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Ask Alice, with Alice McVeigh

Renée Fleming's book
'The Inner Voice -- the Making of a Singer',
reviewed by ALICE McVEIGH

Dear Alice,

You mentioned Renée Fleming's book, which is hardback and pretty pricey.
Is it worth splashing out on?

G Ashbourne, USA

Dear G A,

It is indeed, and not only if you are a singer. At first I thought, hey ho, here comes another glorification-of-me-the-diva effort, and Fleming's introduction did nothing to allay these fears ('In the orchestra pit below me had stood Tchaikovsky himself, conducting his masterpieces. I took a deep breath. This wasn't the first time history had weighed heavily on my shoulders ...')

But I persevered, and was completely won over. For a start, Fleming has a winning habit of being obviously always up and eager for any fate, but she is as frank about her failures (choosing the wrong repertoire, over-covering the top of her voice, her catastrophic failure of nerve in her first MET audition) as she is about her much more numerous successes. There is a huge fascination, for anyone interested in the voice, in the amount of technical detail she goes into, but it is never obtrusive: you can skip it if it's the interest of the story that has gripped you. (At the same time, surely any musician can relate to such gems as, 'If I have to hold a note for a very long time, I imagine it as moving and spinning, for the note has to have life.') The pages are also peppered with detail about other singers, such as Arleen Auger and Leontyne Price, who helped or encouraged the young Renée Fleming on her way (though it is also intriguing to read that Auger -- one of Fleming's own teachers -- told her, 'I will teach you to the best of my ability, but I will not help you professionally, because really, you young singers are breathing down my neck!') And it was Renata Scotto who advised her to have children, in order to approach singing with a healthier perspective, telling the young Fleming, 'I don't live or die on the stage every night ... I have more than that in my life.'

Renée Fleming is equally and brutally forthcoming about the decline of music in schools, about the uphill climb US singers face in Europe, about the German opera system, and about her later-period hang-up about Mozart's aria Dove sono, and there is a terrifying exposition of the time, in her La Scala début, when she was brutally booed by a small cabal, after which she 'shook for days'. This precipitated a complete crisis of confidence during which (despite being one of the most sought-after singers in the world) she sought therapy and considered retirement. (Her marriage collapsed as well.) By this time the reader is so completely on Fleming's side that I felt like screaming, 'Don't even think about it!' at the book.

Indeed, the subtitle ('the making of a singer') might just as easily have been 'the making of a voice', because we grow to strongly identify with how Fleming put together what she describes as 'the puzzle pieces' of her voice, at the same time as we watch her following Scotto's advice and becoming a mother and a whole person. Her struggles with her weight, with her occasional attacks on her self-belief, with the death of her long-term mentor and teacher, and with the breakdown of her marriage allow her to emerge -- not only (though still) a diva -- but also a whole, wonderful and even humorous character, the kind of person who would have been extraordinary and memorable in whatever way she'd chosen to spend her life (and she did have an early flirtation with jazz: at which the mind boggles!)

The Inner Voice -- The Making of a Singer. Renee Fleming

So hesitate no longer!!! The ISBN is 0671033510 and the publisher is Viking. Follow Renée Fleming's journey, which is a tribute to the perseverence of the artist and the human spirit. We can't all be divas (as my ex-singing teachers will passionately attest!!!!!!!!!!!) but we can all learn something from this remarkable person and this remarkable book.


Copyright © 4 March 2005 Alice McVeigh, Kent, UK





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