Arias in the Arena: Are Sporting Events Good for Opera?

Wednesday, July 02, 2014

The Three Tenors hold their soccer jerseys in the early 1990s The Three Tenors hold their soccer jerseys in the early 1990s

We're halfway into 2014 and opera has already worked its way into three of the year's biggest athletic events. For those keeping score, there was Renée Fleming's pop-tinged version of the national anthem at the Super Bowl; Anna Netrebko's take on the Olympic Anthem during the opening the Sochi Olympics; and on July 11th, two days before the finale of the World Cup, longtime soccer fan Placido Domingo will perform a concert in Rio de Janeiro with soprano Ana Maria Martinez (and pianist Lang Lang).

This is reportedly Domingo's sixth World Cup appearance, the first being at the 1990 World Cup in Rome with the Three Tenors (with Jose Carreras and Luciano Pavarotti). Other famous examples in the sporting canon include baritone Robert Merrill's regular anthem performances with the New York Yankees and soprano Montserrat Caballé's gaudy tribute to her hometown at the 1992 Barcelona Olympics.

So who gets the medal for best operatic performance in this year's stadium events? And just how did this happen? In this week's podcast we talk with two experts:

  • Anne Midgette, the classical music critic of the Washington Post
  • Joseph Horowitz, a veteran concert programmer and author of 10 books including Classical Music in America: A History of Its Rise and Fall

Segment Highlights

On the Similarities Between Opera and Sports Fandom:

Midgette: I would say opera and sports are a natural pairing. Being an opera fan is very much like being a sports fan: you're looking for the highs and lows, you're rooting for your favorites, you're waiting to see if they're going to trip up. There's a real element of fandom, as everyone who love opera knows.   


Anna Netrebko at the Olympics vs. Renee Fleming at the Super Bowl:

Horowitz: I was kind of surprised that [Fleming] sang with such exaggerated sincerity. I thought the whole thing was pretentious and over-the-top... I was reminded of seeing Pavarotti at Madison Square Garden. I thought they both sounded a little dutiful and self-conscious.

Midgette: I was of two minds. In a way, [Fleming] pulled it off but in a way I do agree that it certainly wasn't her best self. Neither was an example of those singers at their vintage best. They were fine at what they did but neither struck a great blow for classical music.


The impact of the Three Tenors:

Midgette: Whatever you thought of the Three Tenors phenomenon, it had a lot of spark and oomph and it was fun and irreverent and a little trashy. That's why the Three Tenors took off the way they did.


On whether televised sporting events can take over the role of promoting opera to the masses:

Horowitz: There was a time when NBC and CBS had their own orchestras. NBC had an opera company, very different from what we associate with Great Performances on PBS. It did opera in English, it did adventurous stagings, it commissioned operas. So if you're looking back as far as the '40s and '50s, it's a different world and in many ways, a much more inspiring world for culture.

Listen to the full segment above and tell us what you think: What's been the greatest stadium performance by an opera singer? Please leave your comments below.


More in:

Comments [6]

In looking at this again (and taking the title of the post into consideration), I'm of two minds. From the post, above: "... there was Renée Fleming's pop-tinged version of the national anthem at the Super Bowl; Anna Netrebko's take on the Olympic Anthem during the opening the Sochi Olympics; and on July 11th, two days before the finale of the World Cup, longtime soccer fan Placido Domingo will perform a concert in Rio de Janeiro ..."

So, will sports fans be moved to explore the world of opera after hearing "a pop-tinged" performance and seeing/hearing Ms. Nebtrenko? Maybe yes, maybe no. Will they think it's an OK guy thing because Mr. Domingo is performing? Maybe yes, maybe no.

And I'm leaning toward no. DD~~

Jul. 04 2014 04:19 PM
jean rinaldo from Union city N.J.

I respectfully disagree with the comment from Concetta Narbone. The performance of R. Barr was shameful but the performance by Whitney Houston was wonderful.
As for Ms, Fleming ,s performance it lacked the fire I had hoped for.

Jul. 03 2014 05:31 PM
Mark Schubin from New York

Never mind philosophical considerations. Baseball and opera have connections dating back to the 19th-century. The Metropolitan Opera did a ballpark tour of "Siegfried" in 1916. Beginning in 1885 (and continuing for half a century), fans went to opera houses to watch live remote baseball games -- yes, well before radio and television. For much more info (and pictures), try here:

Jul. 03 2014 05:19 PM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institiute, Boonton, NJ

Sports and theater arts and fine arts share imagination, a passionate desire to achieve one's uttermost and a gratification when others admire the accomplishment. My brother Dr. Ben C. Lane besides his university degrees, Princeton, New York University, SUNY, CUNY, Columbia (2) and Penn State College of Optometry, built a ski center in New York State, Princeton Ski Bowl, Inc., that rivalled in natural snow records the biggies of Vermont and New York State. He and I, a Wagnerian heldentenor and opera composer, with our optometrist dad and lawyer mom ran the ski center which got rave reviews on the TODAY TV SHOW and encouraged others to open their own ski areas. Hunter Ski Area in New York State was encouraged by such a prospect when the owners Slutskys, Orville and Israel, were hired by my brother to bulldoze the trails and slopes my brother designed. Skiing and singing have much the same allure, and practice, practice, practice with the best of mentoring can work wonders. Last June 1st I sang an All-Wagner concert in New York and am currently reprising all 12 hours of my four three hour long solo concerts at the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall, but in different venues recording them on commercial DVDs.
The fact that opera and sport are mutually congenial, with lofty goals and eager fans demonstrates the ecstatic joy they provide to wide and growing audiences.

Jul. 03 2014 03:18 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Absolutely a good idea. Robert Merrill always sang the National Anthem. When he no longer did, the Yankees fizzled out. When opera singers sing at sporting events, it shows that they are not stuffy. I would rather hear the anthem sung with respect rather than the c--p we got with Whitney Houston and Roseanne Barr.

Jul. 03 2014 07:11 AM

Re Ms. Fleming, I thought she acquitted herself very well, but with a dreadful arrangement. She made the best of the hand she was dealt.


Jul. 03 2014 12:28 AM

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