Renowned operatic soprano Renee Fleming did a beautiful, unique rendition of "The Star-Spangled Banner" before kickoff of Super Bowl XLVIII Sunday, Feb. 2, between the Seattle Seahawks and Denver Broncos.
Fleming was a polarizing selection to sing the American national anthem because of her style. The precedent has been to have pop stars do their take on the historic tune. Often the piece can become glamorized, with too much ornamentation, vocal runs or spins of originality.
To deliver an epic performance on this grand of a stage at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J., it took nothing more than Fleming's natural talent and mostly strict adherence to the song to allow her efforts to be a great success.
The Seahawks' official Twitter account used the adjective "classy" to describe Fleming, which was rather appropriate:
With her fluttering, effortless high register, sheer power and impeccable control of her vibrato, Fleming was brilliant, prompting Fox broadcaster Joe Buck to say he'd never heard it sung better.
Bleacher Report's Aaron Nagler endorsed the lobbying efforts by NFL.com's Judy Battista to campaign for Fleming as an annual fixture at the Super Bowl:
It was especially impressive considering the vocal dynamo did such an exceptional job with the knowledge that the cold could impact her. The high stakes of Super Bowl Sunday made the gravity of the moment even greater.
Thankfully the weather cooperated and wasn't as frigid as it could have been. The big stage isn't unfamiliar to a singer of Fleming's caliber, but this was nevertheless quite a different experience than the opera house.
When she got the offer from the NFL to do the gig, Fleming didn't even think it was serious, as reported by the AP's Rob Merrill:
Really, I just rejected it out of hand. I just thought, "Oh that's ridiculous, you know, it must be a joke." Nobody's going to ask me to sing for the Super Bowl, even the national anthem, because it's just never been done, that anybody who was in classical music or any other genre, frankly, other than really mainstream, successful, top-selling, commercial, mainstream artists. So I was stunned when it was real.
Although the way Fleming sings requires her almost by default to hold notes for longer counts as her sound swells, it accentuates the crescendos and decrescendos, creating a far more dynamic national anthem.
Pop singers such as the late, great Whitney Houston can pull off similar vocal acrobatics and drive home a similar punch with the proper emphasis on certain points of the song. Sporting News' Vinnie Iyer wondered whether Fleming beat out Houston for the best Super Bowl national anthem performance ever:
Last year's performer was Alicia Keys—a sensational artist who infuses hints of R&B, soul and jazz into her work, but still caters to a mass audience as a mainstream superstar.
Keys' anthem went on for an unprecedented 156.4 seconds, and the over/under for Fleming's time was 145 seconds, per the Houston Chronicle's David Barron. ESPN's Darren Rovell pointed out how Fleming went well under that running time:
The styles were starkly different between last year and this year. Keys' piano-accompanied version was sung well but dragged on at a slow tempo and had various pauses.
While Fleming did run longer on Sunday than the average singer would, she was all raw, all real and all-world.
The main takeaway is that Fleming was tasked with being compelling without a prerecorded backing track. She had to command the attention of the millions of worldwide viewers, and did she ever.
Based on how amazing Fleming was, it's conceivable that similar acts will follow in future NFL finales. If not, this was a worthwhile venture away from the status quo. It showcased a special talent in Fleming whose selection to sing was well worth the reactionary risk with her virtuoso effort.