Issue #49: Dark Hope by Renée Fleming
January 23, 2017
Released On June 8, 2010
Released By Decca Records
Renée Fleming, known by many opera aficionados as “The People’s Diva,” wasn’t making her maiden voyage outside of operatic repertoire when the storied soprano took on what would become Dark Hope, back in 2010. Nevertheless, that didn’t mean seeing Fleming’s name in a press release alongside a track list that included songs from the likes of Death Cab For Cutie, Muse, and The Mars Volta, led to no shocked or skeptical faces. The main lede often snipped out by journalists from press materials at the time, became a well-worn line by the record’s summer release: Dark Hope was “not a crossover [album.]”
Indeed, this pseudo-PR mantra as it were, was most appropriate, as seeing Fleming’s 1960s aesthetic-inspired black and white photograph with a bunch of indie pop and rock tracks, practically screams that reflex of a label. Yet, that’s exactly what makes this album such an underrated joy to explore. Explained with more depth in an EPK, the key takeaway before settling in to hear a single note, is that Fleming never started Dark Hope with the aim of shocking her fanbase, rushing to hoard a new one, or with the intent — as was likely presumed by many a reviewer back then — to put her signature soprano style on these contemporary cuts.
Dark Hope was more about Fleming’s genuine desire to stretch her own capabilities; a premise that feels humorously ironic when one considers that said stretching actually involved the seasoned singer learning how not to exercise all the vocal power at her disposal, lest the meters would probably be left in a perpetual state of clipping. Here, listeners are exposed to a singer who normally needs no amplification, perfecting the art of singing into, of all things, a pop filter, from within a sound confining vocal booth. (In an interview with The Guardian, Fleming alludes to feeling “incredibly frustrated because [she] wasn’t using [her] whole body.”)
This isn’t an operatic take on indie. It’s Renée Fleming embracing indie as itself. Producer David Kahne, (Regina Spektor, The Strokes, Kelly Clarkson, Tony Bennett, and The Crystal Method,) helped make the album’s potpourri character, and Fleming’s inauguration into indie, feel that much more intentional. Still, one can’t switch off long developed practices instantaneously. Things like precise diction on vowels and consonants are less common for the everyday indie band and sparkles of Fleming’s individual character are likely to inspire a few raised brows, tilted heads, and-or long and contemplative “hmmms” akin to a sommelier discerning flavors profiled in a vintage bottle of wine, when inevitable comparisons arise between things like Matt Bellamy’s “Endlessly” and that on Dark Hope.
Much of what I believe to be the main points of fascination with Dark Hope come from insights like these: knowing the artistic mindset that was applied not only by Fleming but by the people who persisted in making this album happen (Q Prime Management’s Peter Mensch and Cliff Burnstein, badgered for a “yes” to the endeavor for over a decade, by reaching out yearly to ask, because they were intrigued by Fleming’s sheer style and of course, her well regarded level of talent); the fact that Fleming didn’t just ask someone to draft and fax her a list of whatever was most popular or cohesive but rather gave each song selection severe deliberation (Fleming went so far as to challenge Cedric Bixler-Zavala of The Mars Volta, over lyrics in “With Twilight As My Guide,” which seemed dicey given Fleming’s position in the public eye and as a mother of two young women.); and the way the record exists like a pure adventure. One can listen and compare — either Fleming to her ‘operatic self’ or to the songs’ composers — or one can dive in blind, just curious to see what it will sound like hearing a world-renowned soprano record a Band Of Horses song. Afterward, there just might be a new rendition or two that end up on more than a few reader playlists, perhaps for no other reason than it just sounds cool.
Kira Grunenberg (@shadowmelody1)
Prolific Sonic Scribe & Unifier
One of the most celebrated voices of all time presented in a context any music fan can appreciate & enjoy.
