Renee Fleming rocks out on ‘Dark Hope’


It’s safe to say that if Renee Fleming appeared on “American Idol” and sang “Hallelujah,” the Leonard Cohen song immortalized by Jeff Buckley, and a favorite of “Idol” contestants, judges Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi would not say she is “pitchy.”

“Thank you!” exclaimed the opera star, laughing.

Dialing down her soprano to a tenor, Fleming sings a tender version of “Hallelujah” on her surprising new album, “Dark Hope,” a set of rock songs by artists including the Arcade Fire, Band of Horses and Death Cab for Cutie. Unlike a pops concert, “Dark Hope” sticks admirably to forthright rock and Fleming to dusky tones.

“I watch ‘American Idol,’” Fleming, 51, offered cheerfully. “One of my daughters loves it. She’s always saying, ‘Mom, you need to go on the show and be more articulate about what the actual issues are.’

“Well, yes, I could bring some actual terminology into this, as in ‘flat,’ ‘sharp,’ ‘passaggio.’ There could be some teaching going on there.”

Yes, there could. Since her breakthrough performance in “The Marriage of Figaro” at the Houston Grand Opera in 1988, Fleming has basked in bravos on the world’s renowned opera stages. Earlier this year she won her third Grammy Award, for best classical voice performance, for “Verismo,” a collection of arias.

Classical music critics have long reached deep for superlatives. “For sheer beauty of sound, no soprano today can match Renee Fleming,” the Wall Street Journal claimed. She is “one of the truly magnificent voices of our time,” wrote the Los Angeles Times’ Mark Swed.

So why is Fleming trading the searing high Ds of composer Jules Massenet for a two-chord shuffle by singer-songwriter Willy Mason?

“It just struck me as an interesting adventure,” she said. “In this stage of my career, I’m facing a kind of maintenance program. I’ve been on this plateau, where there’s no place to go, other than to stretch myself artistically. And this seemed to fit.”

Fleming indeed has little left to prove. She has sung more than 50 opera roles and ascended into that surreal stratosphere of fame. She is surely the only singer with a perfume, flower and dessert (a chocolate and Champagne thing) named after her.

Fleming prides herself on not coming across as a diva or classical music snob. And she doesn’t. Sitting last month in a bare-bones conference room in her publicist’s office, a few blocks from Lincoln Center, she may be wearing a regal blue suit and her hair may be perfect, but her warm manner is no pose. If Fleming wasn’t the world’s most famous female opera singer, she would be your favorite elementary school teacher, particularly if you grew up, as she did, in the happy suburbs outside Rochester, N.Y.

Yet there’s nothing complacent about Fleming. Her creamy complexion and wide blue eyes belie a magnetic intellect. She was as anxious to discuss the symbolism of “Dark Hope” as its music. She realizes the album represents a cultural clash between classical music and rock, elitism and populism. And she knows that gap will be tough to bridge.

After all, the album began as a marketing stunt.

It sprang from the head of New York-based rock manager Peter Mensch, who hit the big time with AC/DC and Def Leppard and today with his partner Cliff Burnstein manages, among other rock bands, Muse and the Mars Volta, both of which have songs on “Dark Hope.”

Mensch got the idea more than a decade ago in England, where he couldn’t escape the daily hype of violinist Nigel Kennedy, the so-called Johnny Rotten of classical music. If Kennedy can get this much attention, he thought, imagine what I can do with a famous diva. But who? He didn’t know any opera singers. In fact, he exclaimed, “I can’t stand opera!”

Then one fall day in 2007, Mensch was riding his bicycle in Manhattan when he saw a poster of Fleming on a city bus that rumbled by.

The poster advertised a Met production of Massenet’s “Thais,” with Fleming looking heavenward, long golden curls draped behind her. Good God, Mensch thought, this opera singer looks just like Madonna, whom he had once managed. Just as important, “She’s not from Russia; I can pronounce her name!”

Over the next couple years, Mensch and Burnstein hounded Christopher Roberts, head of Fleming’s record label, Decca, about scoring a meeting with the singer. In the meantime, they assembled a CD of 50 or so current rock songs, with a few oldies thrown in, including Jefferson Airplane’s “Today.” In summer 2009, Fleming had a break in her performance schedule and so, said Mensch, “We trooped off to the Plaza or Carlyle or some damn place like that and had tea with her.”

As Fleming listened to the CD during vacation breaks in the Galapagos Islands and South Africa, Mensch approached producer David Kahne, who had worked with the Bangles, Paul McCartney and Regina Spektor.

Mensch recalled that Kahne had bought a Manhattan apartment with a view of the Museum of Modern Art’s sculpture garden. “I said to myself, ‘He clearly understands classical music if he likes art,’” said Mensch.

The savvy manager needed a producer who could speak to a classical musician, but under no circumstances could Fleming sound like one.

