PETER SAGAL, HOST:
And now the game where somebody who spends their lives breaking new ground has to dig up something unpleasant that we buried. It's called Not My Job. Now, back when I was a kid many years ago, opera divas had a certain reputation. It involved thick European accents, horned helmets and very, very wide breastplates.
SAGAL: That stereotype was shattered by a generation of singers who started to appear in the 1990s - most especially the soprano Renee Fleming. Her Met debut came in 1991. She has since sung all over the world, including at the 2014 Super Bowl, where she was the first classical singer...
SAGAL: ...To perform the national anthem.
Renee Fleming, welcome to WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME.
RENEE FLEMING: Thank you. Thank you so much, Peter. It's very exciting to be here.
SAGAL: It's very exciting to have you. Did you grow up liking opera? Did you love opera as a kid, and that was your ambition - to sing opera?
FLEMING: No. No, no. I grew up in a very musical household. My parents were high school vocal music teachers, so we all sang. It was - we had to.
FLEMING: There was no real choice. And...
FLEMING: I was interested in animals. I wanted to be first lady president. I was very ambitious.
FLEMING: I had that piece, yes. Unfortunately, the job is still open.
SAGAL: Yeah, well, there's a chance.
SAGAL: Was there a - I always wonder about people who really achieve extraordinary things in their profession. Was there a moment where you were a young age where you knew that this was a path that was open that you could actually make it in this career?
SAGAL: You know, I got interested in jazz. I was doing other styles. And it was really kind of in my - I was a late bloomer, I would say, so it was really in my mid-30s that things started to really push forward, and I thought, OK. This is going to work.
TOM BODETT: Do you sing in the shower?
FLEMING: Only if I'm vocalizing, you know? But car's good - any place, you know - showers or bathrooms are good because the acoustic is so great, right?
FLEMING: Who likes to sing in the shower, right? Yes.
SAGAL: But, of course, we all sound like you in the shower. Your great gift...
SAGAL: ...Is that you continue to sound that good once you've left the shower. That's why...
FLEMING: No, when I'm warming up my voice, I'll do anything to make it work. And sometimes, it's just really bizarre, the sounds I make.
SAGAL: For example...
FLEMING: You know, like a siren - I'll warm up with my tongue sticking out all the way.
SAGAL: Can you do a siren for us?
FLEMING: (Imitating siren) Yeah.
SAGAL: Do you worry about intimidating people when, like, public singing happens - like, when you're singing, like, "Happy Birthday" or anything like that? You're, like...
SAGAL: All right. I'm Renee Fleming, but I'm just going to - I'm going to...
FLEMING: I so worry that it's the opposite - that people are going to say, oh, that's it? Oh.
FLEMING: Oh, wow. I thought you'd be louder.
SAGAL: You have to tell us about singing the Super - singing "The Star-Spangled Banner" at the Super Bowl.
FLEMING: Well, that was incredible - so 110 million people - something like that.
SAGAL: Did you stick around and, like, cheer for the game?
FLEMING: Absolutely, yes.
SAGAL: Could people hear you? You were, like, tackle him, you son of a [expletive] - you were, like...
FLEMING: You know, that is the best way to cheer.
SAGAL: I think so.
FLEMING: It is. It can be heard. You know, anything else is sort of, oh...
SAGAL: It does occur to me that that, again, would still be a superpower in case you were with a group of people, and you're all trying to hail a cab. You would win.
FLEMING: Yeah, well...
FLEMING: You know, and I do this at dinner parties, actually, or in restaurants, and particularly when it's loud - if I just really pitch high - like, (shouting) hello - then I can be heard. Otherwise, forget it. My speaking voice is too weak.
SAGAL: Right. Did this work - I know you have children who are now grown.
SAGAL: But did that work when you were a mother?
FLEMING: It did. It did. It was - it's the only way I still call them, yeah. (Shouting) Girls.
FLEMING: It can be heard.
SAGAL: And with your instrument, you don't even have to use the phone. You just...
FLEMING: That's right.
SAGAL: Five hundred miles away, they're, like, what?
FLEMING: It's all about the acoustic. Absolutely.
SAGAL: It really is. We have to ask you one other thing. We have on occasion tried to get opera performers on our show, and we have often been told, oh, I'm sorry. They're on vocal rest.
FLEMING: Yes. Yes.
SAGAL: Is that a real thing, or were we being shined on?
FLEMING: It - you know, interesting. It used - it's always been a real thing.
ROXANNE ROBERTS: (Coughing).
FLEMING: Are you OK?
ROBERTS: Vocal rest, yes.
FLEMING: I hear something coming on. It definitely has been a real thing. I've had to do it a couple of times - and once because I was yelling at one of my children, so that was...
SAGAL: Really? You were yelling at your child.
FLEMING: Well, not at length. It was just, like, an emphatic come down here right now. And I felt it go and went, oh, my God. What did I just do? And I missed three performances.
BILL KURTIS: Oh my.
FLEMING: I mean, my children laugh at me when I'm angry. They just laugh.
