May 31, 2010


Even Sopranos Get the Blues (ANTHONY TOMMASINI, 5/25/10, NY Times)

In her liner notes for the album, just released in Europe and due in the United States on June 8, she writes that the “genre referred to as ‘crossover’ usually has performers singing popular music in a classically trained style with amplification and traditional instrumentation.” Her goal, she explains, is “to bypass the middle ground and get to the other side of the divide entirely.” In an interview included with the promotional materials, she is blunter, asserting that “this album is not crossover,” that it occupies the “other extreme of the spectrum,” that making the recording was like visiting “a parallel universe.”

Ms. Fleming and her handlers are being curiously sheepish about her legitimate accomplishments on this album. Vocally she has turned herself into an indie rock singer: from the opening track, the Muse song “Endlessly” (available since March as a single on iTunes), she sounds more like Annie Lennox than “America’s favorite soprano,” as she has long been billed. I would not have guessed that this was Renée Fleming from the hushed, breathy, deep-set singing captured here.

So why the defensiveness? In concept there is nothing wrong with artists from one genre performing music from another. And classical crossover has an honorable history, dating from the early decades of recording, when Caruso made as much money from his hit recordings of popular songs like “For You Alone” and “Over There” (George M. Cohan’s rally-the-home-front song during World War I) as from arias like “La donna è mobile” and “Vesti la giubba.”

In the beginning crossover ventures were harmless fun. In the 1940s, when the Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel recorded “Oh, What a Beautiful Mornin’ ” and “Take Me Out to the Ballgame,” her fans were delighted, though her pop work, which included occasional appearances in nightclubs and even a Broadway show, Rodgers & Hammerstein’s “Pipe Dream,” caused ripples of disdain in the opera houses where she sang. The genre earned its bad rap over the years from innumerable pandering recordings, like Plácido Domingo’s 1981 album “Perhaps Love,” which featured a duet with John Denver in the title song. Mawkish to be sure, but within months it went gold on the charts.

the inner voice (lection, 1/03/09)
At one point in the great soprano Renée Fleming's career, her personal manager "stressed batting instead of fielding" (The Inner Voice 114). Fleming, he decided, should proactively take her own path through the concert and opera worlds, instead of reacting to whatever offers came along. While doing so, Fleming sought out a sport psychologist, who gave her the same advice one might give "to a fourteen-year-old girl in tennis whites" (154). And when Fleming is really "on," her feeling is like that of a sport performer:

I expect it's the same kind of experience for an athlete — in that case, it's the concept of going into the zone. There is a kind of suspension of thinking involved, as though there is so much inspiration and ease that it feels as if you're channeling the music rather than singing it. Reaching that place allows me, in a sense, to step out of the music's way and leave my mind free to discover new shadings in a role that I might have missed in the past. (156)

If Renée Fleming were a ballplayer, she would have been a low draft pick who stuck with her craft in the minors for a few years and then all at once became a big star in the majors. Opera is like that; the whole effect of the performance, like that of baseball, is intensely collaborative, but it's the stars that people turn out to see: Pavarotti hitting a high C, Barry Bonds nailing a fastball. Caruso is the Babe Ruth of opera (its greatest draw, a jovial hero), Callas its Ted Williams (supremely talented, intriguing, hard to get along with).

Happy Heroine (TIME, 11/11/46)

At first by default, and increasingly by merit, Helen Traubel has become the greatest Wagnerian soprano singing in the world today. She is the first great soprano at the Met to sing Wagner and nothing but (Flagstad sang Beethoven's Fidelia). She is also the first American-born Brünnhilde and Isolde who didn't study at the Wagnerian shrine at Bayreuth. Until 1940, when she sang in Canada, Helen Traubel had never been out of the U.S. She has never crossed the Atlantic.

Helen Traubel at 43 is a prima donna in technique but not in temperament. A hearty, buxom woman with auburn hair and green eyes, she is as relaxed as a double-jointed shortstop. According to her husband, she is so chronically good-natured that "no one is ever quite sure whether she is stupid or lethargic." She was born above her father's drugstore in the old German section of South St. Louis, and brought up in so deeply Germanic an environment that she still punctuates her conversations with ach and ja.

As a skinny tomboy with red pigtails she liked to romp over to Grossmama's, where amateur violinists and cellists sawed their way through Brahms and Beethoven while writers on the local German-language newspaper argued politics and were kept from quarreling by matriarchal Grossmama ("her strength lay in her gentleness"). At mealtimes, as many as 30 sat around Grossmama's huge table to eat her Sauerbraten, Hasenpjeffer, herring salad and Torten and Kaffee stollen. "We had a gemütlich upbringing," says Traubel. "Our theory was 'lucky is the person who is happy.' "

Father was a soft touch. Every day Helen lined up her schoolmates at his soda fountain. Helen was rationed to two sodas a day, but usually managed to borrow against the future. Father read Andersen's and Grimm's fairy tales to his kids; if there was a vaudeville show he took them, and never mind about classes. Summers he and Helen fished in Wisconsin; winters it was duck hunting in the Illinois River, and Helen had a small shotgun made specially for her. During baseball season, Helen got up from her school desk promptly at 2 p.m. every day, strode out to meet her father. Their box was directly over the dugout, and Helen knew all the St. Louis players in both leagues.

Nobody—least of all her teachers—could understand how that Traubel girl managed to get any education at all. Even the teachers assumed that Helen would be a singer; sometimes they'd ask for a song. Helen would sing Meet Me Tonight in Dreamland; if any boy groaned, "I'd bounce him on the head as I went by." When she got too far behind in her studies Father Otto hired a tutor, told her to "kindly stuff this little goose." Says Helen Traubel today: "I may be a numskull scholastically, but what I remember of my family—it was so wonderful. So I misspell a word!"

The question is whether there was not a distinct branch of a native American music coming into existence around the sport. Certainly there were exceptionally lively and unhackneyed compositions being written. And certainly the ties that link baseball and music have been close and significant. That eminent baritone, Bing Crosby, owns 10% of the Pirates, but lots of musicians before him owned ball clubs. Angelo's Base Ball Fever of 1867 was dedicated to Lew Simmons of Philadelphia, the Bing Crosby of his day, the leading minstrel, who owned the Philadelphia Athletics, a pioneer club that antedated Connie Mack's Athletics. Helen Traubel, the opera star, owned part of the St. Louis Browns. Harry Frazee, the owner of the Boston Red Sox, sold Babe Ruth, Herb Pennock, Carl Mays and half a dozen lesser players in order to get money to back his musical comedies. Before the turn of the century the Phillies had a fine first baseman named Sydney Farrar, whose daughter Geraldine became the famous opera star.

Posted by Orrin Judd at May 31, 2010 6:29 AM
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