Renée Fleming Gives the Super Bowl an Operatic Opening

Sunday, February 02, 2014 - 08:00 PM

Renee Fleming sings the national anthem at the Super Bowl on Sunday Renee Fleming sings the national anthem at the Super Bowl on Sunday (Elsa/Getty Images)

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:

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Comments [40]

tony from new haven,ct

outstanding,there is no other words to say,well hear her at the met on Saturday in dvorak rusalka...

Feb. 07 2014 04:20 PM
Nikhil Goyal from Łódz

Renee Fleming is a fantastic artist, one to look up to and be inspired by. It takes a life time (and for some, sometimes a little longer) to make an artist and a voice like that. To say the very least, it's great that she shared her experience, artistry and her hard work by singing the national anthem, at a sporting event.. :)

Feb. 07 2014 07:21 AM
Kenneth Bennett Lane, Lake Hiawatha, NJ from Richard Wagner Music Drama Institute, Boonton, NJ

RENEE FLEMING sang well under obviously uncooperative circumstances as a pre-recorded symphony orchestra recording of van ill-advised arrangement under less than perfect outdoor weather conditions. If all female opera singers sang as well and looked so glamourous, then the "wait 'til the fat lady sings" humor would not be heard. Barry Owen Furrer rightly alluded to the JAN PEERCE rendition of the SSB with TOSCANIINI conducting the NBC SYMPHONY ORCHESTRA and WESTMINSTER COLLEGE CHOIR as perhaps the best recorded version, performed as part of VERDI's HYMN OF THE NATIONS performed live at the old Madison Square Garden where my brother Dr. Ben Lane and I had seats behind the Choir facing TOSCANINI's face. The program was a RED CROSS BENEFIT and had orchestral excerpts from Wagner's Goetterdaemmerung and the last act of Rigpletto with Zinka Milanov as Gilda, Jan Peerce as the Duke and Leonard Warren as Rigoletto. BRAVA RENEE FLEMING for opting to do the Star Spangled Banner outdoors in cold windy weather. i myself have performed under similar conditions and although it is possible to sing well it is hardly ever representative of the singer's best. Ms. Fleming may well be the first time Super Bowl enthusiasts have ever heard a real opera voice.. New York Yankee baseball fans, however, remember ROBERT MERRILL whose voice thrilled listeners as he sang the national anthem and, of course, at the MET OPERA. I am performing and recording onto DVDs "The 300 Greatest Love Songs of Broadway Musicals, the Movies and the Grammys." Their release is upcoming soon. I am a Wagnerian romantischer heldentenor. I will sing the four song cycles that are most often performed in their orchestral garb:the complete Wagner's "Wesendonck Lieder," the complete Mahler's "Lieder eines fahrenden Gesellen," the tenor's music in Mahler's "Das Lied von der Erde" and Waldemar's music in Schoenberg's "Gurre-Lieder" at the New Life Expo at the Hotel Pennsylvania in NYC on Saturday March 22nd at 6 PM. I have sung four three-hour-long solo concerts, the last two ALL-WAGNER concerts, in the Isaac Stern Auditorium of Carnegie Hall including programming the Wagner and the first named Mahler song cycle. One may hear my singing LIVE from the main hall, the Isaac Stern Auditorium of CARNEGIE HALL, from my four three-hour-long solo concerts by downloading, FREE, 37 out of the nearly 100 selections that I have sung there by going to RECORDED SELECTIONS on my websites www.WagnerOpera.com,
www.ShakespeareOpera.com and www.RichardWagnerMusicDramaInstitute.com

Feb. 06 2014 08:38 PM

^Andy B. -- Thomas Hampson would be an excellent choice, IMHO. And I still say that Ms. Fleming did a great job, within the confines of the arrangement.