When I hear the words “classical crossover,” I typically reach for my revolver. But then I remember that my love affair with opera was aided immensely by an album called Stratas Sings Weill, which I bought on an impulse at the dawn of the CD era. It wasn’t totally a risk, though, as one of the central records in my house growing up was the original cast recording of Marc Blitzstein’s adaptation of The Threepenny Opera, a radical work of theater with music by Kurt Weill. My parents also took us all to see the ’70s revival at the Public Theater, which then led me to enthusiastically join the cast of a very special dinner theater production at my high school (Matthew Broderick had the role of the Street Singer and an even better actor named Jared Seide played Macheath — I was one of his henchmen). Now, I knew Teresa Stratas was a real opera singer, which concerned me slightly as the vibrato-heavy, turbo charged vocal style that opera engenders had always made my hair stand slightly on end. But I also knew of Stratas’s rep as a fearless theatrical artist and I was curious to hear how she would handle this material. Kurt Weill was a crossover artist himself, writing symphonies on the one hand and show tunes with Ira Gershwin on the other, so there were built-in opportunities to approach the music from either side of the aisle. Finally, the CD was on Nonesuch, a label that up to that time had a flawless reputation in my books. It was not love at first listen. Some of the vocal sounds triggered my “Ugh — opera!” response, but there was enough there — the songs were so fantastic — that I kept listening. Gradually, some kind of conditioning occurred: I had made it through the gateway and I was an opera fan (although you can keep your Bellini and Puccini). Now, what Renée Fleming is up to on Dark Hope is quite different than Stratas’s project: the songs are all by different writers, for one thing; for another, she changed her glorious soprano into a husky, almost vibrato-free, near-mezzo. This was a drastic choice, but probably a wise one because most of the songs she (and producer David Kahne) chose probably wouldn’t hold up to a full blast of her vocals. The result, with Kahne’s lush and eclectic production, is often surprisingly elegant. But in the end, my bright hope is that this album will lead curious listeners to other Fleming albums, like Poèmes from 2012, where she sails through song cycles by Ravel, Messiaen, and Dutilleux, or to a complete opera. Then, a whole new world will become visible.
Jeremy Shatan (@anearful)
Prescient & Appreciative Musical Omnivore
My mom and I have an ongoing argument about the prevalence of vibrato in opera singing. (She is an opera fan. I have yet to unlock that level in the cultured adulthood MMORPG.) The argument I tend to make — and I’ll admit up front that it’s sophomoric and dumb — is that there’s just too much vibrato. That you could sing those same parts in a style that’s less removed from the vernacular style we’re accustomed to these days. And while I realize that’s a little like saying “I just wish those rappers wouldn’t curse,” I’m definitely introducing Dark Hope into the argument as new evidence. Renée Fleming’s voice in other contexts is the stuff of legend — heavenly, with all the weaponized wavering tradition requires — but on Dark Hope, she shows a down-to-Earth versatility that’s helping me realize how myopic my view of opera has been. Her singing is perfect without seeming rigid, with a slight smokiness that adds warmth and depth. One side effect of the perfection is I find myself reacting to the unlikely fact of these songs — their sheer existence. I decided against looking at the track list, so I’d get to react in real time and, one by one, say to myself “Oh wow, it’s so exciting that this song was chosen!” (I’d call “Hallelujah” the most natural fit, “No One’s Gonna Love You” the most surprising, and “Intervention” and “Mad World” the tracks I was most excited to hear unfold.) That said, Fleming’s measured delivery means the tracks don’t feel like they’re being plucked and elevated to more rarified musical air — they’re just being sung really, really well.
