Join 3,494 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)


Opera star Rene Fleming pulls a reverse-Sting and enters a "parallel universe"
May 31, 2010 3:42 PM   Subscribe

Rene Fleming pulls a reverse-Sting and enters a "parallel universe" of sound. Brings up interesting issues in the different ways people in the pop and classical realm define the "natural" vocie, as well acknowledges that in our completely shattered, niche market this cross-over record has no more or less validity then any other album being released today.
posted by The3rdMan (52 comments total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

 
Thanks for this! The mind boggleth at the notion of Renee Fleming singing indie rock. It's interesting how the classical/popular transition doesn't work nearly as well for musical performers as say, for, actors.
posted by bardophile at 3:46 PM on May 31, 2010


The track listing for the album:

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).
posted by AsYouKnow Bob at 4:21 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


When Jon Pareles says this, "the classical folks often seem to think that their virtuosity is the only kind of virtuosity, so of course it will work in every context", he is absolutely correct. I've met a few classical music fans, as well, who hold the same convictions: one woman once said to me, with a completely straight face "well, if you've had a classical music education you can play just about anything, right?" Such jaw-droppingly ignorant opinions are apparently not all that rare in the aptly-described rarefied world of classical music.

Pareles indicates that Fleming is smarter than that, though, and I suspect he's right, since *ahem* he wrote a positive review of my band back in the early 90s. Haven't read much from him (or any NYT music critic) since then, but, on the strength of that, it's clear that he knows a good thing when he hears it... haha! Now I'm gonna try to find something from this Fleming record online, and if I don't like it, that's gonna really mess with my sense of self worth, because, you understand, that one NYT review years ago is what's been sustaining me ever since.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:26 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Aha, there are sound samples accompanying the article. Those snippets suggest a certain lifelessness to her delivery, for me. They seem pretty, um, non-invested with emotion. Except maybe on Mad World, where she appears to be channeling Marianne Faithful a wee bit. As far as I can tell, the accompanying tracks/arrangements sound pretty dismal, especially that last one on the column of sound snippets. Yuck.

But indeed, Pareles was right: she's not using overt operatic technique here, thankfully. She just sounds like a nicely-in-tune but rather unremarkable pop vocalist.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 4:34 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Birgit Nilsson - God rest her soul - could sing notes that Joni Mitchell could not. It does not follow that Nilsson would have been a better singer of Joni Mitchell's songs than Joni Mitchell was.

I like Fleming and I hope hers is a successful cash-in. But I'm going to politely ignore any talk of "validity".

If you want to sample her exquisite instrument but can't stand opera, listen to the scene in The Return of the King when [SPOILER ALERT] the eagles fetch Frodo and Sam off Mount Doom.
posted by Joe Beese at 4:40 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Yeah, that was severely underwhelming. I was so excited to see a Muse track, but it's sung so... unbombastically. I've heard collegiate a cappella groups put more life into a Muse cover, and you'd think if anyone could belt the shit out of a Bellamy tune it would be a world-class soprano.
posted by hincandenza at 4:43 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Her voice may be wonderful, but I'd agree with flapjax. The accompaniment that's wrapped around the voice is phlegmy instrumental glop that sounds like it was piped in from a 1987 Basia album.
posted by blucevalo at 4:48 PM on May 31, 2010


Oh dear God. I love Willy Mason and her version of "Oxygen" is a genuine butchering. She made it sound like a car commercial! Well, I hope it brings Willy some exposure anyhow.
posted by threeants at 5:11 PM on May 31, 2010


She sounds sedated.
posted by bwg at 5:13 PM on May 31, 2010


She shouldn't quit her day job.
posted by BombasticBibliophile at 5:20 PM on May 31, 2010


She sounds sedated.

She should do a Ramones cover.
posted by homunculus at 5:38 PM on May 31, 2010


She sounds sedated.

Perhaps in her research into rock/pop she took the Ramones' advice a little too seriously?
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:39 PM on May 31, 2010


Argh! One minute late! Homunculus, you bastard!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:39 PM on May 31, 2010


Heh.
posted by homunculus at 5:40 PM on May 31, 2010


(everyone is advised to click both homunculus's link and mine, opening in separate windows, approximately 10 seconds apart. A truly blissful musical experience awaits)
posted by flapjax at midnite at 5:41 PM on May 31, 2010


Fleming's It Don't Mean a Thing is really a cow pie. Aretha's opera interp (here's a longer low-res video) is pretty damn good though.

