home     authors     titles     dates     links     about

the inner voice

3 january 2009

I am sometimes surprised that I didn't get interested in opera a lot earlier in life. I love songs, vocalists, the theatre, and popular culture. I enjoy visual spectacle as much as the next primate. And opera, of all the arts, may be the closest analogy to baseball.

At one point in the great soprano Renée Fleming's career, her personal manager "stressed batting instead of fielding" (The Inner Voice 114). Fleming, he decided, should proactively take her own path through the concert and opera worlds, instead of reacting to whatever offers came along. While doing so, Fleming sought out a sport psychologist, who gave her the same advice one might give "to a fourteen-year-old girl in tennis whites" (154). And when Fleming is really "on," her feeling is like that of a sport performer:

I expect it's the same kind of experience for an athlete — in that case, it's the concept of going into the zone. There is a kind of suspension of thinking involved, as though there is so much inspiration and ease that it feels as if you're channeling the music rather than singing it. Reaching that place allows me, in a sense, to step out of the music's way and leave my mind free to discover new shadings in a role that I might have missed in the past. (156)

If Renée Fleming were a ballplayer, she would have been a low draft pick who stuck with her craft in the minors for a few years and then all at once became a big star in the majors. Opera is like that; the whole effect of the performance, like that of baseball, is intensely collaborative, but it's the stars that people turn out to see: Pavarotti hitting a high C, Barry Bonds nailing a fastball. Caruso is the Babe Ruth of opera (its greatest draw, a jovial hero), Callas its Ted Williams (supremely talented, intriguing, hard to get along with).

Opera, like baseball, is seen to best effect in massive stadiums. The current Met has only 1/15 the capacity of the old Yankee Stadium, but both were among the largest venues of their kind. Opera depends for its appeal on a mix of cheap seats and luxury boxes – and opera may have done better than the major leagues in recent years at keeping the less-well-heeled sector of its audience.

Opera fans, like baseball fans, love counting stats. Did you know there have been 1,205 performances of La Bohème at the Metropolitan? (As of this morning; 1,206 is scheduled for later today.) I suspect that's a record, but I will have to browse the Met database a little more before confirming it. It's a resource rivalled only by Baseball-Reference.

Opera, like baseball, is played in seasons, and though it has pastoral associations, it's a creature of big cities: the American majors of opera includes New York, Chicago, Houston, and San Francisco, much like the National League. Conductors are like managers, intendants like GMs. Opera offers the intensity and ephemerality of live performance, like sport, but also the durability of recorded sound, where Caruso's "O sole mio" vies with Russ Hodges's "The Giants win the pennant!"

Opera, as a team sport where players have long careers, gives us, as baseball also does, the piquant experience of connecting backwards from rookies to veterans, Kevin-Bacon-wise. DiMaggio played with Gehrig who played with Ruth. Fleming sang in Otello with Plácido Domingo, who sang in Tosca with Birgit Nilsson. As in baseball, we summon up the shadows of past performers when we see current ones play the great roles of the repertoire.

And just as success at hitting or pitching depends on the finicky mastery of a tightly circumscribed physical regimen, so too opera singing is an athletic activity based on superior control rather than brute force. Occasionally there are naturals; Jussi Björling and Lauritz Melchior are among the great tenors who simply had impossible talent and displayed it without much care for niceties like rehearsal or even sobriety. But more common are singers who, like Renée Fleming, must constantly adjust their vocal production to meet the changing conditions of their art: the Rod Carews and Tony Gwynns of the opera world.

The Inner Voice, Fleming's 2004 memoir that I am ostensibly reviewing here, is an operatic equivalent to The Science of Hitting by Ted Williams. It is far less a chronology of success after success – still less a fount of juicy diva anecdotes – than it is a serious study of what it takes to become a success at one of the world's most difficult arts. As such, it both complements, and far outshines, mere celebrity autobiographies from the world of opera.

Fleming, Renée. The Inner Voice: The making of a singer. 2004. New York: Penguin, 2005.