Davy Jones (@youhearthat)
Idealistic Seeker Of Neoteric Sounds
Years ago a few good friends and I were addicted to the irresistible train wreck that was Flavor Of Love. Every week I would drag some beer and some kind of food over to my friend Laura’s house, sit on her floor, and get kind of drunk while shouting at the television. Sitting there one week, eating macaroni and cheese and talking about breakfast for dinner with our friend Matt Lane, he dropped some wisdom down that all Southerners know, but don’t dare speak. “Grits don’t taste like anything,” he said, eyes all the while glued on New York bitching someone out. “They’re just a vehicle for cheese.” Despite the simplicity of that statement, and the inexplicability of it still sticking in my mind more than a decade later, listening to the covers of Dark Hope brought it back in full force. With a fairly random, though nicely chosen, line-up of jams from “Tears For Fears, “Arcade Fire, and “The Mars Volta, among others, the album holds together loosely with dreamy, sedated instrumentals providing a solid platform for Fleming’s voice — that beautiful voice, the stuff of otherworldly fantasies spun out while you float, half-caught between waking and sleeping. More so than anything else, and maybe because Fleming doesn’t have a band, but performs as an opera singer primarily, her voice reigns over the album, the clear star in every song. Like Adele for me, Fleming’s voice gives such a thrill to experience I don’t really care what she’s singing, so even though I miss the chimey guitar of “No One’s Gonna Love You,” don’t really care for the soft drums throughout, want to hear a punched-up violin on “Intervention,” I find enough comfort in those dulcet tones that the album has been playing for days through my speakers.
Laura Burroughs (@_thetwors)
Jestful Musical Erudite
Y’all, Ms. Kira really went for it on her first selection for Off Your Radar. Not only did she pick an artist who mainly lives in a genre we have yet to cover (opera), but the Renée Fleming album she selected is eleven indie and rock tracks, from Jefferson Airplane to Death Cab For Cutie. Fleming purposefully doesn’t sing with her full operatic range — she’s not trying to convert indie rock fans to opera. She instead chooses to sing the songs straight, but expresses so much emotion through her interpretation that even I was surprised that Arcade Fire’s “Intervention,” which I have heard hundreds of times, caused me to well up. Her clear enunciation made it easier for me to connect Régine Chassagne’s lyrics to the themes of faith, war, and family. Initially, I didn’t think the world needed another version of Tears For Fears’ “Mad World” a la Gary Joules, but Fleming makes the song even darker and more powerful, which I hadn’t heard even in the excellent Adam Lambert cover. I think her operatic experience, singing in another language that most audiences can’t translate, has given her an amazing gift to imbue meaning in each syllable. Some of the tracks, such as Willy Mason’s “Oxygen,” have a strong production that reminds me of some of the best European contemporary pop music. And I always thought The Mars Volta should be performed by someone with a classical background — the instrumentation of “With Twilight As My Guide” is stunning, with Fleming’s voice soaring over humming violins. I have two tiny song selection (ugh, I sound like Randy Jackson on American Idol) nitpicks: I wish she’d done a different Peter Gabriel song and, even in 2010, “Hallelujah” had reached peak saturation. Even though those choices are not my favorite, Fleming nails the interpretation and examines those songs from new angles. Kira has thrown down the gauntlet, OYR-ers! Here’s to more challenging selections in 2017
Melissa Koch (@bunnycaper)
Mediocre Runner, Aspiring Celebrity DJ
Visually stretching Matt Bellamy’s words for inspiration and empowerment.
Cover albums are not only made special by the songs that are sung, but also by the artist’s juxtaposition and re-interpretation of those songs. And so here we have soprano Renée Fleming, covering various rock classics all while purposely not flexing her impressive opera chops. Pretty novel idea, right? What also sets Dark Hope apart from other cover albums are the instrumental choices. To my ear, it’s a nice blend of ’90s-Euro-assassin film score mixed with all the lush melodies and chord changes of your favorite indy-rock standards. It’s the kind of album that Antonio Banderas does the nasty to. Even though Dark Hope was released in 2010, it’s kind of spooky how relevant “Oxygen” is to this weekend’s events: “Do you remember the forgotten America? / justice, equality, freedom to every race / just need to get past all the lies and hypocrisy.” Some inauguration, huh? I digress. As a hip hop head, the most jaw dropping moment of the album is Fleming’s cover of “Today.” Most people outside of hip hop will know it by the Jefferson Airplane original. However, to post-1992 hip hoppers, it’s one of the most sacred samples in the history of the genre — “Today” by Tom Scott and The California Dreamers (1967). For those of you that I’ve just confused immeasurably, Tom Scott’s cover of “Today” is the sample used in Pete Rock & C.L. Smooth’s “T.R.O.Y. (They Reminisce Over You),” arguably the most highly regarded hip hop song of all time. So whenever I hear those opening guitar notes, the hairs on the back of my neck stand up. I think it’s this kind of connective-tissue-nostalgia that every cover album aims to achieve.
