- The Washington Times - Saturday, January 8, 2005

Soprano Renee Fleming was not born with her stunning voice. Granted, she picked her parents carefully (both were music teachers) and had plenty of natural talent and ambition to match, but that unique, “instantly recognizable sound” was developed through self-discipline, resilience (nerves ruined many an audition), and incredibly hard work. Now, in The Inner Voice: The Making of a Singer (Viking, $24.95, 221 pages), Ms. Fleming tells us with intelligence, honesty, and the charm she projects on stage how she did it.

This book is not a memoir (Ms. Fleming is perhaps too reserved to tell all), but as “an autobiography of my voice” it can both teach young singers what she learned the hard way and help the rest of us appreciate the costs of success in the performing arts.

In describing the teacher-student rapport essential for progress, she notes, “The student has to feel cared for, because singing is such an exercise in vulnerability. The voice, after all, is the only instrument that can’t be sold, … returned, exchanged, put in the closet for a wild night on the town, or … left in the trunk of a taxicab … .”

Ms. Fleming took a while transforming her voice from “too bright, even strident” into what Sir Georg Solti has called “double crme.” Along the way she seems to have absorbed all the wisdom her successive mentors could pour into her, from her mother’s reminder to “Smile! Try to look like you’re enjoying yourself,” to her long-suffering sister Rachelle’s comfort during panic attacks and Renata Scotto’s injunction to “Just sing what the composer asked you to sing” and “Have children” (for a dose of perspective). Indeed, Ms. Fleming has two daughters, and she claims that pregnancy is a great aid to the voice because “the baby provides the support that the abdominal wall usually has to work much harder to offer.”

Ms. Fleming’s big break came in 1990, when the Houston Grand Opera had a cancellation in the role of the Countess in Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro” and offered her the job. The new music director, Christoph Eschenbach, worked with her every day for two weeks, encouraging her “to take risks, to sing and express music in ways I wouldn’t have been brave enough to manage on my own.” Always a superior student, she was ready on time and her career took off.

Staying on top has required more effort than getting there. “A big component of longevity is choosing repertoire wisely. The most difficult word for a singer to learn is no — no to too much, too soon, too heavy, too dramatic, too mature, and to an orchestra that’s too loud.” As for guarding her health, Ms. Fleming notes that when she was a Juilliard student she was constantly ill and had back problems until she noticed that they occurred only before important auditions. Once the Juilliard doctor had told her, “You’re not sick. You’re tense,” her health became mainly mind over matter.

Ms. Fleming’s book is full of practical advice, including a suggestion that all young singers should study the piano “because they’ll save themselves a bundle of money, and the ability to teach yourself your own music is an incredibly useful skill.” In addition, don’t strive for perfection: Give yourself a margin for error. As mezzo-soprano Jan DeGaetani told her, “Having perfection as your goal will only set you up for failure. Once you realize an error, and then begin to contemplate the fact that because the performance is no longer perfect, it’s been ruined, the next thing you know it really is ruined, because your concentration is gone.”

Ms. Fleming comes through as a likable woman, as well as a consummate artist. Her friend, author Ann Patchett (“Bel Canto”), may have helped with the writing, but the grit is all Rene Fleming’s. Too bad her publisher didn’t include illustrations (she’s gorgeous) and an index; all those famous people she mentions will just have to read the text.

• • •

Martin Van Buren is remembered primarily for one thing — he was the first full-time politician to reach the presidency. He was not a successful general like Washington, a practicing lawyer like the two Adamses, or a plantation owner like Jefferson. As Ted Widner points out in this minibiography, Martin Van Buren (Times Books, $20, 192 pages), he entered politics without the benefit of either a college education or a reputation for military service, yet worked his way to the White House.

A New Yorker, Van Buren created what may have been the first real political machine in America, the so-called Albany Regency of the 1820s. It propelled Van Buren to the U.S. Senate where he attached himself to the rising political star of his day, Andrew Jackson.

Theirs was a curious alliance. Jackson was blunt, irascible, and often indifferent to the consequences of his actions. Van Buren, in contrast, was a conciliatory strategist who, in the words of one contemporary, “rowed to his objective with muffled oars.” Nevertheless the “Little Magician” — one of Van Buren’s many nicknames — ingratiated himself with Jackson, who made him secretary of state and eventually his political successor.

Although a Northerner, the Magician sought to ingratiate himself with the South. Mr. Widner writes, “There is certainly plenty of evidence to suggest that [Van Buren] favored slavery or, to be more precise, that he saw no reason to derail his career with intemperate objections to it.” When slaves seized control of the slave ship Amistad that was taking them to captivity, Van Buren favored returning them to their owners. As president he supported the “gag rule” — so vehemently opposed by John Quincy Adams — that for years prevented the introduction of resolutions relating to slavery in the House of Representatives.

Perhaps because he was unencumbered by principles, Van Buren was a skillful political operator. According to Mr. Widner, the Magician was “a gifted legislator, comfortable in the salons where deals were struck, quick to see how one favor might lead to another. He was unfailingly easy to get along with, as even his enemies admitted … . He could count votes faster than any of his peers, and quietly arrange for members to arrive or disappear … to tilt a vote one way or the other.”

It was the economy rather than the slavery issue that doomed Van Buren’s presidency. In 1837 the country suffered its first major recession, and the administration’s attempts to deal with it were widely seen as inadequate. Van Buren sought reelection in 1840, but was overwhelmingly defeated by the Whig ticket led by William Henry Harrison.

The Magician continued active in politics, and even took some principled stands. He opposed the annexation of Texas, on grounds that it might bring war with Mexico. He belatedly embraced the antislavery movement in the North, and in 1848 ran unsuccessfully for the presidency on the ticket of the new Free Soil Party. But he subsequently supported the compromise measures of 1850 that included the Fugitive Slave Law requiring Northerners to return escaped slaves to their masters.

Mr. Widner has provided a chatty, accessible book — one of a series of presidential minibiographies — that tells us all we need to know about one of our less memorable presidents.

John M. and Priscilla S. Taylor are writers in McLean, Va.

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