You never know what to expect when a soprano ventures outside of the world of opera. Renee Fleming, arguably the most recognizable opera singer today, carries the kind of clout that allows her to make recordings of any project she’s interested in pursuing. Her crossover attempts include two disasters that enervate and offend (“Dark Hope” and “Under the Stars”) and a jazz album with some truly astonishing moments (“Haunted Heart”). “Dark Hope” is a silly, pointless foray into indie-rock that manages to alienate both opera lovers and the indie crowd. “Under the Stars,” is a ghastly compilation of musical theater anthems recorded with Bryn Terfel under the inexplicable direction of Paul Gemignani. Sung with a heavy operatic belt against syrupy orchestrations; this recording is a mere footnote in the long and storied heritage of opera singers, essentially date raping the American Songbook.
“Haunted Heart” doesn’t fare much better. Opinions are sharply divided, but I find parts of this album remarkably beautiful. Ms. Fleming began as a jazz singer, and she clearly understands the style and the need to adjust her technique. Her selections are questionable, but her singing, particularly her interpretation of the title song, is sensitive and soulful. She sings with a surprisingly beautiful chest register - meltingly rich with smoky textures - using every color and facet of her voice to paint the words. The album, as a whole, isn’t entirely wonderful, but there is enough to suggest that Ms. Fleming might have a thrilling jazz album somewhere in her.
Ms. Fleming is hardly the first offender. Kiri te Kanawa, has a shockingly vast catalog of musical theater abortions - all sung as Verdi death scenes - her “West Side Story” with Jose Carreras is, perhaps, the crown jewel of her craptastic oeuvre. And The Three Tenors holiday album is a shining example of how to ruin Christmas for everyone!
Singer’s able to bridge the divide, are few and far between. Dawn Upshaw knows how to adjust her singing style, and her Rodgers & Heart album is a delectable treat for the ears. Nathan Gunn is perhaps the most successful case of an opera singer turned Broadway baby, though he is not immune to pitfalls. His debut recording, “Home,” was a bizarre smattering of sticky pop songs - perhaps personal favorites - sung with plummy diction, heavy vibrato, and a go-for-the-throat baritone bark. When it’s not embarrassing it’s just dull and someone should have advised Mr. Gunn - and every other opera offender - to make a study of the American musical; this would inform them and instill a true understanding of the music they’re singing. All too often, it just seems like opera singers regard musical theater as an inferior sibling of opera.