Renée Fleming Brings Opera to 100 Million at Super Bowl XLVIII

“Grammy Award-Winner and Soprano Superstar” Renée Fleming brought her silky but power packed voice to Super Bowl XLVII in an artistic performance featuring both vocal command and expressive taste. It was a banner moment for Fleming and a pop culture endorsement of classical music training. The show’s producers gave Fleming the requisite backing ensemble—the hometown New Jersey Symphony—and patriotic pageantry—featuring a military color guard, armed forces chorus, fireworks “bursting in air,” a cutaway to troops in the field, and a dramatic helicopter flyover—to create a truly memorable performance. My only complaints are that the complex arrangement (which switches from 4/4 to 3/4) and apparent technical problems with the sound, especially the balance between soloist and supporting cast, detracted from an otherwise strong, live vocal performance.

Performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” at the nation’s most watched sporting event is a treacherous proposition at best. The opportunity of reaching 100 million viewers is matched by the danger of making a mistake on this the biggest of American stages. The vocals must be live, despite the crazy acoustics and unpredictable environment of outdoor performance, or the singer will be mercilessly panned. Certainly Fleming acquitted herself beautifully, avoiding the pitfalls inherent in Francis Scott Key’s text, while showing of the eloquence, range, and power of her voice. Repeating the words “the brave” to close her performance, for example, gave her the opportunity to linger over the high A, showcasing her skill as the 101st Airborne’s helicopters buzzed past the stadium in military salute.

Welcomed by four bars of gentle introduction from a full orchestra, Fleming opens the anthem with a smokey intimacy over string accompaniment. Her speech-like phrasing draws the listener in and the arrangement’s 4/4 time gives the soprano space to milk the long vowels of the text and add subtle details of expressive nuance. The arrangement expands by a bar following the text “at the twilight’s last gleaming” to introduce the choristers of the armed forces, who echo and reiterate the text. While the choral support is nice and adds a hymn-like reverence, for me the added bar delays and deflates the emotional journey of Key’s lyric.

The accompaniment warms for the next phrase “Whose broad stripes and bright stars…” and at the words “perilous fight” the screen dramatically cuts away to the brave men (and one woman?) of the 2nd Cavalry, standing at attention in Kandahar, Afganistan—the crowd in Jersey cheers in support. As Fleming’s voice expands, the chorus enters more fully and bass timbres predominate, again an extra 4/4 bar is inserted at the end of the phrase, here focusing on flute but otherwise lacking momentum. The timpani rolls proudly to propel the text as Fleming reaches the apex of the melody with Key’s dramatic depiction of “the rockets’ red glare” and “bombs bursting in air.” Red fireworks explode from the upper ring of MetLife Stadium to illustrate the text.

It is at this point, and with the lyric “gave proof through the night,” that the arrangement accelerates, dropping a beat per measure and switching to 3/4 time. The resulting effect, especially given the low level of the accompaniment in the mix and its smooth stylized string and wind textures (rather than say a percussion dominated texture, punctuated by brass)  risks throwing off the listener into metric confusion. Where’s the beat? The accompaniment all but drops away at this critical moment and indeed Fleming appears to fall behind the ensemble, further destabilizing the sense of regular pulse.

Nevertheless, Fleming carries the ensemble, driving forward dramatically. On the word “free,” she offers her first operatic moment, flipping quickly up the fourth to reveal the upper range of her voice and holding her highest pitch (an A two octaves above the tune’s lowest) for two full extra measures (clearly pre-planned as these are built into the arrangement). A dramatic syncopation on the words “the brave” punctuates the final cadence, which Fleming extends in her second diva move, reiterating the text “the brave” to sustain the high A one more time, and past the cut off of the accompaniment. Fleming acquits herself ably and, while she might have taken a few extra takes to polish the performance in a recording studio, she easily exceeds expectations for a live outdoor performance.

For me, Fleming’s rendition is easily one of the strongest Super Bowl Banners in recent memory. One has to go back to Whitney Houston in 1991 to locate a deserving rival. Houston lacks some of the polished sophistication of Fleming’s rendition, but in the context of the First Gulf War, Houston’s raw enthusiasm, and the tight military band arrangement, the 1991 performance still ranks as my #1.

One final note—the most amusing comments I’ve read on social media praise Fleming not so much for her voice, but for the correctness of her approach, performing the Banner in its “original” version and “just the way Francis Scott Key would have done it.” While I’m fairly certain Key would recognize the song as we perform it today, he’d be more than a little perplexed by the meter, melodic additions, and tempo we use in our so-called “traditional” approach. He’d be especially disappointed that today we leave out three of his four verses and that we dropped the choral refrain, vital to the social affirmation of the original arrangement. Here’s a version, a bit closer at least to the way Key might have heard it. If you’re interested in hearing more early versions of the anthem, see the recording Poets & Patriots: A Tuneful History of “The Star-Spangled Banner”  just released by the Star Spangled Music Foundation.

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P.S. It’s truly unfortunate the the NFL could credit neither the New Jersey Symphony nor arranger Rob Mathes — both deserve recognition, if not on the telecast then by other means.

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About usmusicscholar

I am an Associate Professor of Musicology, American Culture and African-American Studies at the University of Michigan's School of Music, Theatre & Dance.
This entry was posted in Arranging, Football, meter, Renée Fleming, Sports, Super Bowl and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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