NEW YORK — — It's safe to say that if Renee Fleming appeared on "American Idol" and sang "Hallelujah," the Leonard Cohen song immortalized by Jeff Buckley, and a favorite of "Idol" contestants, judges Randy Jackson and Kara DioGuardi would not say she is "pitchy."
"Thank you!" exclaimed the opera star, laughing.
Dialing down her soprano to a tenor, Fleming sings a tender version of "Hallelujah" on her surprising new album, "Dark Hope," a set of rock songs by artists including the Arcade Fire, Band of Horses and Death Cab for Cutie. Unlike a pops concert, "Dark Hope" sticks admirably to forthright rock and Fleming to dusky tones.
"I watch 'American Idol,'" Fleming, 51, offered cheerfully. "One of my daughters loves it. She's always saying, 'Mom, you need to go on the show and be more articulate about what the actual issues are.'
"Well, yes, I could bring some actual terminology into this, as in 'flat,' 'sharp,' 'passaggio.' There could be some teaching going on there."
Yes, there could. Since her breakthrough performance in "The Marriage of Figaro" at the Houston Grand Opera in 1988, Fleming has basked in bravos on the world's renowned opera stages. Earlier this year she won her third Grammy Award, for best classical voice performance, for "Verismo," a collection of arias.
Classical music critics have long reached deep for superlatives. "For sheer beauty of sound, no soprano today can match Renee Fleming," the Wall Street Journal claimed. She is "one of the truly magnificent voices of our time," wrote the Los Angeles Times' Mark Swed.
So why is Fleming trading the searing high Ds of composer Jules Massenet for a two-chord shuffle by singer-songwriter Willy Mason?
"It just struck me as an interesting adventure," she said. "In this stage of my career, I'm facing a kind of maintenance program. I've been on this plateau, where there's no place to go, other than to stretch myself artistically. And this seemed to fit."
Fleming indeed has little left to prove. She has sung more than 50 opera roles and ascended into that surreal stratosphere of fame. She is surely the only singer with a perfume, flower and dessert (a chocolate and Champagne thing) named after her.
Fleming prides herself on not coming across as a diva or classical music snob. And she doesn't. Sitting last month in a bare-bones conference room in her publicist's office, a few blocks from Lincoln Center, she may be wearing a regal blue suit and her hair may be perfect, but her warm manner is no pose. If Fleming wasn't the world's most famous female opera singer, she would be your favorite elementary school teacher, particularly if you grew up, as she did, in the happy suburbs outside Rochester, N.Y.
Yet there's nothing complacent about Fleming. Her creamy complexion and wide blue eyes belie a magnetic intellect. She was as anxious to discuss the symbolism of "Dark Hope" as its music. She realizes the album represents a cultural clash between classical music and rock, elitism and populism. And she knows that gap will be tough to bridge.
After all, the album began as a marketing stunt.
It sprang from the head of New York-based rock manager Peter Mensch, who hit the big time with AC/DC and Def Leppard and today with his partner Cliff Burnstein manages, among other rock bands, Muse and the Mars Volta, both of which have songs on "Dark Hope."
Mensch got the idea more than a decade ago in England, where he couldn't escape the daily hype of violinist Nigel Kennedy, the so-called Johnny Rotten of classical music. If Kennedy can get this much attention, he thought, imagine what I can do with a famous diva. But who? He didn't know any opera singers. In fact, he exclaimed, "I can't stand opera!"
Then one fall day in 2007, Mensch was riding his bicycle in Manhattan when he saw a poster of Fleming on a city bus that rumbled by.
The poster advertised a Met production of Massenet's "Thais," with Fleming looking heavenward, long golden curls draped behind her. Good God, Mensch thought, this opera singer looks just like Madonna, whom he had once managed. Just as important, "She's not from Russia; I can pronounce her name!"
Over the next couple years, Mensch and Burnstein hounded Christopher Roberts, head of Fleming's record label, Decca, about scoring a meeting with the singer. In the meantime, they assembled a CD of 50 or so current rock songs, with a few oldies thrown in, including Jefferson Airplane's "Today." In summer 2009, Fleming had a break in her performance schedule and so, said Mensch, "We trooped off to the Plaza or Carlyle or some damn place like that and had tea with her."
As Fleming listened to the CD during vacation breaks in the Galapagos Islands and South Africa, Mensch approached producer David Kahne, who had worked with the Bangles, Paul McCartney and Regina Spektor.