Renee Fleming evidently started out determined to write a different
sort of opera singer’s memoir. She calls her book “the
autobiography of my voice” and tries gamely to keep matters
of breath control, vocal placement, posture and resonance at center
stage. She succeeds about half the time, and that makes her slim
volume well worth reading. Inevitably, there is a certain amount of
backstage chitchat and career-mongering in the mix, but Fleming
deserves credit for at least trying to write a book that rises
above all that.
Fleming is the daughter of two school music teachers from upstate
New York (her mother sang with the Rochester Opera) who discovered
her voice as an adolescent and seems to be still surprised by the
success it has brought her as opera star, recitalist and soloist
with orchestras. Even today, having reached the very top of the
operatic tree, she writes of feeling insecure and having anxiety
attacks that can come close to making her cancel engagements.
She gives major credit for developing her talent to two teachers,
both of them virtual unknowns to the general public –-- Pat
Misslin at the State University of New York at Potsdam and the late
Beverley Johnson in New York City. Teaching singing is a
notoriously inexact business and a profession harboring a
disturbing number of charlatans; the young singer who finds the
right teachers is fortunate indeed, and Fleming expresses her
gratitude to these mentors freely.
Her book goes into deep anatomical detail about vocal production.
The problem, of course, is that this subject is almost impossible
to pin down in sensible English, so we end up with passages like
this: “my job is to keep the back of my neck open, relaxed
and free. I will find more space in the back of my mouth for my
high notes while easing up on my breath
It is not easy for the lay reader, or even the young student
singer, to decode language like that.
Alongside these passages that read a bit like a manual on vocal
production, there is the career narrative. But even here Fleming
tries to draw lessons and bits of sound advice from what she has
experienced, not simply to narrate breathlessly what cities she
jetted between, what colleagues were nasty or nice, and what catty
remarks were made by so-and-so.
The writing is fresh and vigorous. No writer-collaborator is
credited on the jacket or title page, though the novelist Ann
Patchett is acknowledged for “silent work on paper,”
whatever that may mean. The literary voice that comes through is
that of a self-aware and generous-hearted person who also knows
that she has been given a great vocal gift and wants to share what
luck and labor have taught her.
Fleming also delivers the predictable helpings of advice on
repertory choice, on publicity and promotion, on preserving the
voice for a longer career, and on other practical matters. There
are some interesting comments on the current malaise of the
classical record business and an interesting account of a typical
“Traviata” evening at the Met, from her first arrival
at the theater to signing autographs for “canary
fanciers” at the stage door well after midnight. There are no
pictures except a frontispiece, which shows Fleming’s
seriousness of purpose, and no index, which is a serious lapse on
her publisher’s part.
THE INNER VOICE is short on gossip and vainglorious puffery, but it
has plenty of compensating virtues.
Reviewed by Robert Finn (Robertfinn@aol.com) on January 22, 2011