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Opera's Renée Fleming puts her jazz credentials to test

By Sol HurwitzContributor to The Christian Science Monitor / February 4, 2005


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.

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"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."

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.