Mensch was paying for the album (“low six digits”) and he didn’t want some goofy crossover record like Pavarotti bellowing a Bryan Adams song in his operatic voice. Fleming had to sing in a much lower register, making listeners forget she was an opera star. Guitars, bass and drums had to rule the arrangements. Keyboards were OK. But no treacly strings.

Mensch wasn’t sure Fleming could sing rock convincingly. He listened to her 2005 jazzy album, “Haunted Heart,” on which she purred pop tunes like “In My Life” by the Beatles. But he still had his doubts. Then he saw her sing the haunting, bluesy folk song “In the Pines” (famously covered by Nirvana) on “Spectacle,” the Elvis Costello cable TV show, in 2009. “She nailed it,” Mensch said. “I looked at my partner, and he looked at me, and we said, ‘OK, she can sing this stuff.’”

Fleming herself wasn’t so sure she could do it. “It was all so preposterous, in a way,” she said. She grew up with Mozart, not the Rolling Stones.

Once, on a date in high school, she heard Jethro Tull. In college she grew to love Joni Mitchell and in the late ‘80s her then-husband took her to New York clubs to hear his favorite act, droll singer-songwriter Jonathan Richman. But that was about it for her rock education.

Kahne too wasn’t sure he could pull it off. When Fleming first arrived in the studio to sing with his demo tracks, he was overwhelmed. “It was like a Ferrari going through a school zone,” he said. “You sense the power, and once it gets out of the school zone, it can zoom away.”

In his more than 30 years as a producer, Kahne said, he had never worked with a singer who could adapt so instantly to any pitch, dynamic or tempo.

“She knows every muscle cell in her vocal cords,” he said. “She knows how to breathe through her nose to prepare her palate for the next note. I felt like I was getting my PhD in voice.”

Soon enough, Kahne became the disciplined instructor. Now Fleming was impressed.

She figured singing rock “would be free time, fun time and very easygoing,” she said. “But it was harder than what I normally do.”

Singing softly into a mike, given that she was schooled to project her voice, was challenging, as was staying on the beat of rock’s steady rhythms, the obverse of classical music’s shifting forms.

Fleming said, “Classical music singing has to be absolutely even. The tone has to remain constant. But in pop singing, the more unique and distinct you are, the better. So David was really cracking the whip.”

Fleming recorded between her live performances in winter 2009. She had become so wrapped up in perfecting the rock tunes that one night during a classical music recital in London, her mind wandered and she caught herself thinking, “Oh no, I just did that thing with my voice that David doesn’t like.”

“I thought it was hilarious when she told me that,” said Kahne. “How surreal is to be singing in some royal concert hall and going, ‘Wow, I just screwed up a part in an Arcade Fire song?’”

Fleming and Kahne rehearsed and discarded a host of songs, including ones by Bright Eyes and the Decemberists, before settling on the album’s final 11. “Today” and Peter Gabriel’s “In Your Eyes” may be obvious choices, but “With Twilight as My Guide,” a gothic arabesque about honor killings, by sensationally unhinged hard rockers the Mars Volta, is the definition of cognitive dissonance. Yet Kahne and Fleming slow down the tempo and produce a lyrical, even touching, rendition.

The album’s most discordant selection may be Mason’s “Oxygen,” a political folk-rock anthem for kids whose parents told them about Bob Dylan over dinner. A one-two beat propels such lyrics as “Just need to get past all the lies and hypocrisy, makeup and hair to the truth behind every face.” The song’s naked earnestness makes sense when you learn Mason wrote “Oxygen” when he was 17 in high school.

Can a 51-year-old get away with singing a teenager’s protest song about Ritalin, TV and war?

“This is not new to me,” Fleming said. “I’m mostly singing roles of 16- to 23-year-olds in opera. So I’m used to imagining a young person’s point of view. Frankly, as we age, we don’t change our thinking about wishing things were different. We’re just more resigned to it. So it’s fun to reenact what it means to be super-charged-up about something.”

When contacted, Mason, now 25, said he had never heard of Fleming. But he was thrilled when he listened to her version of “Oxygen.”

“The arrangement is simple and straightforward and the song shines through,” he said. Could he ever imagine his song being covered by an opera star? He laughed. “I did not have aspirations of such great heights, no.” He added that his brother is dating a trained opera singer, so Mason was excited to tell him about his brush with opera royalty.

Fleming is aware “Dark Hope,” which will be released Tuesday, could alienate both rock fans, who might not appreciate her slumming in their world, and classical music fans, who will miss her soprano and find the material beneath her. She has no plans to perform the songs live. “A lot of people are sharpening the knives right now,” she said.

Did that worry her? “No, not really,” she said. “Obviously, if it seriously hurt the way I’m generally regarded, or hurt my career, yes, that would be depressing. But I don’t think it will. People may not like it, but they won’t be able to say it’s awful, cheap or cheesy. I think the record has intrinsic integrity.”