As the NFL takes over the tri-state area in anticipation of the Super Bowl on Sunday, Feb. 2, the grandiosity of this annual event could be called operatic, and that’s not only because Renée Fleming is singing the national anthem.
To tease out some of the similarities between the gridiron and the opera stage, we called in composer Peter Stopschinski, librettist Kirk Lynn and director Luke Leonard, the team behind Bum Phillips All-American Opera, a new stage work about O.A. “Bum” Phillips, the head coach of the Houston Oilers from 1975 to 1980. The work is to receive its world premiere at La Mama in March. Here are their top five:
“The least talented person performing is incredibly talented,” says Lynn of both the football field and the opera stage. Moreover, both realms force either singers or players to face several hours worth of physical tests, whether it’s singing a high C above a full orchestra or making an incredible catch to score a touchdown. Furthermore, the fans in both audiences pay top dollar to watch these super-human feats being accomplished.
Stopschinski was inspired by the actually sounds of the football game in composing the score to Bum Phillips. "There definitely is a flow to a football game, but there is also a jerkiness to the play. We actually scored plays from three of the Oiler’s playoff games," he said. The composer also spent hours watching footage of in-the-huddle chants and listening to play-by-play calls. “The cadence of the announcers is very musical. They pretty much scored Dick Enberg’s calls note-for-note using the inflection of his voice.” Stopschinski isn’t the first person to try to score the sounds of the gridiron; Charles Ives also attempted to do the same in his 1898 piece for orchestra, Yale-Princeton Football Game.
Meanwhile, the melodramatic and over-the-top verbiage bandied about on the field was also well suited for an opera. There are a lot of clichés, but it’s beautiful because the other side of a cliché is that it becomes universally understood, so if you use wordplay the audience understands it immediately." Phillips’s witticisms, such as “The harder we played, the behinder we got,” provided an almost endless source for the librettist.
4. Larger-than-life characters
Like opera, football isn’t just about the in-game action, but also the personalities that occupy the field of play. A game is as much about the score as the players' personal triumphs and failures; similarly, opera revolves around characters. “The opera is not about football, it’s about Bum Phillips and the sacrifices he made,” says Leonard. "The story of Bum Phillips is a story about a life of great passion," Stopschinski added. There’s this sort of grandness to it. One can say the same about most of opera’s protagonists from Falstaff to Siegfreid.
Angela Gheorghiu and Richard Sherman meet the microphone.
“There's something similar in the way that football fans get dressed up for a game with jerseys and facepaint, and the way that opera fans get dressed up in their cocktail attire,” says Kirk, drawing parallels between the voyeurism of the loges and the stadium seats, as well as the rituals of tailgating and the pre-opera champagne bar. However, it doesn’t require any knowledge of football or opera to see similarities between Viking fans and Wagner’s Ring nuts.