Renee Fleming: The Inner Voice Over-Emotes

On my recent field trip to Daedalus Books, I picked up Renee Fleming’s book The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer for $4.98. Considering I almost paid the full $24.95 list price when it first came out, I considered this to be quite a bargain. Miss Fleming (or “Double Creme” if you believe Sir Georg Solti’s nickname for her) is not really my cup of tea these days, but having seriously studied voice as an undergraduate I was intrigued by the book nonetheless.
This is not your typical Diva autobiography. Encouraged by her friend, the insanely wonderful writer, Ann Patchett, Fleming wrote a book that is about all of those things that are left out of gossipy Divagraphies. She talks about the everyday life of an opera singer, from vocal technique to business management. The book was interesting for what it was, but I couldn’t help but wish for a little more gossip or at least a few more peeks at her famous diva friends and colleagues.

Despite the overly cautious, slightly boring “how to” quality that pervades The Inner Voice, reading it encouraged me to reconsider my dislike for Miss Double Creme’s singing. She is the toast of the singing world after all and has lots of fans (including the lovely Ms Patchett who fashioned the heroine of her novel Bel Canto with Fleming’s voice in mind). After finishing the book I popped in the one Fleming disk that I own (“Renee Fleming By Request”) and listened to her sing “E strano…” from La Traviata to see if maybe I had been wrong in my opinion of her singing. I actually had a hard time listening to the entire track. She puts so much color and emotion into every single note that she sounds like an overblown caricature of an opera singer. Like someone with a good voice pretending to be an opera singer.

A couple of years ago, before I had developed a dislike for Fleming, I heard her in a recital of french songs with the mezzo soprano Susan Graham at the Kennedy Center. All I could think that night was how much better Graham was. At the time I felt like there must be something wrong with me, after all Fleming was a much bigger star. But with every set they sang I couldn’t help but conclude that Graham was by far the better voice and the better artist. Still, it wasn’t until I saw a Fleming Christmas special taped in some church in Germany that I really began to dislike La Fleming. My main beef was not with the quality of her voice, but rather with her seemingly uncontrollable need to emote and emote and emote so that every note is so dripping with bathos it makes your teeth hurt. I don’t think “O Holy Night” is supposed to sound like a love song–divine love perhaps–but not a “hey baby I will literally die if you don’t come over here and make love to me” kind of love. It’s not Wagner’s Liebestod after all. In fact I don’t even want to hear the Liebestod with that much schmaltz.

What is the point of all this? Fleming will continue to make a good living and I will no longer feel like there is something wrong with me for not wanting to listen to her sing.