Are there more pop (esp. jazz) artists who do a better job at classical than vice versa?

I don't know, but there are many many more classical musicians who can tackle pazz/jop than pop/jazz musicians who are able to read well enough to play classical.

Too much classical training, though, can obviously hinder the more natural bluesy voice (let's not even bring instrumentalists into the mix!), as Fleming's case illustrates.
posted by kozad at 5:43 PM on May 31, 2010


The first thing that came to mind when I saw this was Sufjan Stevens's BQE. The joke was that Sufjan's indie folk music was so heavily classical-inspired that when he went about writing a symphony it sounded a) essentially like his music already did and b) exactly like classical music.

I doubt many opera singers sing like rock stars. The mentality behind the two types of singing is radically different. I'd be interested in seeing Fleming tackle a more dramatic rock piece. Have her sing Queen. She isn't down-to-earth enough for anything that requires, you know, a singer that sounds like he's straining to hit the notes.
posted by Rory Marinich at 5:57 PM on May 31, 2010


....has no more or less validity then any other album being released today.

What is this even supposed to mean? You download the files, press play, and sound comes out of your speakers, so it's clearly valid in that respect. Not only that, but the sounds coming out of your speakers will almost certainly be very close to the sounds that the people involved in the recording of the music intended to come out of your speakers. So it's valid in that respect, too. I'm not sure how else to interpret it. The notes are all recognized notes from the standard Western scales, the instruments are all standard.... How do questions of validity even come into play?

This, however, may not be valid music. We could argue about that (though it would be a pretty dull argument).
posted by mr_roboto at 6:02 PM on May 31, 2010


I thought you said something about "Sting"... there is no Sting.
posted by Bonzai at 6:04 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


God forbid you ever go into a pop/rock recording session with a classically trained musician.

I did that once with (don't ask) a flautist. We asked him 'could you improvise something there?' and he said 'no' and that was pretty much the end of that.
posted by unSane at 6:21 PM on May 31, 2010 [4 favorites]


Nigel Kennedy pulled a similar stunt, but channeled his efforts (more successfully I'd say) into straight ahead jazz. "Endlessly" should be taken behind the barn and shot. "Mad World" should take out an injunction at the World Court in The Hague against it ever being covered again. And "Hallelujah" is a cheap rip off of its resurgence in popularity due to K.D. Langs redition at the Vancouver Olympic opening ceremonies.
posted by Keith Talent at 6:40 PM on May 31, 2010


And "Hallelujah" is a cheap rip off of its resurgence in popularity due to K.D. Langs redition at the Vancouver Olympic opening ceremonies.

No, no, no. "Hallelujah" is a cheap rip off of its resurgence in popularity due to the Metafilter Music Challenge of June, 2009*. Clearly, Fleming is a Metafilter Music lurker.

*scroll down!
posted by flapjax at midnite at 6:57 PM on May 31, 2010


Nothing but love here for Renée Fleming and I think the idea of classically trained vocalists singing non-classical music is a fabulous one, but holy gee, that's a dull list of songs.

(I have no clue what "validity" as applied to music means, either.)
posted by octobersurprise at 7:01 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


God forbid you ever go into a pop/rock recording session with a classically trained musician. I did that once...

Well, that proves it then. Look, I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of classically trained musicians who would be useless in a pop/rock session, but I know a significant amount who successfully mix genres. Indeed there are quite a few classically trained musicians who don't work in the classical genre. So, being a classically trained musician doesn't necessarily mean what you think it means, stick-up-the-arse flautist regardless.
posted by ob at 7:07 PM on May 31, 2010 [2 favorites]


(I have no clue what "validity" as applied to music means, either.)

I'd say the "validity" bit is an attempt to address the hierarchical thinking about the intrinsic value and validity of one type of music over another. I'd say the statement was essentially directed at that certain breed of classical music lover who places symphonic or chamber music of the western classical tradition at the apex of a perceived mountain of musical validity. Lower orders of music such as jazz, rock, country, blues, etc. reside below the vaunted masterpieces of the old dead white men in powdered wigs. That audience would need some sort of reassuring, one imagines, that Fleming's foray into the lower realms of pop expression is as "valid" as the shining ideal of classical music.

