That Roberta Flack likes to take a "classic" approach to the songs she sings will probably come as no surprise to any of her fans. It hardly matters what kind of song she decides to sing; whether she's applying herself to the folk-song purity of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face" or the soulful cadences of "You Make Me Feel Brand New," Flack's sense of how a song should be sung remains the same.
"It's like a combination of the scientific part of music plus the soul," she says. Speaking over the phone from Barbados, where she's taking a brief respite before a round of performances (including a benefit concert at Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall Saturday), Flack adds that she thinks her real gift as an interpreter has been the ability to "sing a song and make it last, to make [my recordings] classics in the sense that they last for a long, long time."
How she does that may come as a surprise, though. For as far as Flack is concerned, what a pop singer needs most isn't hit material and a hot producer, but a solid background in music and an understanding of what a song really means.
On the first count, Flack -- whose own training gave her a firm grounding in the classics -- admits that she's almost over-qualified. "I don't think that you have to know opera and German lieder to be a person who can sing a ballad," she says. Of course, when she began her recording career, she laughs, "I thought I had to practice four and five hours a day -- you know, do the scales and the Czerny and the Hammond exercises, and the Chopin things and the Brahms things. I thought that was part of what I had to do as a musician."
Practice, though, doesn't necessarily make perfect -- at least, not when it comes to song interpretation. For that, she says, you need understanding, not just technique.
"I've always felt that if I understood what the song was about, if the story was clear to me in my head, then the task as a performer is to make the audience aware of that, to share it with them. It's almost like method acting."
To give an example of how that works, she explains the thinking that went into her interpretation of "The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face."
"When I recorded that in '69," she recalls, "of course the record company wasn't excited about it. And I didn't think about it one way or the other as a single. I didn't know what single meant. I was an ex-school teacher, still practicing four, five hours a day.
"But when I sang 'The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,' it was for me like singing an aria. There's a wonderful aria that is associated with Maria Callas from 'Tosca,' and it's called 'Vissi d'arte.' 'Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore.' It means, This is my art, this is my love.' In the aria, she sings, 'Vissi d'arte, vissi d'amore, non feci mai male ad anima viva.' This is my life, this is all I have lived for, it's the music, my art, you know what I'm saying?
"When I was singing 'First Time Ever I Saw Your Face,' that's what I had in mind. I'm thinking that, and I'm also thinking of all the opportunities I've had to play the music that Puccini wrote for that aria. The simple piano accompaniment. Just the three notes, a wonderful chord, moving to the next chord with such impunity and understanding and correctness that if you're a person who loves opera, there's no way you cannot love that aria."
Ironically, Flack adds that the record company thought her approach was all wrong. "They said, 'It's too slow,' " she recalls. "I was ready to cry. 'Too slow? That's the way it goes.' Today I would be very outspoken about it, but then I was very shy."
Shy or not, Flack stuck to her guns, and eventually, after Clint Eastwood heard the song and used it prominently in the film "Play Misty for Me," the single spent six weeks at the top of the charts. A sweet victory for Flack, to be sure, but the real lesson in her view had less to do with being No. 1 than with being true to the song, and the emotions it tapped.
"I would love to have Mariah Carey's success, or Whitney Houston's success," she says. "But I will never have that because I believe what I believe."
And what she believes in has nothing to do with being the latest or hippest, but the truest to the power of pure music. "When you find a song that is so perfect in terms of the melody, the harmony," she says, "structured so that the way it moves from one place to the next is absolutely right -- that's what it's all about for me."
When: Saturday at 8 p.m.
Where: Joseph Meyerhoff Symphony Hall.
Tickets: Single $50 and $100.
Call: (401) 547-9200.