Last week, despite the fact that I'm in the middle of rehearsing a show in Omaha with my one-year-old son tugging on my leg in between rehearsals, I couldn't help but write a blog post about the hullabaloo surrounding the very first opera singer to sing the National Anthem at the Super Bowl. Maybe you read it? It only got around 60,000 likes on Facebook, so you know...
Anyway (shameless self-promotion finished), the National Anthem happened. And inevitably there were opinions that followed. LOTS of opinions. But the thing I don't think any of us predicted was the fact that most of the reactions to her singing were extremely positive. There was very little yuck and a whole lot of praise. There was even an article in USA Today that suggested that we only have classically-trained musicians perform the national anthem from now on. Huh?
But then the classical music world started to weigh in. I guess it was only natural that we had all pinned a lot of hopes on this moment -- a moment where a whole lot of people might be hearing an opera singer for the very first time. We hoped that people who had a negative or non-existent opinion about opera would wake up to this art form that we all find so compelling and life-affirming. We hoped that some of the millions of people who thought of opera as a joke would maybe see that it wasn't. That was certainly what I hoped, which is why I wrote my little primer beforehand.
But all the reasons we love opera are the same reasons that there were classical music critics who wrote reviews of her national anthem. Some rather nasty, condescending and frankly, downright bitchy reviews. There were comments on Facebook and Twitter -- and I was not opinion-less in the matter myself. From the "classical community" I'd say there were three camps.
There were those that were absolutely moved and impressed by Renee's performance. They thought it was spot-on, fabulous, and were proud that we had such a wonderful ambassador for our art form.
The second camp of people were disappointed by a few things. Maybe they were surprised to hear the low key of the anthem considering Renee's glorious high notes, or they wondered about the distinctly "popera" flavor with which she imbued especially the beginning phrases. There were some people (me) who can't stand the National Anthem in 4/4 time, and who found it curious that she sang so much of it in her chest voice. However, the people in this camp also realized that it was the National Anthem, not an opera aria. They remembered that it was very cold outside and she was in the middle of singing a run of Rusalka at the Met. Upon further consideration, they thought about how they would feel if they had to sing anything in front of a billion people. And they realized all the factors that Renee had to juggle in order to execute this historical event. And then they thought -- you know what? She WAS the Renee we all know and admire, and she actually sang the @#$% out of it, especially when you consider all of the above.
Then there was the third camp. The camp of classical music devotees so fierce they can get a little crazed. But also, unfortunately, mean. I found this article in the New York Times before the Super Bowl to be extremely smug and condescending with its parenthetical sighs and it's distillation of the country's top soprano as "very good." However, the same critic gave Renee a pretty good review after the fact, which I had to give him credit for. The same couldn't be said for another well-known reviewer, who not only criticized Renee's singing as if it was Porgi Amor from Nozze di Figaro (a notoriously difficult aria that Renee happened to be famous for in the beginning of her career) but ended the article by including the mention of a random tweet about Renee's appearance that I found appalling. I'm not even going to link to the article, that's how offended I was by it. That, along with the chatter, comments and posts on social media made me wonder about we artists (myself included) and our need to analyze and criticize our own kind to death. As I've mentioned in my posts, what we do IS very difficult and requires a lot of attention, talent and study. And somehow invites an equal amount of critique, nay-saying and even downright cruelty. I have rarely read reviews as scathing as the ones I sometimes read about opera singers, and this is both a testament to the voraciousness of our fans as well as an alarm warning us to the dangers of eating our own species. Is it necessary for our survival for us to crucify one another in order to keep the art form pure? I'm not entirely certain but my instincts tell me no.
Because right now I'm in the middle of Omaha, Nebraska working on a production of Handel's Agrippina. The last time a Handel opera was staged in Nebraska was 1988, and this happens to be a brand new production with an outstanding team and an exciting cast of young upcoming singers. The production is full of all the blood, guts, sex and glory that opera is revered for, alongside the modernity that this troupe of singing actors and this inventive stage director are bringing to the piece. It certainly doesn't feel like a dying art form in need of the most extreme form of life support to me.
I don't exclude myself from these warnings. I can be just as critical as the next guy about someone's singing. I can snob it up with the best of them. But I also usually manage to remind myself of the humanity of what we are doing, and in the end, that tempers my opinion. I think the love of the art form and the artists is more powerful than the need to tear them down. At least I hope so.