Worry Not: Fleming Still Calls Classical Music Home

Leisure writer Ted Ayala offers his take on Super Bowl craziness.

Renée Fleming sang at the Super Bowl yesterday and it didn’t take long for my Facebook and Twitter feeds to blow up accordingly. In the two weeks since the announcement that the “People’s Diva” was scheduled to sing during half-time – and with a nickname like that, it’s too bad she didn’t make her grand entrance in East Rutherford wearing a Mao tunic with her hysterical admirers thronging around her while waving copies of her “Little Red Book” clutched in their right hands and shouting “wansui” (sadly, nothing so entertaining ever happens during a Super Bowl) – the reaction from classical music fans online was, to put it mildly, a bit unhinged.

The reaction was somewhat surprising given the hysterics earlier in the week when those same fans were gnashing their teeth and generally making a ruckus over Slate’s obituary-cum-cynical-page-click-generator declaring the death of classical music. Which just goes to show you that the lemming herd mentality the Internet usually engenders tends to be wrong no matter which way it swings. A little cold, sober reflection would go a long way to put Fleming’s performance into its proper context.

For most classical aficionados, her half-time rendition of “The Star Spangled Banner” was a sign that finally – finally! – the average pork rind-inhaling, Corona-guzzling Joe Six-Pack would recognize that, hey, classical music exists or whatever. A hope that leaves one’s mind (or at least mine), reeling in disbelief. Because the chances of that demographic putting down their Papa Roach, Blink 182, Limp Bizkit, Slipknot, or whatever feculent music churned out by bands whose product in a just universe would be sold by weight rather than the individual package, are just south of eternal world peace being declared tomorrow and Sega finally completing Shenmue.

Then there were others who felt pride that classical music had finally gained a place in the nation’s biggest pseudo holiday, and a place of pride to boot. The hashtags #operarocks and #DivasLoveFootballToo briefly flared up on Twitter in the hours before and after Fleming’s performance. Which leaves me wondering whether people even bother to consider the profound ethical and moral problems posed by the NFL’s exploitation of its players no matter the cost to their health, the troubling racial inequality that persists in the organization to say nothing of the crass consumerist free-for-all the Super Bowl foments is something one should want classical music associated with in the first place.

Then there was the irony that opera once upon a time actually had a pride of place on CBS, which alternates with Fox for the rights to broadcast the Super Bowl; an irony that escaped most of Fleming’s cheerleaders. Once earning the nickname, “The Tiffany Network” for its dogged pursuit of popularizing high culture to the masses, CBS regularly presented opera not as a token embellishment to some sporting event, but as something worthy of the common American to appreciate and behold. It even went so far as to commission made-for-TV operas, one of them being from the most eminent composer alive in the 1960s, Igor Stravinsky; which, even more staggering to consider today, was a 12-tone work premiered during prime time. (Fox, at least in this regard, has been consistent in its cultivation of not just seeking, but actively defining, the lowest common denominator of public discourse since its beginnings.)

Not that any of this really matters to Fleming’s fans. Her moment passed and went and they’ll move onto the next topic to rally around for 15 minutes. As for me, I’ve never liked football. If I want to see a bunch of oily guys prancing about in tights for two hours, I’ll take an evening at the ballet instead, thank you.