Saturday, March 23, 2013

The Inner Voice by Renée Fleming (part1)

As many of you know, I took advantage of the fact I was spending 3 weeks in the US and ordered quite a big number of things on Amazon. And one of them was the book “The Inner Voice” by the exquisite Renée Fleming which two friends of mine had recommended. The book is fantastic, as Renée herself says it’s a biography of the life of her voice, and what a story. You don’t think someone has been through so much stuff, even in her prime, when you see her own the show as Thäis.
The book is divided in 13 chapters that tell her story chronologically. From the first called Family in which she talks about her childhood and growing up with not one but two musician parents. She starts out by telling us how she fell in love with singing in the most dreamlike of situations her parents were singing Porgy and Bess duets and their voices were being carried out to the streets and the neighbors came to the house to listen to them sing. And soon everyone was there and her mother sang Puccini and the crowd went wild. And this is awesome I gotta quote her :
“Finally, it was over, and the thrilled and exhausted neighbors wandered back to their own houses, and my parents sent us to bed.  I was Eliza Doolittle, too excited to sleep. I was the luckiest girl in the world to have parents that other people marveled at, to live in the center of such singing.”
Even though it didn’t really happen like that as she points out right after this quotation, but I found it quite magical. And the fact that she was actually quite shy and kind of a goodie pants was quite surprising for me too. But one thing I liked is the fact that she considers herself an eternal student, always learning and wanting to know more, which I think is so important not just for artists but for everyone. The eternal search for knowledge of any kind is essential for any human being who wants to evolve, the moment you stop and say “I know enough now, I don’t need to learn anything anymore” you might as well give up. But I’m getting off track here, back to the book.
Then in Education she tells us about her college experiences and how very fortunate she was to get a singing teacher who had the time to coach her several times a week during a long number of hours. And how really she began building her technique and ‘tuning’ her instrument. She also tells how she almost became a jazz singer.
“One of the reasons my work is so endlessly exciting is that you never know who is going to be in the audience or the orchestra pit, holding your fate in his hands.
Then in chapter 3 Apprenticeship she tells us about her time at Julliard, kind of coming and going from Europe. And to my delight gives quite a Master Class on breathing, because as she says, some of our tuning problems actually come from not breathing correctly. And the road to fixing that is a long and arduous one, it’s so weird, because I have gotten to a point where I fully understand the right kind of breathing, I know what I have to do, but I’m not always successful in doing so. That’s what Renée says, you gotta build your body brick by brick to have a well functioning instrument. Got off topic again, sorry!
Renée Fleming playing one of her most iconic roles, the Marschallin in Strauss's Der Rosenkavalier
But this particular chapter talks about loads of things we must worry so much about, like the passaggio, languages, covering your voice, and so very interestingly about Master Classes and what makes a great teacher and finally and most importantly about being a student.
Then we go to Mentor she talks about starting a career and the so feared auditions. Starting to go into competitions, and a curious thing she said about being a great second place winner. Because it surely did feel great to win second but it didn’t carry the responsibly of being the best. It was a great incentive to keep her continually working and striving.
Then we finally arrive at Success she starts off with:
“Picture the education of an opera singer as a beautiful country – say England – full of museums and concert halls, palaces and rose gardens, where people study and learn and grow. Now picture a career as a successful opera star as another country - say France – and imagine it being full of culture and couture, Champagne and the Eiffel Tower, where the power of a single voice is lauded and adored. Now picture the English Channel separating those two countries, with its icy grey waters and choppy waves. Having completed my stay at Julliard in 1987, I found myself stranded on the English side with no boat, no plane, no Chunnel, trying to figure out how to get across.”
Doesn’t sound very nice hun? This book, apart from being such great reading material, gives us so many tips about absolutely everything. In this chapter Renée highlights repertoire choices and especially audition repertoire choices, about how to act in an audition, how to present yourself. I’m going to quote her once more on this:
“I’ve given enough master classes by now to know that the thing that really distinguishes an individual, voice and singing aside, is Personality with a capital P. Charisma. Touch me, move me, take me out of this stuffy little room with its fluorescent lights and dropped ceiling, its linoleum floor and badly tuned piano… That kind of conviction and engagement will win the audition and, later, the audience”
Also in this chapter she talks about dealing with the famous inner voice and how to keep positive. How it is at first being a “star is born” soprano and how to deal with everything. How it was for her getting pregnant in the middle of that fabulous and oh so demanding career and how she sang pregnant (something I though not possible until I saw Anna Netrebko sing Giulietta pregnant).
 Renée Fleming as Desdemona in Verdi's Otello to the left and as Rodelinda in Handel's Rodelinda to the right, two iconic queens
Ok this post has taken a length I wasn’t expecting it to get, so here is what I’m going to do I’m going to wrap this up right now and make another one or maybe two more posts talking about chapter 6 onward. But really guys, this book is a real keeper and a MUST HAVE for anyone who is aspiring to be an opera singer.


  1. Hey Bela,
    This is a great opera diva memoir, isn't it? In fact, when I read about your experience at VK's concerts there it reminded me of an episode from Fleming's book. She went to a concert and was in the front row, and was practically you at the VK concert, and the diva that sang had practically the same reaction as VK did when you and Otavio went backstage. It's such a cool thing. :oD

    Alas, I think I donated my copy of The Inner Voice to a library a few years back. Must go hunting for it again for a re-read. ;o)

    Btw, have you read Birgit Nilsson's memoir yet? She was hilarious! :oD

  2. Hey Smorg! Yes, it is! I absolutely loved it, Renée's writting is very witty and it seems to just flow, you don't even notice you've been reading for hours!
    And yes! I remember that episode from the book quite well, and come to think of it, you are absolutely right! It was very much like what happened with Vesselina, which is very exiting! :D No plans for her to come over seas though, hun?
    It's a wonderful book, I recomend it to everyone! And no, I've never read Birgit's memoir but I'll look it up. I did ask my friend who is travelling in Germany to buy me Vesselina's book, even though it's in german and I don't know a thing in german I want to have it! haha