DD~~

Feb. 06 2014 06:44 PM
Andy B. from Lower Merion, PA

It's hard to quibble with things like tempo and who picks the arrangement, etc. They picked an NJSO recording because the Super Bowl was held in NJ, and likely the engineers directing the recording asked for a slower tempo to accommodate the acoustics of a huge stadium. These decisions were made by bureaucrats, not artists. Enough nit-picking. This was a generally very fine performance--five stars. What is interesting is how nervous the best soprano in the world can become over a performance of a fairly simple song.

Renee is one of the few singers in her league, and it's about time they put someone with a real voice to sing the national anthem. I hope they'll continue choosing people with real voices. I'd like Ben Heppner, Thomas Hampson, Karita Matilla, Joyce diDonato, etc. Although, being practical, it's highly unlikely the Super Bowl would choose a non-American singer, so that narrows down the list substantially.

Just for a laugh, could you imagine if they had picked Anna Netrebko...? (my humorous allusion to all the stupid and unnecessary controversy she has generated in the media recently)

Unfortunately, our society is too dumbed-down to know who the real artists are and appreciate their virtues.

Feb. 06 2014 04:04 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Finally found out who this Haylee is. Big deal.

Feb. 05 2014 01:42 PM
Robert Katz from Great Neck ,N.Y.

I'm a sports fan but for me Renee was the highlight of the Super Bowl. What matters is that the masses finally were able to hear a real singer with a major league voice rather than the little league level performers that usually butcher the anthem. She was so superior to others who sang this that the arrangement, tempo and other aspects paled in comparison to her performance, they were not her fault.

Feb. 05 2014 08:54 AM
fedup

http://youtu.be/T8TaxcrYnuk

Feb. 05 2014 03:01 AM
Holliday from Purchase, NY

I thought Ms. Fleming was terrific. She looked gorgeous in proper and understated concert attire and she sounded wonderful. I love the darkening and richness of her voice. The arrangement was flawed but who cares? She made the national anthem sound pretty and real without all the superflous meanderings that popular singers add and, it was a nice tribute with the folks from the armed forces. It was dignified and lovely and proper! She made the classical/opera world proud as far as I'm concerned. As a big football fan (NYG die-hard fan), I was a bit nervous for her -- I was afraid there would be so much criticism simply because she's an opera singer but I was proud!

Feb. 04 2014 02:21 PM
Daniel Polowetzky from NYC

I have fond memories of a summer job running film for the Associated Press during an All-Star Game at Yankee Stadium many years ago. I was standing in the Yankee dug out when Robert Merrill finished singing the National Anthem. He stepped into the dug out and asked, "How did I sound?"
I was astounded by the question! Great! Was he actually in doubt?

As far as Rene Flemings performance, does anyone think she was taking any risks. This is a quick easy gig for a Metropolitan Opera diva. Is not lip syncing really a challenge for such a singer? Any half way decent opera singer can sing this song. All that's required is to stay on pitch, which is not a challenge for a real singer.

Feb. 04 2014 12:41 AM

You make some valid points, Leslie, but the fact that it was a recorded orchestral arrangement gave Ms. Fleming very little room for slowing down or speeding up.

I'm not a naysayer regarding Ms. Fleming or her singing (well, maybe the high note interpolations), but I give a thumbs-down to the arrangement.

I bet she could have sung the heck out of it at a more brisk (and, to me, appropriate) tempo and that every word would have been heard to better effect.

DD~~

Feb. 03 2014 06:52 PM
Leslie from Washington DC

"Slowing down and speeding up?" What are people talking about? In musical performance this is called "phrasing" -- and because of the way Fleming DID phrase the song, FINALLY, the nearly incomprehensible lyric of the national anthem, with its archaic sentence construction, was phrased with such clarity that the intention of every line and the resonance of every phrase was crystal clear. That clarity -- so that finally people could understand what the words of America's song MEAN, plus Fleming's beautiful voice, made her rendition the best I have ever heard.

Feb. 03 2014 05:19 PM
Susanna from New York

She made it sound like music--no easy trick--and both sounded and looked beautiful doing it. Naysayers, away with you!