Kellen “J. Clyde” Ford (@jclyde757)
Steadfast Hip-Hop Historian & Creator
I knew most of these songs before going into my first listen, but sometimes hearing a cover version from someone outside of the genre can reveal just how great they really are. This was the case with a lot of the songs in the Johnny Cash American Recordings series and with many of the songs on Dark Hope. Even while stripping away her operatic tone, Renée is able to enunciate every word so clearly without losing the emotion of the lyrics with her finely tuned voice bringing the stories front and center. There’s a lot of resistance and push back in this collection of songs, making it a perfect album to listen to after watching the historic Women’s March on Saturday.
PJ Sykes (@pjsykes)
Gutsy Punk Renaissance Man
There’s so much to say about this fantastic record of cover songs, I don’t even know where to start. When I first listened to it, I thought it might be covers because it would be sort of weird to have a song called “Mad World” that wasn’t a Tears For Fears cover. Or a song called “Soul Meets Body” that wasn’t a Death Cab cover. But when I hit play, I wasn’t familiar with the first 4 songs and I thought maybe this is a Linda Ronstadt thing where it’s some covers and some new songs. I should have recognized Muse from the melody. The same kind of thing happened when I was first getting into punk cover band Me First and The Gimme Gimmes. I bought their album of showtune covers and didn’t know about half of them. The great thing about that kind of situation is that you are pulled in by the songs you know (I didn’t think anyone could improve upon the Arcade Fire’s “Intervention,” but I was wrong — so very, very wrong) and then you gradually fall in love with the rest of them. That’s what happened with Renée Fleming’s album. The other thing that was interesting to me was hearing her bring out the opera in the Mars Volta song “With Twilight As My Guide.” I could hear exactly how Cedric would sing it (I haven’t ever gotten around to listening to Octahedron) by the way she sang it and I think the operatic qualities were always there. It just took an opera singer to highlight them for me. Normally, I have a clear favorite song by the time I’m writing these blurbs, but there are so many strong takes that I don’t think I can pick just one. I want to close by highlighting one line from “Oxygen that really felt poignant as I listened to it today, with thoughts of the inauguration on Friday and the women’s marches on Saturday: “I know the future looks dark / But it’s there that the kids of today must carry the light”. Dark/Hope.
James Anderson (@unabashedjames)
Devoted Docent Of Musical Concepts
In opera & rock, Fleming remains a faithful artist content with growing from within, rather than rebuilding on the outside.
The concept of Dark Hope is fascinating. Select a collection of songs that stretch from decade to decade and find an operatic singer to lead the project. There is no bit of context that makes the proceedings interesting. Renée Fleming was encouraged to not approach singing any of these songs in her trained operatic soprano style. The results are a curious batch of songs and an instance where you can use The Mars Volta and Jefferson Airplane in a sentence together. In several instances, I found myself more compelled by Fleming’s renditions of songs that I was least familiar with. In these instances, the aforementioned Airplane’s “”Today” really struck me as did the Duffy song “Stepping Stone.” I did find reason to applaud the efforts for attempting to look at artists such as The Mars Volta and Muse as potential candidates for covering and found each cover to leave me feeling surprised. Fleming is certainly not an artist that I was familiar with before this recommendation, but I found the introduction to be welcoming and a wonderful opportunity to venture into uncharted terrains with this week’s pick. One thing that I was left with was a thought about what other songs would be fascinating to hear Fleming take on. In the case of Death Cab For Cutie, “Soul Meets Body” makes perfect sense. A part of me wonders if a selection from Transatlanticism could take on an even greater life beyond its already existing incredible body of work. Also, what other bands would be fascinating to hear covered in this capacity?