FLEMING: Because it is usually, what have you done?
SAGAL: There it is. It is a little...
FLEMING: Clean up you room. No. So vocal rest...
SAGAL: So it's not really scolding. It's just recitative. You know...
FLEMING: It's recitative (laughter)...
SAGAL: Somebody will play, like, a harpsichord while you're saying (in recitative) oh, clean up your room.
FLEMING: I know what my job is. But nowadays, they say that you don't have to be on vocal rest anymore.
FLEMING: Yeah. You have to kind of take it easy, but not silence.
SAGAL: Right - which is why you didn't have an excuse, and now you're here.
SAGAL: And you were actually on Broadway playing in a play an opera singer.
FLEMING: Right. "Living On Love" was so much fun. It was a comedy. I am - oh, I've always wanted to be funny, and I never get to be funny.
SAGAL: I know the feeling.
FLEMING: We die...
SAGAL: All right, Renee Fleming. We have asked you here to play a game we're calling...
KURTIS: Baby Shark - Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (ph).
SAGAL: So you are world famous for, shall we say, swimming in the deep end of the musical pool. So we thought we'd wade into the other end and ask you three questions about the song "Baby Shark" - very popular with toddlers and the Washington Nationals.
SAGAL: Answer two out of three questions about the song taken from a history of it put together by Vulture, and you'll win our prize for one of our listeners - the voice of anyone on our show they might like.
Bill, who is Renee Fleming playing for?
KURTIS: Nick Kazik (ph) of Minneapolis, Minn.
SAGAL: All right.
FLEMING: Great town.
SAGAL: Are you ready to play?
SAGAL: All right. Here's your first question. The origin of the song "Baby Shark" is actually lost in time. People think it might have started decades ago as a campfire song. Now, the first version of the song ever to be put up on YouTube more than a decade ago is different from the version that our kids have all been singing for the last year. How? What is the difference? A, instead of sharks, it's about a family of eels; B, the sharks in the song hunt and dismember a swimmer...
SAGAL: ...C, instead of doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, it's don't, don't, don't, don't, don't, don't, don't?
UNIDENTIFIED AUDIENCE: B.
FLEMING: You really think it's B. Oh, yeah.
FLEMING: Wow. All right. I've got to go with - it's B.
SAGAL: They're right. They've heard the song.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
FLEMING: Thank you.
SAGAL: All right - second question. Another - there's another version of the song. There are lots of versions of this song. Another one that was recorded back in 2007 achieved a particular honor. What was it? A, it became the No. 1 song in Germany; B, it was the first song ever to be officially banned by the Catholic Church...
FLEMING: ...Or C, it was played as punishment to prisoners at Gitmo?
FLEMING: OK. I think I'm going to go with A.
SAGAL: You're going to go with A, with the No. 1 song in Germany. You must have been to Germany, because you're right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: So let us hear...
FLEMING: Wow. I never win anything.
SAGAL: Let us hear, if you will, the No. 1 dance hit in Germany in 2007.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "KLEINER HAI")
ALEMUEL: (Singing) Baby hai (ph), doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo. Kleiner hai (ph), doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo.
SAGAL: There you go.
ROBERTS: We're going to need a bigger dance floor.
FLEMING: It's fun - catchy.
SAGAL: Yeah. Knocked - I'm assuming knocked David Hasselhoff off the No. 1 spot.
FLEMING: It's an earworm.
SAGAL: All right. You have one more chance. Now, everybody talks and jokes about how incredibly annoying it is to have "Baby Shark" on all the time, but it has done some good in the world. Is it, A, 10% of the proceeds from the song go to a charity which buys pacifiers for actual baby sharks...
SAGAL: ...B, a woman performed CPR on someone to the beat of "Baby Shark" and saved their life; or C, the song has so improved sharks' image that people are now swimming in shark-infested waters, resulting in more food for sharks?
FLEMING: I'm going to say it's got to be B.
SAGAL: You're going to go with B, a woman performed CPR. You're exactly right.
(SOUNDBITE OF BELL)
SAGAL: Bill, how did Renee Fleming do on our quiz?
KURTIS: Couldn't do any better - three straight.
SAGAL: There you go.
SAGAL: Renee Fleming is one of the world's most celebrated sopranos. She can currently be seen in "The Light In The Piazza" at LA Opera until October 20 and at the Lyric Opera in Chicago from December 14 to the 29th. Ms. Renee Fleming, thank you so much...
SAGAL: ...For being with us. Renee Fleming, everybody.
(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "BABY SHARK (FITNESS VERSION 128 BPM)")
ZIPPERS: (Singing) Baby shark, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo. Baby shark, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo. Baby shark, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, baby shark. Mommy shark, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo, doo.
SAGAL: In just a minute, you don't have to take your clothes off to have a good time in our Listener Limerick Challenge. Call 1-888-WAIT-WAIT to join us on the air. We'll be back in a minute with more of WAIT WAIT... DON'T TELL ME from NPR.