Feb. 03 2014 03:28 PM

After hearing how other purported singers butchered the National Anthem, I found listening to this performance by Renee Fleming was refreshing. Her voice was as brilliant as ever. Unfortunately, the classical light approach in this flawed arrangement was disappointing. I agree with commentaries on Robert Merrill, and would like to also point out the singing by Sherrill Milnes. Unfortunately I cannot find Sherrill Milnes' recording anywhere. If anyone knows of it, I would appreciate knowing about it. Thank you.

For the interested, I also would like to suggest listening to Mireille Mathieu sing La Marseillaise for an appreciation of how a national anthem should be sung. It was a precise and reverent rendition of the message conveyed in the French National Anthem. Likewise, Merrill and Milnes sang the United States National Anthem with precision, perfection and reverence, without dumming down and unnecessary repeats and embellishments.

Feb. 03 2014 03:17 PM
panabiker from NJ

Finally, they got someone who can sing properly.

Feb. 03 2014 02:41 PM
concetta nardone from Nassau

I remember Robert Merrill. He is one of the nicest memories of my youth.

Feb. 03 2014 02:06 PM
Jeff Werthan from Bethesda

Two thoughts:

Fleming gets an "A" for having the guts to get out there - live - and sing a flawed arrangement well in the elements under extreme pressure.

Would love to know the backstory about why this "operatic" arrangement was used, complete with schmaltzy slowdowns and an unnecessary repeat of "the brave" at the end. The National Anthem is essentially a march - albeit in 3/4 time - that tells a military story, and cadence is important. The gentleman who referred to the late, great Robert Merrill got it right. Still, all in all, wonderful to have the spotlight on opera, and Fleming pulled it off with grace and style.

Feb. 03 2014 02:00 PM
Ron Owens from Mountain Lakes, NJ

Brava Rene! Thanks for singing two, not three notes on "Ban-ner yet wave..." Let's not forget that the melody (?) for our National Anthem was a drinking song. Better they captured that one than "A hundred bottles of beer on the wall."

Feb. 03 2014 01:55 PM
David from Flushing

It seems the only way to get our national anthem to sound well is to rewrite the music. I have long envied the South Koreans with their anthem:

http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CceXXXubvdE

It might surprise people to learn that the display of the flag at the Super Bowl was illegal:

4 U.S. CODE § 8 - RESPECT FOR FLAG
No disrespect should be shown to the flag of the United States of America; the flag should not be dipped to any person or thing. Regimental colors, State flags, and organization or institutional flags are to be dipped as a mark of honor.
...
(c) The flag should never be carried flat or horizontally, but always aloft and free.

Feb. 03 2014 12:54 PM
Gev Sweeney from The Jersey Shore

Puccini blues.

Feb. 03 2014 11:21 AM
meg20102011 from Teaneck, NJ

Great choice of Renee Fleming to sing the National Anthem.Great voice, very well done!!

Feb. 03 2014 10:54 AM
Bruin from Westchester, NY

Overblown, schmaltzy and dumbed-down for the masses. We all know she can hit the high notes... interpolating them here was a sacrelige, IMHO. Just give it to me as it's written, please! And at a normal tempo! (Where's Kate Smith when she's needed?!)

Feb. 03 2014 10:37 AM
Bob from NJ

Was hoping to finally hear an accurate rendition of our National Anthem sung by a prominent operatic star suprano. Sadly I was disappointed in both the singer and her arrangement. Seems no one can get it right. Always some rediculous variations have to be thrown in. In contrast, the "ne plus ultra" rendition, in my opinion, was performed by the late Robert Merrill. Renee should have listened to that and taken heed.

Feb. 03 2014 10:16 AM
SMT from Dallas

Agreed! Sung as our national anthem should be sung! with pride, articulation and passion for this great nation.

God bless you Haylee and those who agree with you. Good luck.

Feb. 03 2014 09:49 AM
Dee581 from NY

Renee -- what a classy diva.

Feb. 03 2014 09:34 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Who the hell is Haylee? Oh dear, never heard of her.

