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Crane grad will take Super Bowl stage as first opera singer to perform anthem


Renee Fleming’s voice has been heard everywhere from “Sesame Street” to the world’s most prestigious opera houses. That voice has taken the 1981 SUNY Potsdam graduate all over the globe, earning her four Grammys and a National Medal of Arts.

On Sunday her talents will take her to a football stadium, an unusual stage for an opera singer. There, she’ll perform before the largest audience she’s likely ever to have.

Ms. Fleming will sing the national anthem before Super Bowl XLVIII, which will match the Denver Broncos against the Seattle Seahawks at MetLife Stadium in East Rutherford, N.J. She will be the first opera singer ever to sing the anthem at the Super Bowl. Kickoff is scheduled for 6:25 p.m.

The honor of singing “The Star-Spangled Banner” usually is reserved for superstars such as Carrie Underwood (in 2010) and Alicia Keys (in 2013).

The big game regularly draws more than 100 million viewers and annually is television’s biggest event. Last year, 108.7 million viewers in the U.S. tuned in to see the Baltimore Ravens play the San Francisco 49ers.

“I’m absolutely thrilled to be a part of the Super Bowl, and to be entrusted with singing our national anthem in its 200th anniversary year,” Ms. Fleming, 54, said in a news release. “I’m especially happy that the NFL wants to showcase the full scope of American music, and it’s an honor to add my voice to a tradition that has included great American pop, rock and country singers.”

This year also marks the 200th anniversary of the date Francis Scott Key penned “Defence of Fort M’Henry,” the poem that was later set to music, renamed “The Star Spangled Banner,” and eventually became the national anthem.

Ms. Fleming, a Rochester native, graduated from SUNY Potsdam’s Crane School of Music 33 years ago, and those who knew her at that time said her success comes as no surprise.

“She was quietly wonderful,” said Carol M. Rourke, who lived in the dorm next to Ms. Fleming while they were students. “Everybody knew she had a special talent, but she was very humble about it. She was just so good at everything.”

Ms. Rourke is now the executive assistant to SUNY Potsdam President Dennis C. Hefner.

In those days Crane didn’t have the strong focus on opera that it has now, Ms. Rourke said. Ms. Fleming mostly was known to her fellow students for her jazz singing.

“She just seemed to be working hard all the time,” Ms. Rourke said.

Ms. Fleming has never allowed her status as an opera singer to pigeonhole her into one type of music. In 2010, she released her album “Dark City,” covering indie rock songs from bands such as Arcade Fire and Death Cab for Cutie.

“I could see Renee Fleming practicing five-plus hours every day,” Crane professor James J. Petercsak said.

Mr. Petercsak remembers performing with Ms. Fleming at the Lake Placid Winter Olympics in 1980, when she was still a student. He also recalled a particularly memorable night at the Saranac Lake Winter Carnival during her time at school.

“It was so cold that even on the second floor, condensation was coming out of her breath,” he said. “She had her coat on, and she sang like a trooper.”

Her Super Bowl performance, he said, provides a unique chance to narrow the divide between high art and popular entertainment.

“I think what she’s doing, in her own way, is bridging a gap,” he said.

Ms. Fleming’s warm nature has led to her being dubbed “The People’s Diva” in the press. The past few years have seen her move away from major operatic performances toward concerts and other projects.

The future may hold many possibilities for Ms. Fleming after her performance of the anthem on Sunday, but Mr. Petercsak said at heart she likely isn’t much different from the young student who spent hours practicing in SUNY Potsdam’s Hosmer Hall.

“When you saw her walking down the street, she was always singing a song,” he said.

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