Soprano Renee Fleming's Foray into Rock

Ren Eccles
Peter Gabriel's hit song "In Your Eyes" is probably the last sort of song you'd expect a great opera soprano like Renee Fleming to record on an album. Anthony Mason has more on Fleming's new sound.

The voice is world famous. You've probably heard it before. But not like this. Rock 'n' roll is a new sound for Renee Fleming.

She is opera's most celebrated soprano; an America diva booked years in advance by the world's greatest opera houses. Fleming is that rare classical superstar who's become an international cover girl. She even has a perfume named after her.

Renowned for singing Mozart and Strauss, Fleming not only surprised herself with her new record, she also surprised her teenaged daughters, Amelia and Sage.

"Did they want to get involved in telling you how to interpret these songs since they knew them better than you?" Mason asks.

"There was one song on the list, after I recorded it, they said, 'You have to cut that, Mom. It's just really not good. We're embarrassed," Fleming replies.

On "Dark Hope," she covers everyone from Peter Gabriel to Indie rock icons Death Cab for Cutie.

And with every note, she knows she's putting her reputation on the line.

"By and large when we in classical music cross over... it's not over time been met with a tremendous amount of success," says Fleming.

In fact, Fleming says she had to unlearn a lot of her schooling.

"I had to relearn singing without diction, for instance."

When Mason notes that there's a lot of mumbling in rock 'n' roll, Fleming says, "You know, it's funny, because people who have heard it said, 'Boy, it's the first time I knew the words to that song.'

"Or all the things that I do to be understood over an orchestra in a hall without amplification had to go," she continues. "The producer David Kahne said, 'Throw all that out. We don't want it. It's too dramatic. It's too much.' It was a little scary, because I didn't trust it."

Fleming had to be persuaded to take on the project by her musical managers, who gave her a list of songs to consider: She was told to score them: love it, like it, so-so or not my cup of tea.

Fleming knew daughters Amelia and Sage would be her toughest graders.

"They're both my biggest critics, my most honest critics," she says. "They definitely saw me extending myself and taking a huge risk and that's something you want your children to learn about you, that you're willing to take a risk."

Asked how she thought her mom did on the album, Amelia says, "I think she did really well."

Fleming has raised Amelia, now 17, and Sage, who is 14, as a single parent since her divorce 11 years ago.

Along with Fleming's sister, Rachelle, Amelia and Sage appeared in the first video for the album and also sang back up behind their mother on several songs.

"It's gotta be pretty cool to sing with your kids or sing with your mother," Mason points out.

"It is really, really cool," Amelia says. "When this came up, you know the idea that my sister and I might sing on some of these tracks, I thought, 'Wow, you know what? I can play these for my grandkids."

The Flemings are a musical family. Renee grew up outside of Rochester, N.Y., where both her parents were music teachers who started schooling their their children early.

At 24, Fleming came to New York to study opera at the Juilliard School. She made her debut at the Metropolitan Opera unexpectedly in 1991, when the star was stricken with the flu.

"I was replacing someone who was ill. It was one of those famous 10 o'clock in the morning phone calls: 'You're on tonight,'" she recalls.

Fleming is leading the class, now. With her mother, Patricia, she will occasionally instruct a rising young star.

"I was always a very good student," Fleming says. "Some of my first teachers were incredibly tough. You could never sing more than three words without being stopped and having to do it over 20 times. I loved that - that sort of process of dissecting and trying to figure out and master this incredibly mysterious instrument."

Fleming insists she's still trying to master it.

"Everybody's a work in progress. I'm a work in progress. I mean, I've never arrived… I'm still learning all the time."

She had to become a student again to record "Dark Hope." And at her first rehearsal, she was visibly anxious about performing "Soul Meets Body" for a Fourth of July celebration. But at Ford's Theater, the legendary soprano pulled it off with her customary grace.

Mason asks, "So, can we say Renee Fleming rocks?"

"I hope so," she says with a laugh. "Renee Fleming rocks. Believe me; if they say she's not rocking, we haven't succeeded."

For more information:
Renee Fleming
Renee Fleming "Dark Hope"
Decca Records
The Metropolitan Opera