Feb. 03 2014 09:20 AM
Beverly Joy from cambridge

This was an absolutely stunning performance on Ms Fleming's part, but I agree with other posters that pan the arrangement - it was embarrassing to hear how slowly the song was sung! It gave the impression of someone trying to milk their time in the spotlight for every extra minute they could get, and this song took SEVERAL extra minutes to drag along. As a fan, I mourn the lost opportunity to open up the world of opera to literally millions of people who had never 'sat through an operatic song' and to possibly win some of them over with its outstanding beauty. Now when they think 'opera' they will think 'pompous melodrama'.

Feb. 03 2014 07:46 AM
concetta nardone from Nassau

Very nice but did not care for the high notes at the end. Only turned it on to listen to Ms. Fleming, then went on to watch Puppy Bowl, Kitten Bowl and Downton Abbey. However, when I went to watch the finale of the game, I caught a glimpse of the Sea Hawk on the arm of the falconer. I really liked seeing that beauty of a bird.

Feb. 03 2014 07:21 AM
Marilyn McLean from The Villages, Florida

The orchestral arrangement (harmonization) was dreadful. Was so excited that an opera singer would be performing. BUT this song speaks about bombs bursting in air, not a sail down a lake. And why did she have to add the high note at the end. Just sing it the way it was written. What a disappointment!

Feb. 03 2014 07:11 AM
Barry Owen Furrer

I too, was disappointed with the arrangement although the quality of the performance in my opinion was excellent. If you're looking for a stirring operatic rendition of SSB, might I suggest Arturo Toscanini with the NBC Symphony, Jan Peerce, and the Westminster Choir College? It can be found on YouTube under Verdi/Hymn Of The Nations, etc. and appears at the end of part 2. After all these years, I believe the finest arrangement of any patriotic song is Carmen Dragon's setting of "America, The Beautiful" for concert band which has since been transcribed for orchestra.

Feb. 03 2014 06:42 AM
Ira from Israel

One of the worst, idiosyncratic arrangements ever. Yes, she can sing. She's an opera star. I would hope so.

Feb. 03 2014 04:31 AM
Les from Miami, Florida

At least for once, an audience of presumably --- who knows for sure --- non-opera fans, got a chance to hear a properly trained voice in all its glory. I didn't like the arrangement, either, but I didn't mind the interpolated A's. What I did mind were all of the cutaways to the players, rather than focusing entirely on Rene'e Fleming. Then again, I think because of popular culture and the visual media in general, we're an "instant society" with a very short attention span. I was delighted that the announcer said what he did: "Have you ever heard it sung any better?" after which I promptly turned it off.

Feb. 03 2014 04:29 AM

I agree that the arrangement was dreadful, but Ms. Fleming acquitted herself very well. I wish she hadn't "belted out the final high A (twice)."

I was hoping for a more traditional rendition.

DD~~

Feb. 03 2014 01:38 AM
PAMELA from IDAHO

ABSOLUTELY BEAUTIFUL

Feb. 03 2014 12:33 AM

Renee garnered applause and cheers all around at the bar I watched the game at, and these were Not opera fans, I can assure you.

Feb. 02 2014 11:27 PM
BobbyB

A fabulous performance! The N.J. Symphony was pre-recorded, so any comments on length should be directed to them and not to Ms. Fleming.

Feb. 02 2014 11:23 PM
The Truth from LES

Who is this Haylee? Maybe she should start listening to something besides whatever country-rap-hip-hop crap she normally listens to!

Yes, the arrangement made the whole thing feel slightly soupy and adrift - but I'll take it over any number of crummy rap renditions!

Feb. 02 2014 09:38 PM

Renee rocked it!

Feb. 02 2014 09:35 PM
Walt A. from Berlin, NJ

Absolutely terrific!

Feb. 02 2014 09:22 PM

To Haylee, Maybe you could do it better, by all means please post it on
here so we can see how it should be done! Get a Life!

Feb. 02 2014 08:49 PM

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