Oh say did you see: classical music (?) at the Super Bowl

You could take it as a measure of where classical music stands today. Renee Fleming, the opera soprano, sang the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. And the prevalent emotion in classical music circles, in the days leading up to the game, appeared to be less entitlement (“of course she should sing it”) than a sense of partisanship (“finally, people will hear how the anthem should be done”). Rather than a celebrity appearance, there was a sense that Fleming was acting as an ambassador, exposing millions of people to the idea of an opera singer, many of them for the first time. It bespeaks, I think, a kind of insecurity — a fundamental awareness of one’s own rather borderline position in the society at large — that by the time Sunday night rolled around, so many of us were nervous for her.


Fleming’s smile got more relaxed and more genuine as the National Anthem continued, until by the end of the song she was exuding a girlish, infectious delight: I did it! REUTERS/Ray Stubblebine

Queen Latifah came first, and Queen Latifah is a hard act to follow. One of the most beautiful women on the planet, she sang “America the Beautiful” — arguably our nation’s most beautiful national song — in jeans and a parka and drop-dead perfect makeup, looking and sounding easy and relaxed.

Fleming, by contrast, looked like a wedding-cake topper, wearing a black outfit swathed in white that draped out over the platform around her. In closeup, she did better, her blond hair nicely and not extravagantly coiffed, with a big, dazzling, smile — that looked slightly strained. She’s sung in the biggest opera houses in the world, and she’s sung on national television, but the Super Bowl represents a level of celebrity that not many opera singers these days attain. None of the top echelon of singers today — certainly not American singers — is going in for stadium concerts a la Luciano Pavarotti (Anna Netrebko has come the closest recently, but that in Europe, not in the States). There is no more famous American opera singer today than Fleming, but each star makes choices about their celebrity, and though Fleming has gone in for any number of crossover projects — most recently an indie-rock album of covers of songs by Lou Reed, Arcade Fire, and others, called “Dark Hope” — she has not made this kind of open bid for mass-market, Three-Tenor-style appeal (unless you count her singing the Top Ten list on Letterman last fall, which certainly did something to raise her profile).

The biggest question about her performance was: will she do it straight, or not? Will she sing the anthem the way it was written, with its foursquare dotted rhythms, as many opera singers have done — Robert Merrill was a fixture at New York Yankees games for years — or will she go in for the embellishments and repeats and ornaments that have become de rigueur for big music stars? The answer, alas, leaned slightly more to the second than one might have hoped. Fleming defaults all too often to a breathy, faux-pop sound, and she started out in her more mannered mode, lingering over the notes and pulling out the line like pizza dough.

But Fleming had to go at least somewhat operatic; she knew full well that she had to Represent. And she did sing out, with a full, round sound, a little richer and darker than the pop norm, or even than her norm. There was something matronly about it — or was that only the implicit comparison, not only to Latifah but to every other singer one has heard in this kind of glitzy, popular culture Moment? And there was a sense that she was playing it safe. One reason the song sounded a little dark is that it was pitched relatively low; she certainly went up, at the end, to a couple of high notes, but she didn’t go above an A (and those ever so slightly flat, but who’s really counting?). We’ve heard her sing higher than that on the opera stage any number of times, but why take unnecessary chances?

We’re not talking about a major artistic endeavor, here. We are, though, talking about a major piece of branding — for Fleming, but also, by association, for a field eager for any scrap of mainstream attention it can get. And in that sense, Fleming succeeded admirably. She sang beautifully. She looked lovely. She didn’t forget the words, which is not a minor concern, though I’m sure Teleprompters stand at the ready at this kind of event. And her smile, as the song progressed, grew warmer and more genuine: you could sense a real exultation in the fact that she was getting through it, and nailing it. So kudos to Fleming. Opera was invited to the party, and it played nicely and behaved itself, and maybe, even, will be invited back.

Or not. Early Twitter commenters were not impressed. Unless a comparison to Miss Piggy is intended as a compliment.

Anne Midgette came to the Washington Post in 2008, when she consolidated her various cultural interests under the single title of chief classical music critic. She blogs at The Classical Beat.
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