This idea of levels of "validity" among genres of music is perhaps best evidenced in the longstanding usage of the word "legit" by classically trained musicians. It's a term they often use to describe classically notated music, to distinguish it from virtually everything else.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:24 PM on May 31, 2010


Obviously, she's a gifted singer and I can understand her success in other areas. But technical virtuosty lends very little to the sorts of songs chosen for this record; I'd argue it tends to detract from the songs, in fact. And what a crappy list of obviously calculated tunes.

Critic and filmmaker Mary Harron's axiom that rock and roll is the only kind of music which is done better by people who *can't* play their instruments (in this case, vocals) than by people who can finds its perfect expression in this record. Virtuosity all the way, but it's crap in every meaningful sense.
posted by Dee Xtrovert at 7:30 PM on May 31, 2010


Look, I'm not saying that there aren't a lot of classically trained musicians who would be useless in a pop/rock session, but I know a significant amount who successfully mix genres.

Word. My band is making our second record of fairly disco-ish songs with tightly orchestrated string parts. The string players on the first record were jazzers, and bless them because they were soooooo nice, but oh my god they wanted to fucking swing every. single. part. We used more modern-classical style folks on this recent batch of songs and they were completely fabulous. (And the jazzers I know pull that "legit music" crap, too. Just because I'm more likely to be blown away by improvised jazz than a classical piece doesn't mean I have to buy their nonsense either.)

What's the "Reverse-Sting?" Really, really quick sex?
posted by mintcake! at 8:08 PM on May 31, 2010


...the jazzers I know pull that "legit music" crap, too.

Oh, I'd never suggest that there aren't heaps of jazz snobs around. Although, in my years and years of interaction with jazz musicians, I've never once heard a single one of them use the term "legit" to describe jazz as something apart from all other forms of music. In my experience, that's been a strictly classical-musician thing to say.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 8:32 PM on May 31, 2010


I'm gonna have to listen out for that. That's funny.

In the meantime I pledge to only ever refer to Cliff Richard tunes as "legit."
posted by mintcake! at 8:47 PM on May 31, 2010


We could pull out a whole shitload of anecdotes here. For me: two.

One, a violinist whom I asked to play a more or less continuously ascending scale. He couldn't help but stop and pause at the octaves. Not appropriate for this avant-garde 60's piece. (No, I wasn't involved in "A Day in the Life!")

Two, a violinist whom Weather Report used to love to jam with. I played with her for years. There was nothing she couldn't do...and she was classically trained.

It would be really interesting if there were some way to study this phenomenon of the qualatative cross-genre efficacy of musicians' performance...but the number of variables would preclude any meaningful objective data. Still, if someone would write a book about the subjective experience from a few dozen successful and non-successful cross-over artists, I would be enthralled.
posted by kozad at 9:08 PM on May 31, 2010


I listened to the samples, it's not absolutely terrible, but the backing music is generic MIDI , and she doesn't seem to tailor her voice to the song. I mean, Celine Dion could probably do a pretty good Portishead cover, but it wouldn't feel anything like the original.
posted by unmake at 9:10 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Celine Dion could probably do a pretty good Portishead cover

*shudder*
posted by flapjax at midnite at 9:20 PM on May 31, 2010 [3 favorites]


Ugh, David Kahne. Perhaps backing tracks that captured any level of excitement would've propelled her performance beyond 'lovely but sedate'...can we get a do-over and give this project to Steve Albini?
posted by mintcake! at 9:52 PM on May 31, 2010 [1 favorite]


Man, when I saw the title "Endlessly" I was really hoping it was the Mercury Rev track, enough to temporarily confuse Muse with them. Oh well.
posted by kenko at 11:42 PM on May 31, 2010


I've met a few classical music fans, as well, who hold the same convictions: one woman once said to me, with a completely straight face "well, if you've had a classical music education you can play just about anything, right?"

