overall meaning of the song wasn't completely clear anyway. Cedric responded, "Sure, she can change it. I would just like it to be known that in no way is the lyric supposed to paint women in a bad light... The song feels like it was written during the salem witch trials, and it sarcastically takes the religious right wing slang of how all women were treated. Our last album, Bedlam in Goliath, was one huge metaphor for the way women are treated in Islamic society (honor killings, etc) not just a story about a ouija board... its meant to make you question the way things are." This explanation was enough for me to feel as completely supportive of the song as I already had been about their musical talent.
"Intervention" is so powerful, and I had Bruce Springsteen in my head as I approached it. That's a song that could be from today or from 200 years ago - it mixes church, war, family and conflict in a way that makes it possible to invest your own story. Many of the songs have in common this aspect of not tying up all the loose ends; it's the same thing I love about Strauss's "Four Last Songs" or "Morgen" - there's space in which you can invest yourself.
Do you have any plans to record any more in this style?
I've felt very strongly, for a long time, that I am American, my culture is so multi-dimensional and there's so much to explore, why should I be forced into a strictly European model in what I sing? Why can't I explore the music I grew up with, the music I listen to? It doesn't mean that everyone has to like it, but I don't want to be straitjacketed.
You can't predict anything about music and what the reaction is going to be - especially with this combination. You just wait and see if it finds an audience, and that's kind of the fun of it. The important thing is that, regardless of what the reception is, I have enjoyed the process. I feel good about the work that we've done, and I know that the project has integrity. I've learned so much, and whatever my role is in the future as it pertains to helping singers, helping music, I'll have had this experience to draw on.