Shannon Cleary (@thatssocleary)
Musical Explorer Of All Angles
My initial thoughts on listening to Renée Fleming’s Dark Hope started off as “wow, this sounds like a classical spin on a Muse song.” After looking up the album, I realize that Fleming is in fact covering a Muse song (a beautiful rendition of “Endlessly“) and Dark Hope is a covers album. While she normally boats a repertoire of classical music, the works of popular artists like Jefferson Airplane and Leonard Cohen to modern artists Band of Horses and The Mars Volta are handled just as eloquently as the works of Mozart and Strauss. And her cover of Death Cab for Cutie’s “Soul Meets Body” is incredible.
Andrew Cothern (@rvaplaylist)
Beloved & Influential Richmond Chronicler
This is a good covers record. It could never be anything less considering Renée Fleming, one of the most renowned operatic sopranos of our time, is singing these songs. Though she sings here with a lower, husky timbre somewhere between Anohni and Fiona Apple rather than her famous lyric soprano, Fleming elevates these songs with her seasoned, skilled instrument. Like almost every other covers record, some reworks fare better than others. Against all odds, the quirky, accordion/synth rework of “Mad World” is one of the best, as are the gorgeous “No One’s Gonna Love You” and the dark, grandiose “With Twilight As My Guide.” However, in the back of my mind, I sort of wished I was hearing arrangements that played a little more to her classical background, rather than a few of the choices here that don’t always live up to what Fleming is capable of. Thank God, then, for her just released record, Distant Light, showcasing orchestral reworkings of three Björk songs with Fleming in a more dynamic, operatic mode — it was everything I had been missing in Dark Hope, and then some. Now, if she released a whole album with covers like that…
David Munro (@david_c_munro)
Idiosyncratic Avant-Garde Wanderer
As a covers album, Dark Hope offers little thrills, but as an exercise in restraint, it provides countless moments of delicate brilliance fully realized in the world of musical titans. It triumphs in its ability to avoid vocal luxuriance while embracing the scope of each song with shrewd respect. Praise aside, the record does have faults from the baseless marketing of indie rock covers to some song choices being uninspired, but these are all concept critiques, not execution, something Fleming deserves high praise for here as she beautifully performs while walking the proverbial tight-rope on a number of issues. There is the restraint which the album’s concept is founded on, something you can tangibly feel at certain moments even though letting go would probably make her performance of “With Twilight As My Guide” practically iconic. This strategy pays-off throughout the record, not overshadowing the words or memory of the originals like on “No One’s Gonna Love You” or “Intervention.” Also in mind throughout is a desire for her interpretation to be parallel to the original, while also perpendicular when viable. “In Your Eyes” is a subdued arrangement entirely modeled after Gabriel’s classic, but she bucks the blueprint by singing with increased despair and dolor. “Mad World” on the other hand stays faithful to the vocal tone while experimenting with the arrangement and setting. None of this ends up being truly groundbreaking, but that was again, by design. (Perhaps that’s why some of the selections are ones frequently attempted in the covers department.) It achieves its goal in this sense, but also delivers more than Fleming seemed to intend, with plenty of vocal highlights — many of which found on “With Twilight As My Guide,” a great surprise on this record — as well as new twists on some songs that while tightly contained in their own construct, still had some slight room for improvement.
Doug Nunnally (@musicdoug)
Garrulous Aural Braggart
Blue Horse by The Be Good Tanyas
Chosen By David Munro