Guest Blog: Aspen Music Festival CEO Alan Fletcher on Who's Really Behind Renée Fleming's Brilliant Super Bowl XLVIII Performance

By Alan Fletcher on Feb 15, 2014 12:37 AM EST

One of many remarkable things about this year's Super Bowl was the inclusion of a classically-trained American singer alongside some of the greatest pop singers of our time. No one from the opera world had ever been invited to be part of this iconic American event, and, in a week where some journalists were announcing the death of classical music in America, it turned out more people were going to hear it at one time than ever before in history. Before I write a little about Renée Fleming's performance, I want to take a detour into how a performance like this is prepared.

The unsung heroes of the classical world of singing are coaches.

These brilliant musicians, starting generally as pianists, learn everything about music, learn a myriad of languages, and understand the principles of diction for even more languages than any person could speak. They know the history of what the original composers wished for, what those composers got (instead of what they wished for), how those composers changed their expectations in the face of reality, and then they understand how changing times change what we might wish for.

I have known an astounding number of truly great musicians, and I don't exaggerate when I say that vocal coaches are among the most marvelous I have known. Though they work for minimal wages, though they (almost) never appear on stage, they are heroes and heroines of art.

As heartfelt as this tribute to coaches is, it leads me to a counterpart, inspired by some of the outpouring of opinion about Renée Fleming's sensationally successful appearance at the Super Bowl. A vast number of people appreciated the power of hearing singing like hers, so categorically different from other singing.

But then there were harsh critiques.

Why did she sing in a mezzo key! Why did she pull her phrases out like pizza dough! Why did she start in common time and then switch to waltz time! (Conventionally, the National Anthem is in three, but that doesn't mean it's a waltz. The poem is a question, and the effect of starting it in four is to introduce a note of hesitation and wonder. Then, precisely where the words evoke the fear of the battle and its revelation of bravery, Fleming's performance glided into a rhythm with the stateliness of a minuet; the Viennese waltz anachronistically was many decades in the future.) Why did she take the high notes people sometimes take! (If she hadn't, those same commentators and about a million others would equally have asked: Where were the high notes?)

It all points to a paradox. Those wonderful coaches I started by praising are completely right, in the privacy of their studios, to critique every single aspect of performance including all of the "questions" I iterate above. In my own very large experience, they also have the ability to let go, when they hear a deeply-felt performance, and enjoy it.

But there is a tendency, especially intense in the classical music world though not by any means limited to it, to not let go--to revel in pseudo-superiority, to listen mostly for the flaws.

This is not how I want to experience music.

I remember intensely, and with gratitude, every wonderful thing I have heard. For instance Arthur Rubinstein, whom I am old enough to have heard many times. Or Leontyne Price. Or Beverly Sills. Or Luciano Pavarotti.

But none of these was perfect. Every one of them was brutally criticized by know-it-alls throughout their careers.

It is as if someone thinks there is an actual perfect performance somewhere out there, and our job as listeners is to calibrate the faltering, rather than the brave striving towards perfection.

Going back to the wonderful coaches: They are the ones who best know what might be accomplished, how to accomplish it, how close a single performance might really come to the ideal. They know how important the ideal is. And, in real life, they are the ones most often cheering on the artists who step on stage, let us say, on a winter night, in front of one hundred eleven million people, in a stadium with an audience who did not come to hear the intensely wonderful and strange art of classical singing, and deliver an unforgettable rendering supremely focused not on the difficulties of the singing, but instead on the meaning of the words of our national anthem.

Not looking smugly for what might have been wrong.

Any composer must be the most brutal critic of his or her music, right up to the moment where it has to be let go, and given to the performers. Every performer invites teachers, coaches, and friends to serve as relentless critics of every detail in the performance, right up to the moment where it has to be let go and entrusted to the listeners. Crucially, every listener has the option of being entirely and only a critic, unless that listener wants instead to let go of prejudice and hear what wondrous, unexpected thing might be happening.

I was thrilled to be a witness to Renée Fleming's Super Bowl performance. I expect striving for perfection; I got that in a vocally beautiful performance with an unforgettable emphasis on the meaning. I do not expect perfection, and that makes me eager for the next performance.

Alan Fletcher is a composer, and president and CEO of the Aspen Music Festival & School. Aspen's 2014 season, entitled "The New Romantics," will focus on the theme of composers' obsessions with the idea of romanticism.

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TagsGuest Blog, Alan Fletcher, Renee Fleming, Super Bowl XLVIII, Star-Spangled Banner

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