SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Who knows who'll win the Super Bowl tomorrow. But history will be made before the coin toss. Renee Fleming will sing the national anthem at MetLife Stadium in New Jersey. She is the first opera star to be asked, and it seems so utterly fitting, both for the first Super Bowl to be played within view of the towers of New York, and in the 200th anniversary year of the national anthem.
I'm shocked and surprised and absolutely thrilled, she told a press conference this week, teeming with reporters who usually hear more about completions and turnovers than Cosi Fan Tutte. She added that she's not worried about singing in frigid temperatures because she grew up in upstate New York. I want to thank Rochester, Renee Fleming said, for preparing me for singing in the cold.
It's become customary for country music, pop, hip-hop, soul and rock stars to sing the anthem at the Super Bowl. Alicia Keys, Carrie Underwood and Jennifer Hudson have performed the honor in recent years, and beautifully.
Opera has ardent fans. But they may not fit the demographic slots that advertisers - who pay millions of dollars for mere seconds during the Super Bowl - are eager to entice. You see ads for dozens of beers, sleek cars, rugged trucks and (clears throat) testosterone gels. But Renee Fleming reminded us that that opera has always been popular entertainment. It's all about love, loss, ripped bodices and shattered hearts. We are in a niche, she said at the press conference, but we belong to a tradition that's 400 years old.
She's played a wronged wife in love with a man who's no good for her, in "Figaro." She's been Mimi in "La Boheme," a kindly seamstress who's unlucky in love and who - spoiler alert - dies of consumption in Paris. She's been Donna Elvira, the girl-too-good for the womanizing Don Giovanni; and Alcina, the bewitcher who captures Ruggiero on her magic island. She's been Madame Tourvel, whom Valmont strives to seduce, in "Dangerous Liaisons"; and Rusalka, the Water-Goblin's daughter who begs the moon to sing of her love for a human prince. The prince dies for her kiss but she is, oh, so worth it.
There's a lot of sports talk this week about how the millionaire quarterbacks and linemen in the Super Bowl will perform under pressure. Renee Fleming has sung on the great opera stages of the world. But many New Yorkers remember best when she sang on the smoldering stones of the World Trade Center after Sept. 11, 2001. That's performing under pressure. That's amazing grace.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "AMAZING GRACE")
RENEE FLEMING: (Singing) Amazing grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me...
SIMON: And you're listening to NPR News.
(SOUNDBITE OF OPERA MUSIC)