Renée Fleming, Opera Ambassador to the World of Sport
Renée Flemingdid a top-notch job of singing our national anthem at the Super Bowl last night, don’t you think? She is a heck of a singer.
In case you missed it, here it is . . .
Today, the day after, tweets are flying and bloggers are writing. Some commentators seem to think that somehow, her singing of one song – not even an opera aria – could cause opera-ignorant people to suddenly want to investigate the genre. I notice that no commentators are wondering whether Ms. Fleming’s performance at the Super Bowl will cause legions of opera fans to start watching football. Why is that?
Let’s face a few facts. Most Americans are, and apparently want to be, completely ignorant about opera. When I talk with many well-educated Americans, I am often astounded by the level of ignorance that I encounter. One smart, professional woman I know believed that all opera is sung in Italian, for example, until I told her otherwise. Another acquaintance never realized that operas tell stories, or that there are costumes and sets. Another thought that a performance of “Nessun Dorma” constitutes a complete opera in itself. I met a couple who believed that Andrea Boccelli is the leading tenor at the Metropolitan Opera. I could go on and on.
Perhaps it’s all because music has been largely relegated to the sidelines of American public education. But I don’t know. When I went to a public high school, our music classes exposed students to Aida, Madama Butterfly, and a handful of other operas. And as far as I know, hardly anybody developed an interest in opera.
Opera Just Isn’t Part of American Culture
A few days ago in the New York Times, critic Zachary Woolfe wrote a thoughtful article, “Finally, Real Diva in Lineup for Game,” in which he wrote about Renee Fleming’s then-upcoming performance of “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the Super Bowl. He also wrote about Luciano Pavarotti’s performance of “Nessun Dorma” at the 1990 World Cup, predicting (I think) that Ms. Fleming’s performance would cause lots of people to become more interested in opera.
“Once upon a time in this country, about 100 years ago, opera was a genuinely popular art form,” Woolfe wrote. “The first sound recording to sell a million copies was the tenor Enrico Caruso’s version of `Vesti la giubba,’ . . . early in the 1900s.”
I understand the point that Mr. Woolfe is making, but I think that the sales of Caruso 78’s had a lot more to do with the new availability of record players than it had to do with opera being “a genuinely popular art form” in America. How many of the people who bought Caruso recordings packed up and went to see an opera? For many of them, no live performances were happening nearby anyway. In a modern repeat of a similar phenomenon, millions of people watched “Three Tenors” on PBS, but how many of them were motivated to attend an actual opera? Maybe .005%? Chances are that the high-definition opera telecasts that the Met is beaming into movie theaters across America will attract people to opera – it seems to be happening. And when those people go to movie theaters to watch, they are seeing real operas and will get a real glimpse of what opera really is.
If you want to see a culture where opera is “a genuinely popular art form,” you’d have to go back to the German-speaking European countries of about 50 years ago or earlier, when most medium-sized towns had thriving opera houses of their own. Or back to Italy 100 years ago, pre-Mussolini, when something similar was happening.
No one rendition of “Nessun Dorma” or “The Star Spangled Banner” is going to awaken Americans to opera. As a heretical question, let me ask, why do opera fans want everybody to love opera? Opera-lovers are like members of a religion who think that other people can only be happy if they are converted.
Instead of looking for converts as a result of Ms. Fleming’s wonderful performance, all I can do is thank her for serving as a very capable and appealing ambassador from the musical world to the more widely appreciated world of sport.
“A thing of beauty is a joy forever,” as Keats wrote. For one moment in the national spotlight, football and opera fans had that in common. That was plenty. And maybe that was enough.