Opera's Renée Fleming puts her jazz credentials to test

By , Contributor to The Christian Science Monitor

Few opera singers have dared to cross the boundary between classical music and jazz. Even those who have succeeded tend to bring an operatic style with them: their singing often lacks the edgy, improvisational sound of an authentic jazz vocalist.

"We tread a fine line - those of us who perform one style of music and then want to also try another," opera diva Renée Fleming said during a rare live jazz performance on New York public radio station WNYC in December 2003. "It's dangerous." A self-described risk taker, Ms. Fleming will take that challenge head-on when she releases her first jazz and pop CD for Decca Records in May.

In a telephone interview during a Manhattan editing session for the recording, the renowned lyric soprano explained what she meant by "dangerous." "Whenever one tries something different, one fears one may not do it well." The CD "is not going to be for everybody," she says. "I have no idea how it's going to be received. People will either like it or they won't. I'm thinking of this as a personal journey I've always wanted to take."

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Will diehard opera fans object to her detour from opera and the classical repertoire? "Jazz is America's classical music," she replies unapologetically. "Fortunately a lot of classical music lovers also like jazz."

Fleming says the new CD (the working title is "Haunted Heart") is an eclectic mix of ballads - jazz standards and popular tunes - as well as three classical pieces. "It's intimate. I sing it an octave lower than I ever sing, as if I'm whispering in somebody's ear. It's going to be a surprise. A few people I've played it for had no idea it's me."

While final decisions on content are still pending, the CD is likely to include the title song, Arthur Schwartz's "Haunted Heart," and Joni Mitchell's "River," as well as a song by Gustav Mahler. Fleming will be accompanied on the recording by two jazz stalwarts: pianist Fred Hersch and guitarist Bill Frisell. It was hearing Mr. Hersch's own recording of "Haunted Heart" that inspired Fleming's desire to collaborate with him. "I was driving in San Francisco, and when I heard it, I had to pull over," she says.

Mr. Frisell transcribed the Mahler piece, she says, making clear that "it is not a jazz arrangement" but an exact transcription of the original song, whose title Fleming declines to identify. "He made a soundscape with layers of atmospherics. It's kind of other-worldly." The classical pieces fit with the jazz and popular standards, she explains, because "I sing them at least a fifth lower than my normal soprano register."

Fleming is no stranger to jazz. While a music student at the State University of New York at Potsdam (she received a degree in music education in 1981), she sang with a jazz trio at an off-campus pub every Sunday night for 2-1/2 years. The tenor saxophonist Illinois Jacquet, who died last year, recalled on the WNYC program that after conducting a master class at the school, he heard Fleming sing in a jam session.

"She sang 'You've Changed' and I have not heard anything better than that since," Jacquet said on the program. Comparing her to Ella Fitzgerald, Sarah Vaughan, and Billie Holiday, he added, "That was one of the greatest voices I have ever heard." He invited Fleming to tour with his big band, an offer she eventually refused in order to pursue an operatic career.

A clue to Fleming's artistry as a jazz vocalist can be found on the WNYC broadcast, which included her first and only performance with Jacquet. The two were joined by pianist Larry Ham, a former member of Jacquet's band, who had accompanied Fleming when both were students in Potsdam. The program, which was unrehearsed and improvised, featured the song that brought Fleming to Jacquet's attention, Bill Carey's and Carl Fisher's "You've Changed"; Duke Ellington's "Caravan"; and Antonio Carlos Jobim's "Quiet Nights." Along with her celebrated range, technique, and control, Fleming displayed the chops of a jazz vocalist of the first order: a swinging style, a talent for finding a song's emotional heart, and the ability to use her voice as an instrument - imitating and collaborating with other instruments in a jazz combo.

"She's an improviser," Mr. Ham said in a recent interview. "She knows the place inside herself where the spontaneous moment comes from, and she's able to take musical ideas and materials and assemble them in a way that finds meaning in the moment."

In her new book, "The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer" (Viking, 222 pp., $24.95), Fleming describes the impact of performing jazz on her training as a classical vocalist: "Singing jazz was a great way of letting go of my fears, because the music was just going to happen, and I had to make constant decisions about which direction I was going to go. It also taught me to be much more instinctive." More recently, Fleming drew on her jazz experience in performing the embellishments and cadenzas of the Handel operas "Alcina" and "Rodelinda." Regarding the former, she writes: "I tried to sing as I would jazz, bending a phrase here, flattening out a note there. I would begin a tone without vibrato and then add it later on."

Although the prospects are promising for her debut as a jazz vocalist, Fleming insists that jazz is "my hobby, my passion" and that opera and the classical repertoire will remain at the core of her career. As she recently told Charlie Rose on PBS, "This is a one-op. I'm not looking to branch out and be other than what I am."

But what if the response to her new CD is so positive that it creates an entirely new audience for her? "Obviously, if the response is positive, I may have to rethink that," she admits.

For now, however, Fleming's 2005 schedule remains strictly in the classical mainstream, with a lengthy North American recital tour. On May 15 in New York's Zankel Hall, she will perform a new work, commissioned by Carnegie Hall, of musical settings of poems by Rainer Maria Rilke and Louise Bogan, among others. The composer, ironically, is Brad Mehldau, a well-known jazz pianist. But "these are art songs," Fleming emphasizes, and "totally classical." For this concert, she says, Mr. Mehldau "has crossed over to my world."

Renée Fleming's tour continues Feb. 15 in Washington, Feb. 18 in Boston, and Feb. 21 in New York, as well as in other cities.

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