It's no secret that opera, and opera singers, have a public relations problem. Opera is perceived (by those non-fans who give it a second thought at all) as an expensive, snobby, upperclass entertainment with an audience populated by people who look and sound like Thurston Howell the Third and his airheaded wife Lovey; and/or an antiquated, dusty, stuffy art form with no relevance to modern life.
Opera singers get an even worse rap. First of all, we're all fat; we all go around wearing horned helmets and breastplates; we make a lot of money (hahahahahahahahaha) and we're all big divas who expect to be driven around in limos and who throw things at our dressers.
And apparently --- at least according to one fella I got into a little kerfluffle with on a friend's FaceBook timeline, singers are all hysterical, oversensitive, torch-bearing villagers when it comes to receiving criticism. He thought it was perhaps because we are all so used to receiving constant and over-the-top adulation and coddling from all quarters --- clearly this is someone who has no experience with the reality of the singing world.
Renee Fleming's Superbowl appearance sparked a firestorm of commentary in the operatic world. My timeline exploded with posts and links to reviews, and in a moment of high spirits, I created a meme which at this writing has nearly 1000 shares. (I'm surprised not to have seen any others).
After all, this was opera's Big Mainstream Moment, and most of the operatic world, regardless of their feelings about Fleming (whose frequent embellishments are, after all, controversial) saw this as an opportunity for our current biggest American star to represent. It's true that we singers feel a little beat up by the encroachment on our beloved art form by kiddie stars,"popera" artists who could be vocally bested by any grad student, and reality show contestants who are praised to high heavens for their raw and largely undeveloped talent, while years of training and serious study are ignored and even looked down upon. Why bother, when you can learn an "opera song" off YouTube, sing it on national TV with no understanding of technique, performance practice, or what you're even singing about, and become an overnight sensation?
And it's true that we appreciate a honed vocal technique as well as talent and real musicianship --- not just in classical music, as some believe. Most of the singers I know are aficionados of all different genres of music, and good singing is good singing, no matter what the genre. (It's not just classical musicians, either --- check out the brillant Harry Connick, Jr. trying to educate a would-be star about a tiny little bit of music theory and getting shouted down by an enraged and aggressively ignorant Jennifer Lopez). So yes, even though some of us enjoy the guilty pleasure of the auto-tuned antics of some very mediocre but slickly packaged talent, there is a level of resentment there, too. Don't get me wrong: I think few opera singers want those people's careers. But it'd be really nice to have some of that kind of money, and that kind of recognition, for opera.
So yes, Renee singing the national anthem at the Super Bowl was HUGE. We fussed and worried about it in the days leading up to it. We got mad at stupid and uninformed commentary from sportscasters who'd never set foot in an opera house and were too lazy to do any research before getting their snark in. And in the aftermath, it was disheartening to see some critics who ostensibly love opera rain on the parade. Was this really the moment for snark about one of our own, from our own? As baritone Wes Mason wrote in his blog, "I don't get why some of us can't be happy for what just happened."
I've actually performed in an opera with Renee Fleming --- however briefly --- and although she wouldn't remember me at all my opinion of her as a charming, sincere colleague and amazing singer with possibly the most ravishingly beautiful voices God ever bestowed on a human being was formed by that experience.
So perhaps I'm a wee bit biased, but IMHO she rocked the anthem. She represented Big O perfectly, which was the main thing we needed and wanted from her. She looked every inch the star she is in her stunning Vera Wang gown which showed off her svelte figure; she radiated charm; she sang with great sincerity and artistry and a minimal amount of her trademark swoopiness so despised by many opera purists. She showed what great technique and elegant artistry can do, and while I doubt many new converts are going to race to the opera house to buy tickets, I hope that some will not automatically discount opera as an art form. I hope some will linger a little longer to listen when an aria comes on TV. And yes, I hope a few people who might not otherwise have done so will buy tickets to hear grand opera.
And I hope, perhaps foolishly, that some people will have realized, listening to her, the difference between style and substance. The difference between real technique earned by hours in the practice room and in the teacher's studio versus raw talent which is too often promoted as a finished product. The difference between passion and taste informed by study and a broad knowledge of history, styles, and trends versus "heart" . The difference between carefully developed abilities and repertoire chosen to highlight those abilities versus a slickly engineered sound which owes its qualities and pitchworthiness to Autotune.
I did say it was perhaps foolish. But in addition to being a fat, horn-wearing, limo-riding, dresser-abusing, filthy rich diva, I'm an optimist. ;)