After Renee Fleming sang at the Super Bowl, and Anna Netrebko sang at the Olympics, I had people who appeared to be distressed that I took critical note of either, much less jokingly presumed to keep score. Art, I suppose, is meant to be above that, though if an artist chooses to sing the National Anthem at a sporting event, I hardly think that this represents the pinnacle of creative expression. (Some renditions, admittedly, are more creative than others.) Last night, however, the Kansas City Symphony performed the National Anthem before Game 6 of the World Series, and tonight, we’re going to get the opera singer Joyce DiDonato singing it before Game 7.
I’ve said my piece on this before, many times. Opera fandom, in particular, is akin to sports fandom in its passion, its partisanship, and its focus on physical achievements and their ability to transcend ordinary human limitations. (There’s a genuine poetry to a diving catch or the rhythm of a no-hitter that finds plenty of cognates on the opera stage.) I think the two are a natural match, and so have many, many others before me – I’ve written before about some of the opera singers who were baseball fans and sang National Anthems before games with relish. (The Wagnerian soprano Helen Traubel even became part owner of the St. Louis Browns.)
Classical music institutions, furthermore, are part of a community and represent a form of civic pride — or used to; or want to. The tradition of orchestras and opera companies facing off to support their teams at the Super Bowl or the World Series has burgeoned in the age of YouTube — and, to my thinking, delightfully so. Who could resist Riccardo Muti leading the Chicago Symphony in the Blackhawks’ team song during the Stanley Cup in 2013? Well: I’m sure I’ll hear from those of you who could. But it can’t have hurt; the Blackhawks won.
There are worse things for our art than putting classical music on the same playing field — literally — as professional sports. Do we judge them, when they’re there, on the same terms as sports? Absolutely, and deservedly. Which is why I’ll be unabashedly rooting for Joyce DiDonato tonight. Let the best singer win.
UPDATE, 8:06 p.m.: And may I add, for the record, my studied critical opinion that Joyce DiDonato offered one of the best National Anthems ever: just the song, just as written, and gorgeously sung. “Now that’s the way to sing a National Anthem!” said the announcer, when she had finished; and I could only concur.