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5 Things You Need to Know About Opera Before This Super Bowl

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Siri Stafford via Getty Images
Siri Stafford via Getty Images

Some people seem to have a problem with the fact that there's an opera singer singing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. People like this guy, (who's he?) and this guy, who calls himself a reporter and should know better. So here are several pieces of information you should know about opera before you see Renee Fleming belt out the national anthem Sunday.

1. Yes, opera singers can sing louder and higher than what you're used to hearing, and that doesn't make opera suck. Just the opposite actually. Most pop singers have a range of less than an octave -- that's eight notes. Some have a bit more, but pop singers tend to sing in the same range they speak in, while opera singers sing in that range as well as a bunch more notes. Why? Opera has always been written as an art form that is used to showcase the full capacity of what the human voice can accomplish, which means being able to stretch the vocal cords to sing ALL OF THE NOTES without any amplification -- which is why opera singers have to study their craft for years and years before they can work professionally. Which brings me to my next point.

2. Opera singers have to train for years and then always have to work their butts off. So, you know how when you go to a sporting event or an amusement park or even a bar and you scream for a couple of hours and the next day your voice is all hoarse? This is what opera singers spend all those years learning how not to have that happen to them. We basically learn how to stretch our ranges to larger than that of our speaking voices the same way athletes learn how to high jump or turn a single spin into a quadruple axel -- by practicing every day for many years. We also teach our insides how to breathe so well that we can send that sound out to as many as 4,000 people without any microphones. We also study languages, movement, acting, music history, music theory and a bunch of other stuff that I won't bore you with right now. But suffice it to say, opera is a job that requires multitasking. We're not a bunch of dopes who scream.

3. The actual operas we sing were composed from around the 1600s all the way until this very moment, so they are incredibly varied. I think a lot of people who don't know much about opera think of one of three things: people with horns singing loudly, Bugs Bunny or maybe somebody like Andrea Bocelli or more recently Il Divo. Opera as an art form is actually quite alive, even though the canon spans back to way into olden times. A lot of people I have run into don't realize two things: Even if the music for an opera is really old (or sometimes just kinda old) the presentation of it can be totally modernized and cool because each director adds his or her spin to the stories. You know how certain movies get remade periodically because the stories are so good that people can't help but add their own interpretation? This happens with operas. And simultaneously, there are brand new operas being composed all the time, often with familiar stories. This summer I'll be singing in the opera version of Dead Man Walking, and just this month an opera version of Brokeback Mountain premiered in Spain. We're old, we're new -- you don't know where we're coming from. If you're bored, go to Youtube and type in Handel Opera, Puccini Opera or 20th Century Opera and see all the craziness that comes up. You'll be surprised.

4. Opera was into color blind casting way before it was a thing. In 1945 an African-American soprano Camilla Williams sang several leading roles at New York City Opera, and in 1955 an African-American contralto named Marian Anderson was the first black person to sing a leading role at the Met (the most important opera house in the United States). This was at a time when some states still had separate water fountains. In opera today it's not unusual to find an African-American Juliette in Romeo and Juliette, or an Asian Violetta in La Traviata without the blink of an eye. Because in opera the quality and ability of the voice is the most important aspect of casting, the best singer wins the job regardless of what the color of their skin is, no matter the era of the story being told. A lot of African-American Hollywood actors and actresses point out the fact that many of the leading roles they are offered are still ones of servitude -- not so for opera singers of various colors and ethnicities. I realize this has nothing to do with Renee singing the National Anthem, but since the lyrics talk about the land of the free, I thought I'd mention that one of the freedoms for which our forefathers fought -- the freedom of equality -- is something at which opera happens to be exemplary in many aspects. I'm not saying there isn't plenty of room for improvement in our industry, just pointing out some things we have been able to accomplish.

5. Opera is not just for the rich. Period. Let's talk about how much tickets cost to attend the Super Bowl. In general, they are much more expensive than tickets to the opera. Yes, wealthy people do donate money in order for any non-profit arts organization to be able to exist, but the idea that only wealthy people perform in and attend the opera is false. The stories told in opera are as varied as the stories told in Hollywood (see point three), and while they are usually performed in the languages in which they were composed (Italian, French, German, English, sometimes Czech or Russian), there will always be a translation projected above the stage. The people on stage performing the vocal acrobatics are all shapes, sizes and colors, who just happened to have studied for years to be able to flex our vocal muscles. We, the singers, are also not rich. The very, very few who happen to become super famous (like Renee) are still nowhere near as rich as a C level Hollywood actor. And the bulk of us are just making a middle class living like everyone else. Which is why I feel the need to defend the art form when the general population starts bashing it. It's not some high fallutin' hoity toity thing we do. It's just bringing stories to people with musical instruments inside our throats trained to do just that.

So next time a "reporter" suggests that we're up there singing just because we "love the sound of our own voices" you'll know he's full of it.