I'd love to see Renée Fleming sing death metal.
posted by kenko at 11:43 PM on May 31, 2010


No one has made a joke about a tantric sex posture yet?
posted by Burhanistan at 1:12 AM on June 1, 2010


Opera is dying economically. This is just another sign of the Operapocalypse.
posted by fourcheesemac at 1:43 AM on June 1, 2010


Operapocalypse

Excellent title for an opera.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 1:48 AM on June 1, 2010


homunculus: "She sounds sedated.

She should do a Ramones cover.
"

I was thinking of the Ramones when I wrote that. " )
posted by bwg at 3:24 AM on June 1, 2010


I've heard a few great operatic covers of pop songs. The key to their success involved mixing the most exuberant excesses of both genres and sound like you're having a blast doing it. Unfortunately, this seems to be more in the line of chamber music for singers, which is even more of a marginal artform these days than opera.

My father organized a short-lived ensemble that would do 19th century vocal chamber music, and one of my fondest musical memories included a love song that changed midway to zombie horror. With a few exceptions, composers certainly had an ear for which bits of an opera could be rearranged as the next catchy pop song.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 5:06 AM on June 1, 2010


In my experience, that's been a strictly classical-musician thing to say.

Well, there's no accounting for douchebags. Seriously, there's no excuse for musical snobbery (well, cross-genres, I suppose within a genre that's a different matter) and if I ever heard a student of mine using the word "legit" or something similar to differentiate classical music from popular styles I would take them to task. For a while now, classical musicians have had a tendency to appropriate popular music styles without giving the other genre the respect that it deserves. That's when things sound like shit. It is possible to create interesting music at the intersection of genres, but only when both genres are respected in equal measure and understood in their own terms.
posted by ob at 6:47 AM on June 1, 2010


Well put, ob.
posted by flapjax at midnite at 7:03 AM on June 1, 2010


It is possible to create interesting music at the intersection of genres, but only when both genres are respected in equal measure and understood in their own terms.

Having listened to the samples, I'm not impressed. The things that pop into my mind in reaction to this is the whole magic of the Cash/Rubin collaboration in which (reportedly) Rubin would send Cash singles and let Cash pick the songs that interested him and perform them as Johnny Cash and built the song around that.

Two examples that pop to mind are Klaus Nomi and spinning off the earlier Van Canto discussion older Nightwish. Flemming probably won't get an easy listening hit if she interpreted Mad World the way she did the equally complex Marchallin. But she won't get a hit playing it safe either.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 7:48 AM on June 1, 2010


Having listened to the samples, I'm not impressed.

I should make it clear that I was not referring to the Rene Fleming album when I wrote that statement.
posted by ob at 8:07 AM on June 1, 2010


My apologies then.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 8:18 AM on June 1, 2010


I'd love to see Renée Fleming sing death metal.

Well, it's not death metal, but Nightwish is (well, was) fronted by a classically trained opera singer. wiki
posted by FatherDagon at 8:34 AM on June 1, 2010


D'oh on my lack of preview!
posted by FatherDagon at 8:35 AM on June 1, 2010


Opera may be dying but it's still faster than a potato.
posted by closetphilosopher at 8:52 AM on June 1, 2010


And really, given the buzz regarding a cappella everything including heavy metal and Lady Gaga lately, I suspect that Flemming could probably draw more interest if she did a bunch of her own soprano-and-piano arrangements of pop songs using her operatic voice.
posted by KirkJobSluder at 9:28 AM on June 1, 2010


"the classical folks often seem to think that their virtuosity is the only kind of virtuosity, so of course it will work in every context"

Probably the most notorious version of this is classical choir groups trying to do "negro" spirituals.
posted by straight at 10:05 AM on June 1, 2010


She has a really awesome voice, but I agree, sedated. Its like a ferrari being driven 55. Lets shoot the producer, get her a few shots of tequila and try it again.
posted by psycho-alchemy at 10:28 AM on June 1, 2010


She just sounds like a nicely-in-tune but rather unremarkable pop vocalist.

Yep, that's about it. No interest for me. Why even make this album?

Celine Dion could probably do a pretty good Portishead cover

Hm. Maybe if "pretty good" means "doesn't make me vomit." I'll believe it when I hear it...

As far as cheesy cross-over cover LPs go, I like Holly Cole's Temptation.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:20 AM on June 2, 2010


« Older From the BBC, A graphical treemap of the top 500 s...  |  Open air sports stadiums often... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments