Since 1967, the national anthem has been sung at the Super Bowl by a boy band and a college a cappella group. It has been belted out by a morning-TV host and bugled by a trumpeter (four times).
But when soprano Renée Fleming makes the arduous climb to the high note in the “land of the free” at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., on Sunday for a projected television audience of 100 million or more, it will be the first time the anthem has been performed at the event by an opera singer.
When Luciano Pavarotti’s rendition of “Nessun Dorma” from Giacomo Puccini’s “Turandot” became the theme song of the BBC’s coverage of the 1990 World Cup, Fleming said at a news conference last week that “it changed his life, it changed his career.”
Though not an aria, “The Star-Spangled Banner” could at the least enhance Fleming’s name recognition as her career moves in a new direction: helping mastermind programming at the Lyric Opera of Chicago and the Kennedy Center in Washington, D.C.
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The recent news that Fleming would perform left some unconvinced. Asked what he thought of an opera singer getting the gig, rapper French Montana gave an answer that featured two unprintable words with “that” between them. A Fox Sports writer suggested betting on how long Fleming’s rendition would last, saying opera singers “usually take a long time singing anything because it seems they love the way they sound and want everyone to experience their sound for as long as possible.”
Mark Quenzel, who as senior vice president for programming and production at NFL Network was involved in the selection of a singer, said he was unconcerned about any doubters.
“I care much more about what people are saying about Renée Fleming coming out of the anthem, than going in,” he said in a phone interview.
There are plenty of stereotypes in this country about opera, the duration of a high note being just one. And while Fleming, one of the most-celebrated opera singers of the day, has performed at a presidential inauguration and at the World Series, the Super Bowl is a new ballgame for a figure who remains not quite a household name on the level of Pavarotti. So it’s worth taking the opportunity to clarify a few things about opera and its American history.
A time before Il Divo
Once upon a time in this country, about 100 years ago, opera was a genuinely popular art form. The first sound recording to sell 1 million copies was tenor Enrico Caruso’s version of “Vesti la giubba,” the sad-clown aria from Ruggero Leoncavallo’s “Pagliacci,” early in the 1900s. More recently, stars of the genre such as Beverly Sills and Pavarotti were celebrities, recognized in airports and, in Sills’ case, as a guest host on “The Tonight Show.”
In the days when divas and divos reigned nationally, there was another category of artists who blurred the line between opera and pop music. Mario Lanza, for one, had the chops to be the real deal but ended up best known for standards such as “Be My Love” and for playing Caruso in films.
But as the art form has receded from mainstream pop culture, all that’s left for many people when they think “opera” are post-Lanza crooners such as Andrea Bocelli or the men of Il Divo. They have sweet, tiny voices without the technique or stamina — let alone nuance — to persuasively project without amplification in a real opera house.
Fleming, 54, remains the closest thing opera has to an American sweetheart: “the people’s diva,” her marketing materials call her. Befitting an era in which would-be divas need to take what they can get, she’s game for most anything. She recently sang the Top Ten list on the “Late Show With David Letterman,” making jokes about twerking and 2016 presidential contenders to the tunes of famous arias. In 2010 she released “Dark Hope,” a well-meaning, lugubrious album of indie-rock covers.
That project, and crossover collaborations with musicians like the jazz pianist Brad Mehldau, have rendered her a Michelle Obama type, a cool mom with a glamorous side: “a June Cleaver who wants to also be a Vogue cover girl,” as writer Seth Colter Walls once put it on the blog The Awl.
Her demographic appeal, then, is clear even if she lacks the name recognition of other anthem contenders.
Quenzel was careful to mention that the number of women who watch the Super Bowl outstrips the total audience for the Grammy Awards.
Which is not to say that any audience Fleming may draw Sunday would be entirely new, or that opera and football fans can’t be the same thing. Quenzel said that engaging Fleming was proposed by Bill Creasy, television producer for the first two Super Bowls and a longtime operagoer. Charles Ruff, one of President Clinton’s lawyers during his 1999 impeachment trial, was happiest working in his office on Sunday afternoons, with a football game on mute and opera on the stereo.
Opera part of baseball
There is something more operatic about football — with its blood-and-guts physicality and raucous end-zone celebrations — than baseball, a calmer, more genteel sport with which opera performers have been more closely associated. (Yankee Stadium audiences heard baritone Robert Merrill’s version of the national anthem for decades, and the team occasionally plays a recording of him before games.)
Still, Fleming’s artistry tends to be more in line with the decorous ballpark tradition than with the ground and pound of the football stadium. She will probably offer the Super Bowl audience the same thing she has long offered audiences at the Met and elsewhere: the side of opera that’s comfortable rather than galvanic, eager to please rather than awe-inspiring.
We’ll see: There is evidence that even the skeptics might be prepared to keep an open mind on opera on the gridiron. After his initial expletive-laden reaction, French Montana went on in a gentler vein: “Opera? Nah, I think it’s a beautiful thing, trying something different.”