The Humble Handmaid, etc.


The Inner Voice by Renee Fleming

Reading Challenge: A book recommended by someone you just met

This was a weirdly difficult category to fulfill for me, hence its place as the second-to-last book of the year. This wasn’t even initially the book I was going to read. Meeting one of my husband’s friends from his old job a few months ago (I felt pretty safe because he told me she was a nerd), I asked her for a recommendation, and without hesitation she told me to read Dark Matter by Blake Crouch. “Great!” I said. And, when I read the description, “Great!” again. Looks like a book for me. And I put a hold on it at the library.

Today, December 27th, I’m finally #11 in the hold line for 10 copies. It may be my first book of 2017, but it will not make the reading challenge.

Fortunately, I met someone else who was willing to make a recommendation, the soprano section leader from the choir I used to sing in (our time together had not overlapped at all, so this really was my first time meeting her). We started talking about books, and I said “Hey, do you want to recommend a book for me?” So we talked about what she’d been reading, and eventually this suggestion came out.

I really enjoyed The Inner Voice, which does triple duty as memoir, self-help, and career advice. Renee Fleming is, of course, one of the most recognizable names in opera, and this had the added nostalgia piece for me that she was just becoming really prominent in the late nineties when I was getting really into opera, so I’ve forever had a soft spot for her and her amazing singing voice. Her written voice comes through as warm, down-to-earth, self-aware and surprisingly privilege-aware. Some of her parenthetical asides had me actually laughing aloud. She covers her professional life and offers a fascinating window into the opera world, and offers some advice I’d imagine is pretty useful for young singers as well.

Now, I will note that I’m not sure this is going to be for everyone. I’m tempted to tell everyone to read it just so you can really understand what badasses professional opera singers are. But I don’t know for sure because I have a passing familiarity with this world. Three years of classical voice lessons in my teens and a choral performance history that stretches from 1990 to 2013 doesn’t mean I understand everything she’s talking about, but it does mean that I found this passage familiar and hilarious:

What does she really mean when she says she wants me to have “higher resonance”? What does anyone mean by “more support”? Someone can tell you that you need to relax, but relax where? Relax what? Oh, and now you want more energy at the same time?  When I feel energized I also feel tense. How am I supposed to reconcile those demands? (p.53-54)

If that passage resonated with you (higher or not), you would probably enjoy this book. If you can read a full page of technique advice and more or less understand it, you will probably get something out of this book. If you are a Fleming fan anyway, and you want to read about how the high notes she makes sound so effortless are actually the result of years of hard work and how she couldn’t roll her “R”s back in the day (this is still true for me), you may experience a sense of relief and a newfound appreciation for the artist herself and you will definitely enjoy the book. If all of that’s going to leave you cold, well, maybe it’s not for you.

I do think, though, that her career advice transcends her particular niche. It’s solid. Work hard, don’t give up, a solid support system is key, there will be good and bad times, appreciate the people around you, be grateful for what you have, recognize that what you do is not exactly right for everyone. Words to live by.

Sidebar: One book left! I think I can make it (it’s a Pratchett. I don’t need 4 days with a Pratchett). Then this little experiment draws to a close.

Recommended pairing: Well, whatever isn’t going to wreck your voice before the performance, obviously. If you want something nice and hearty after the show, though, may I recommend the Founder’s Breakfast Stout?



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