that I was simply astounded by her singing and musical imagination, she laughed and demurred: 'Oh, I sing them differently every day because I can't remember what I did yesterday.'Now, I wouldn't be too quick to take this at face value; Dessay harbors a palpable streak of self-mocking irony and I bet she works a lot harder than she lets on. But there's a point here. Some may make it on talent and charm. Fleming makes it on sheer grit. At least on her own account (and it is plausible), she's a creature of iron discipline who has struggled for everything she has achieved.
There may be a general point here about opera singers. That is: we say--oh, she has such a wonderful voice. Well, she does have a wonderful voice, and wonderful voices are in short supply. On the other hand,short supply or no, there are more wonderful voices than there are places on the opera stage. In order to make it in opera, you need not just a wonderful voice but a particular kind of stamina. Recall that every opera audience is a gaggle of (say) 2,000 people, some of who worship and adore you; but some of whom are there only because their spouse (wife?) dragged them; and some of them would be more amused than anything to see you fall flat on your self-important face. It takes a peculiar combination of talent, character and streely nerve to put up with it all. And, not least, you've got to want it real bad.
By all the evidence, Fleming wanted it real bad. And clearly she had some advantages. Natural talent was not least among them, but it's not the only one. She also showed great foresight in picking her parents--talented themselves, but also determined to raise children with a capacity for discipline and hard work. She had the luck to find good teachers--or perhaps she had capacity to make her own luck in the finding of good teachers, and perhaps also in other aspects of the development of her career.
Even then, it didn't come easy. She's been so big a star for so many years now that it's hard to recall that she didn't make her Met debut until she was past 30 (she's 51 now). Up until then, it was always in the baking, never quite done.
For such a short book, this memoir is tightly packed. There's a lot in here about the sheer technical aspects of making music with your voice, and some shrewd--and funny--comments about coping with the practical aspects of managers, travel hassles, juggling life and career and so forth. But mainly it's a book about character-building--so good on this topic that you'd want your kid to read it no matter what their career plans, whether they intended to be an opera singer or a garbage tipper. Well, maybe not garbage tipper, but you get the idea (at least be a good garbage tipper!--I can hear the hortatory parent, perhaps myself, exhort).
And yet, one finds oneself remembering Dessay--the (to all appearances) not-quite-so-good girl, the one who, if she has not "had it easy," at least has the knack for making it seem easy, and thereby to add a note of electricity to a performance that sheer discipline cannot achieve.** By way of example, I think Dessay is at her best when playing opposite Juan Diego Flórez, who doesn't seem quite as free-floating and improvisational as she, but seems to know how to roll with her punches, to form a frame for her kinetic energy.
And I shouldn't make this about Dessay only. There are others: Fleming herself tells a story, new and astonishing to me, about Thomas Allen, surely one of the most intelligent-seeming singers on the opera stage. Per Fleming, Allen will actually change his characterization from performance to performance, so as to keep himself fresh and engaged (and, one suspects, so as to keep his co-stars on the knife-edge of anxiety).
Fleming, for her part, turns in some wonderful performances. But you can't imagine her challenging, or teasing, or unnerving her co-stars like either Dessay or Allen seems to do. It's perhaps no surprise that one of Fleming's signature roles is the Marschallin in Der Rosenkavalier,the bittersweet "comic" opera about the older woman who loses her love to a younger and more ardent competitor. The Marschallin begins Der Rosenkavalier in erotic horseplay with her career-long pal Susan Graham. and ends on a note of autumnal wisdom, knowing that it is time for her to leave the stage. "Der Zeit," says the Marschallin, "die ist ein sonderbar Ding." Time has been good to Renée Fleming, but time is a strange thing, and we can all learn from what she has learned from it.
*Fleming calls it "a book of advice;" she disparages "stories of intrigue at Champagne receptions." Indeed there are no stories of intrigue, but her "book of advice" ends up as a highly personal account, perhaps moreso than she understood. OH, the title: The Inner Voice.
**Dessay, of course, is out on sick leave. I haven't a clue what the problem is, but for my sake well as for hers, I can only hope it is not career-threatening.