NEW YORK – With a microphone in her hand, Renee Fleming turned to the audience. “When I go back to the Met next year, I’m requesting one of these,” she said. “Then, I can croon my way through `Manon.'”
Temporarily putting aside her career as an opera singer, Fleming finally recorded the jazz CD she had been talking about for years. “Haunted Heart,” 14 songs that range from the Beatles and Joni Mitchell to Jimmy Webb, was released May 10. There’s even a Mahler song thrown in with a sparse guitar arrangement by Bill Frisell.
After spontaneously scatting her way through one number during the first of two sets at Joe’s Pub on Thursday night, Fleming looked at pianist Fred Hersch and smiled in relief. They had never planned that segment.
“It would have taken six months of rehearsal,” she said.
Hersch shot back: “Music can be fun!”
In opera, performances and even rehearsals are scheduled years in advance. Returning to the improvisational world of jazz seems a bit of a shock and perhaps invigorating to Fleming, a 46-year-old soprano acclaimed for her Mozart and Strauss.
Instead of an opera house where there’s absolute quiet, she was in a lounge where waiters served food as she performed and the audience kept ordering drinks.
She sang jazz in college and calls this project “a road not taken.” At first, the recording doesn’t even sound like her: She uses a much lower part of her register than the creamy soprano that has become her trademark.
“That’s one of the things that has surprised everyone, which is good, I think,” she said during an interview.
For a long time, she had been reluctant to go ahead with the project. She was fearful of veering in any way from the path she did choose.
“I have such high standards for myself, I didn’t want to try to present myself as Ella Fitzgerald,” Fleming said. “I’ve been really trying to present myself as the next great opera singer.”
But the business side of classical music, where image is a major consideration, was a factor, too. Many crossover recordings have been atrocious attempts to have big names sing popular songs that they have neither the training nor temperament for. A previous project, 1999’s “Star Crossed Lovers” with Fleming and Placido Domingo, was an unmemorable mix of Broadway, pop and operetta.
A jazz record was under discussion when Fleming first signed with the Decca label in 1995.
“Crossover quickly morphed,” she said. “Suddenly Andrea Bocelli came on the scene, Sarah Brightman, Charlotte Church. The record company then changed gears and said, `We want you to be fully established in your core repertoire,’ which turned out to the right choice.”
Fleming struggled to find a voice for pop in her recitals. When she tried some standards during encores, they tended to be oversung.
Then in December 2003, she used a microphone at Carnegie Hall and was much more relaxed. The mike enabled her to escape her training as an opera singer and avoid overenunciating.
“It takes away the need to sing athletically,” Fleming said. “It’s an enormous difference for us between using amplification or not. I love Marilyn Horne’s statement that we’re rocket launchers. It’s a lot of thrust.”
Her toned-down technique is what makes the recording successful in genres that extend to Mitchell’s “River” and the Beatles’ “In My Life.”
“It’s background music for a nice dinner, a romantic evening,” Fleming said. “It’s an eclectic mix of jazz, pop and classic standards bound by a moody soundscape. It’s reflective. It’s not meant to be all things to all people. It’s just a very understated journey into this music. It’s not meant to show what I could have done in this repertoire.”
Her 11-song set Thursday emphasized the jazz side more, with Hersch providing spirited accompaniment. She included several songs not on the recording