Opera megastar Renée Fleming is singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl on Sunday. For some reason, this has made some people upset. So I would like to say, in the nicest way possible, let’s sit down and figure this out as friends. You idiots. I mean, I don’t know who you want to sing The Star Spangled Banner, but Justin Bieber is in jail, so he is not available. Okay, that was a low blow. I know that he is out on bail. I apologize.
In order to trace the history of this upsetting debacle, let us look back at the past few anthem singers that have performed at this epic sporting event. Last year it was Alicia Keys, currently known for her hit song that everyone likes because it reminds them of “The Hunger Games.” The year before that we had Kelly Clarkson, and she was preceded by Christina Aguilera, Carrie Underwood, Jennifer Hudson, and Jordin Sparks. So to put things in perspective, out of the past six singers, four of them have been American Idol contestants (and one of the other two is currently judging an American Idol-esque singing competition). Here is where we have the problem.
There is a difference in styles between the world of opera and the world of American Idol. It’s not that one is good and one is bad, but it’s more like one is great, and one is really, really terrible. If you want to get a good eye roll out of an opera singer, ask them what they think of American Idol. And I know it often goes the other way too. And yet, the divide is really not as wide as one might think.
One of the major criticisms of current pop singers that I hear from my opera buddies is that these young upstarts are adding way, way, way, way too many notes into the songs they are singing. The over-melismation of music is a real concern to many people. And yet, I’m sorry to inform you, opera fricking invented that. Do the Idolists overuse and abuse the melisma (the practice of singing many notes on one syllable of text)? Clearly they do. They want to be Whitney Houston, the mistress of melisma, and Super Bowl anthem singer from 1991. But they can’t be her. So they try to outdo her, which they also cannot do. But none of them are doing anything that opera singers haven’t done first.
I feel that, in the world of opera, there is often a slavish loyalty to how things are supposed to be done. You are free to make up your own cadenza, as long as it is stylistically appropriate and similar to everyone else’s cadenza. And we’d better not hear any Classical sounding elisions in a Romantic era piece. But back in the day people used to go to the same opera multiple times, just to hear how the singers were going to mess with it! That happens a little these days, but not as much. It’s like we are holding on so tight to the way that things used to be that we sometimes lose the art of how it could be. This current generation does not care about how things used to be. They want something new and exciting. And sometimes, just sometimes mind you, doing an old thing really well is new and exciting to them. That is our job as performers. We must connect the audience to the piece in a way that seems fresh, even if it has been done in a similar way, many times before.
So Renée Fleming has an uphill battle, in a way. She is going to be singing for a bunch of drunk idiots who are eating wings and wishing that Miley Cyrus was singing the thing half-naked and licking a football. But Ms. Fleming is one of the most accomplished singers of our time, so if anyone can draw in an audience like that, she’s the one to do it. The question is, will she do it full on operatically? Or will she try to Whitney Houston the thing? That’s up to her, I suppose. I can’t wait to hear her. And if things go south, she can always lick something.