As soon as it was announced that an opera singer would be singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl, journalists from around the country were met with the task of outwitting each other, coming up with headlines like, “National Anthem will be longer than usual,” (bleacherreport.com), “Will Super Bowl Fans Reject Renee Fleming as National Anthem Singer?” (abc.news), or my favorite, “Who is Renee Fleming? Opera Singer to Belt National Anthem at Super Bowl.” (philly.com)
Ummm... no. She won’t “belt”. Opera singers don’t belt. That’s a technique used in pop and musical theater.
So, yeah, you can see what comes next -- so-called professional opera singers get all up in arms about people scoffing at their art. Because we’re so sensitive. It’s what makes us who we are. Coming to Ms. Fleming’s, yea verily, to the entire opera world’s defense are experts like Richard Scheinin from San Jose Mercury News, mezzo-soprano/HuffPo-blogger Jennifer Rivera, and now me. But I have some bones to pick even with someone on our side, in this case, Ms. Rivera’s rather popular article. This blog post is in a way a response to hers.
Her approach to the issue is an educating one: “5 Things You Need to Know About Opera Before This Super Bowl.” She informs the layman of opera’s vast history, its tolerant casting policies, and she attempts to shoot down the elitist reputation falsely imposed on the art form. All that was very enlightening, even to an experienced singer like myself. But I don’t think it’s a good idea to start off by saying that opera singers’ voices are louder. They’re not necessarily louder - their voices carry better in appropriate acoustic environments. Don’t be led to believe that Renee Fleming will sing on Sunday without a microphone!
I had a colleague who used to stand up on the bar at the Irish Pub after a few too many Guinness and sing “Old Man River” to an adoring crowd. When I tried to do something similar, my voice wouldn’t carry, even though in the opera hall our voices were equally as audible. His wife, also a singer, astutely explained to the disappointed drunkard audience that her man’s voice had a spectrum more like that of a spotlight, whereas mine was more of a laser. Well put!
Back to the Huffington Post, Ms. Rivera first made strikes at two sources, the first being TMZ.com, which reported that French Montana said, “F**k that sh*t” when he heard the news of Renee Fleming’s Super Bowl debut. Well, much like the headline I mentioned above from Philly.com: “Who’s French Montana?” The story from Bleacher Report, in all fairness, was meant to be tongue in cheek, comparing the lengths of past anthem interpretations in order to place bets. Ms. Rivera was correct to make the remark about the author being “full of it” when he claimed (albeit probably sarcastically) that it will be longer because opera singers “like the sound of their own voices”. The fact is, the longest recorded Super Bowl version in recent years goes to Alicia Keys at 2 minutes and 35 seconds. This trend of over-melismaticizing (sic, because I made it up) was parodied by a character on The Simpson’s, Bleeding Gums Murphy, who played a 26-minute version of the song, while Springfield Isotopes fans gradually lost interest and/or fell asleep. (I’m unable to link it here because ze Germans won’t let me watch hulu.com).
Agreeing with Mr. Scheinin of Mercury News, I think Renee Fleming is a great choice. Not only is she one of America’s most established opera stars whose career spans over a quarter of a century, but she has also embraced other forms of popular culture, for example by appearing on the David Letterman show, or recording an album of rock covers.
And props to the Super Bowl people for picking an actual opera singer instead of some pseudo-opera star like Katherine Jenkins (fabulous piece here about her and opera’s “elitism” on the Oberto blog by Alexandra Wilson).
This may be the first time it’s happening at the Super Bowl per se, but plenty of professional opera singers have sung the national anthem at plenty of other professional ball games and everything has turned out just fine. Here are just a few examples:
My old buddy Brandon Jovanovich who used to sing bass with me in college choir, now a leading international tenor.
Rob McPherson who competed with me in the Metropolitan Opera National Council Auditions, also singing all over the world.
David Adam Moore (who I don’t know yet, but whose acquaintance I would like to make as soon as possible) sang the anthem so well that you can see one of the Chicago Cubs saying “That’s awesome!” at 1:40.
Yours truly - perhaps someone out there has a VHS or Super 8 recording of me at the Catalina High School graduation ceremony.
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Composed in the early 1800’s, on the brink of opera’s “golden age,” The Star-Spangled Banner is, not surprisingly, quite difficult to sing. It can be a rude awakening to an unexperienced singer who has started too high when he finally gets to “... the rockets’ red gla-a-a-are”, so one has to choose their key wisely. Ms. Rivera was right in purporting that opera singers have a wider developed range than many pop singers, but I think we can all agree that even theirs is a bit more expansive than just eight notes. The song in question spans an octave and a fifth.
One thing the opera singers do better, in my humble opinion, compared to most of their pop music counterparts when singing the national anthem is deliver the text in a straightforward way. An opera singer is less likely to take a breath in the middle of a word or phrase. In listening to several versions, I noticed that most all singers get applause and cheers after “ .... the land of the free...”, but the opera singers stir up the audiences already after “...rockets’ red glare...”, or even in anticipation of the final phrase, because the fans know what’s coming. (A ball game, that’s what’s coming!). And in watching all these variations on YouTube in preparation for this post, I must say, I’ve been getting quite emotional -- call it homesickness, call it nostalgia, or call it listening to a great song being sung by great artists, it's a moving composition!
I did not, however, get emotional when listening to, for example, the excruciating version by 11-year old Harper Gruzin. One of her idols is Christina Aguilera, who famously botched the text at the Super Bowl three years ago (which didn’t bother me bit, as is it barely noticeable and she handled it with class, unlike Michael Bolton looking at his cheat sheet). But hmmm... how’s that working out for poor Harper? This is one of those cases where I would actually advocate classical voice lessons for children (I’m usually against it, but that’s another story).
Depending on how the singer executes them, melismas don’t always add to a performance. They can indeed embellish a melodic line, but not every pop singer manages to stay “on the voice" or achieve a meaningful phrase while singing them. Not every one is Whitney Houston (or Christina Aguilera, for that matter). It’s the voce completa -- the successful application of the classically trained, i.e. opera voice -- that has moved audiences for, as Jennifer Rivera reminded us, over 400 years.
Toi! Toi! Toi! to Renee Fleming, and Go Seahawks!!