There were some doubts as to whether Renée Fleming was the right match for the Super Bowl national anthem. February weather can run havoc on a singer's voice, a tradition of lip-syncing runs deep in stadium performances, and opera doesn't normally go easily with chicken wings and Budweiser. But Fleming did sing live, as she had assured her skeptics, delivering a two-minute rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” with apparent ease.
Clad in a black Vera Wang dress with a flowing white sash – ensuring no wardrobe malfunctions – Fleming was accompanied by an Armed Forces Chorus and a recording of the New Jersey Symphony Orchestra. There were images of a giant American flag, soldiers in Afghanistan and blasts of fireworks above MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, NJ.
"Have you ever heard it sung any better," play by play announcer Joe Buck said after Fleming belted out the final high A (twice) and the crowd cheered wildly.
Opera singer Renee Fleming sings the national anthem before Super Bowl XLVIII at MetLife Stadium (Rob Carr/Getty Images)
In pre-game news coverage, the soprano was met with some skepticism including headlines like “Who is Renee Fleming?” Others were placing bets on on the length of her performance, and whether she could stay under last year's record-breaking 2:30 length by Alicia Keys (she did, at 2:05). After the performance ended, Fleming's name was trending on Twitter.
"I give her big props for singing it live, in front of millions of people, outdoors, in 50-degree weather (not freezing, but not comfy, either),” said WQXR host Naomi Lewin in an e-mail. “It was clearly not pre-recorded – her diction was impeccable (and there was that popped "p" on the microphone)."
Lewin did have some qualms. “I thought the arrangement was awful, slowing down and speeding up for no apparent reason,” she added. “They must have had to rehearse like crazy to all come out in the same place. No wonder she said she was losing sleep over this!”
The 53-year-old Fleming had admitted in a pre-game news conference, “I’ve probably sung through it in my mind and vocally 800 times in the last three weeks.” But the worst fears – of sub-zero wind chills and blowing snow – were not founded on Sunday and the balmy temperatures turned in Fleming’s favor.
F. Paul Driscoll, the editor in chief of Opera News magazine, also admired Fleming's vocals, in spite of a "classical lite" arrangement. "She negotiated everything with aplomb," he said in an e-mail. "Her voice sounds darker these days, but her high notes were still there – just like the flag. I was interested to see that she was dressed in modified diva style – a Vera Wang gown rather than street clothes. She looked like an opera singer, which was probably her intention."
With more than 110 million U.S. viewers and many more millions around the world, the audience amounted to one of the biggest ever for an opera singer. Perhaps only the Three Tenors' 1994 World Cup performance and Luciano Pavarotti's 2006 appearance at the Torino Olympics in Italy surpassed it for viewership, both attracting an estimated billion viewers.
Driscoll believes Fleming's performance should raise her profile with non-opera fans, "but it's not going to raise opera's profile – she sang the national anthem, not the final scene from Capriccio." Responses on Twitter were wide-ranging but mostly enthusiastic:
That national anthem may have been one of the worst I've ever heard— Haylee Walters (@hayleewalters) February 2, 2014
All I can say is, at least the opera singer showed up - more than can be said for one of the teams. . .— David O'Dell (@dodellgd) February 3, 2014