Sunday night’s SuperBowl XLVIII might not have been as close a competition as sports fans would have liked, but classical music fans were on the edge of their seats. At least for two minutes at the beginning.
Internationally renowned operatic soprano (and Rochester, NY, native) Renée Fleming was tagged to perform the National Anthem. Reviews of her performance range from a glowing on-air accolade (“Have you ever heard it sung any better?” breathed play-by-play announcer Joe Buck) to a dig on her wardrobe (“[She] looked like a wedding cake topper,” claimed Anne Midgette of the Washington Post).
The general consensus was that Fleming performed beautifully. And no one expected anything different from the Grammy-award winning artist, whose career has spanned over a quarter century in some of the most demanding roles the operatic world has to offer.
So why were classical music fans so… well, nervous?
Symphony orchestras have been under fire across the country, facing budget cuts, dwindling audiences, and in some cases, closing doors. The Minnesota Orchestra only recently went back to work, after a prolonged battle with management and an actual, physical lockout from Orchestra Hall. The Syracuse Symphony Orchestra folded in 2011, although it is now finding its footing again through Symphoria. One would assume that classical music fans would be ecstatic to see their genre represented so prominently in a nationally televised event.
But for lovers of orchestral music and the opera, there was far more at stake Sunday night than the NFL football championship. Many viewed Fleming’s performance as kind of test, a litmus to gauge current public opinion of classical music. And not just any public, mind you — football public.
What if they booed? What if the applause was lackluster? What if Fleming tried to be too “mainstream”, attempting to copy the style of embellishments and pop flourishes favored by artists like Beyonce during her notorious performance at the 2013 Inauguration? What fate then for classical music?
The fears proved groundless. Fleming was graciously and enthusiastically received not only by a stadium full of football-loving, jersey-wearing fans, but also by the perhaps harder-to-please crowd of media outlets.
Greg Kot of the Chicago Tribune said, “The world-class soprano didn’t showboat as she effortlessly sailed into high notes that have bedeviled more popular entertainers.”
And Midgette, in addition to her “wedding topper” comparison, remarked, “My sense was that Fleming… succeeded admirably at bringing opera to the table in a way that might get it invited back.”
Did Fleming go into the performance with the goal of single-handedly saving classical music? Probably not. She most likely approached it the same way she’s approached every performance in her illustrious career — with poise, perfection, and panache. It was less about making herself look good and far more about making beautiful music.
And the crowd seemed to like it just fine.