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

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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.