Early mornings. Freezing temperatures. Electronic amplification. People who perform the national anthem at sporting events can expect these sorts of conditions, which are less than ideal for classically trained singers. How do operatically inclined performers cope? Classical Singer talked to several about their experiences and their advice for others.
Performing “The Star-Spangled Banner” for crowds of spectators and athletes can be thrilling, but there are challenges involved. Early starts are one. Mezzo-soprano Teresa Hui and tenor Dennis McNeil have sung the anthem at marathons and triathlons as early as 6 or 7 a.m. Hui says that it’s not always easy to ensure that you are warmed up at such times. Yet McNeil, who often competes in triathlons that immediately follow his performances, is always surprised at how easy it is for him to sing the anthem at any hour of the day.
Stadiums present different kinds of challenges, such as acoustics. Tenor Chris Georgetti, who sings the anthem at the Prudential Center, an 18,000-seat arena where New Jersey Devils’ (NHL) games are held, explains: “When singing in a large space, there is always the temptation to try to fill it with your voice alone.” Such a tendency can wreck your voice, he points out. On occasion, he has also faced distractions of rowdy fans who shout during the anthem.
Another effect of the noise and activity surrounding the start of the game is that it makes it difficult to hear or remember the starting pitch, says bass-baritone Kerry Wilkerson, a frequent performer at Washington Redskins’ (NFL) games.
Singers also must contend with reverb and delay from sound systems and adjust to using in-ear monitors in some situations. Georgetti notes that most arenas and stadiums have a half-second delay. Soprano Emilie Storrs, who has auditioned to sing the anthem for the NFL’s Buffalo Bills, was taken aback by the delay. “Until I opened my mouth,” she recalls, “I had no idea that in such a huge stadium the lag between what you do and what comes out of the speakers is nearly an entire line of music.”
Then there is the anthem itself. It’s “not easy to sing,” says soprano Rachel Barker-Asto, who has sung at baseball games for the Virginia-based Bristol White Sox (now the Bristol Pirates) and at golf tournaments. “It has a wide range,” she observes.
Meanwhile, familiarity can pose risks. Even McNeil, who has sung the anthem hundreds of times, identifies “remembering the words” as one of the challenges. Indeed, Barker-Asto once repeated “O’er the ramparts we watched were so gallantly streaming” twice, omitting “What so proudly we hailed at the twilight’s last gleaming.” Fortunately, no one seemed to notice.
Audience expectations are another consideration. Many attendees are not used to an operatic sound. Storrs encountered an anti-opera bias during her audition for the Bills. “They told me ‘Wow!’ and went on about how wonderful I was,” she remembers, “but then asked me to come back when I didn’t sound so operatic.” Hui recognizes that such a bias exists. “Pop singers are the ones who have made their mark with the anthem,” she says, “so there’s always the anxiety of ‘Will they like my rendition?’”
Tips for Success
The good news is that most of these challenges can be surmounted, and our anthem “veterans” have plenty of tips for other opera singers who wish to perform it.
“As many times as I’ve sung the anthem, I always practice,” says Hui, whose fear is singing the wrong lyrics. She is amused when people tell her how hard the anthem is to sing. “Since we’re trained singers, the anthem is a breeze,” she remarks. “It ain’t Lucia! But we should still always practice so we can sing it with confidence.”
Wilkerson agrees on the importance of practicing, which he says develops muscle memory. Furthermore, as Barker-Asto notes, practicing helps you figure out where the anthem best sits in your voice. She also approaches the anthem as she would approach an aria in a foreign language, essentially “translating” it and making sense of the words.
Sound-checks are beneficial. Georgetti welcomes them because they prepare him for sound delays (which he can address by putting an earplug in one ear to hear himself better), help him determine the best placement of the microphone and how far he should stand from it, enable the sound booth technicians to adjust, and give him and the organist time to work out any trouble spots before anyone is in the building.
Don’t Be a Diva or Overly Operatic
This is not the time to show off, says McNeil. “My first advice to anyone singing the national anthem is to know that the performance of this song is not about you! Keep the tempo upbeat and finish in under 90 seconds. Sing it straight unless you are actually Mariah or Whitney.”
Hui has a similar perspective. “As trained opera singers,” she says, “we have our instruments and our hearts—and singing it genuinely and with feeling and adding our own nuances but with minimal embellishments and the occasional high note at the end is truly the way to go.”
Storrs is planning to “tone down the opera just a skootch” in her next audition for the Buffalo Bills. That said, singers should not worry too much about their delivery. Mezzo-soprano Natalie Megules, who has performed the anthem at the CURE Insurance Arena, the New Egypt Speedway, and the Bridgeport Speedway (all in New Jersey) has stopped adjusting her sound to meet the perceived expectations of audiences. “I used to try and modify,” she explains, “but now I just sing in my real voice.”
Audience expectations can change, too. Storrs hopes that Renée Fleming’s performance at Super Bowl XLVIII in 2014 has made audiences more appreciative of opera singers.
Use Your “Singers’ Little Helpers”
If you’re singing a cappella and you have perfect pitch, then you can ignore this tip. If you don’t, bring a pitch-pipe or use a smartphone pitch app. “I usually sneak the pitch right before they announce me and hum the starting pitch a little (not in a microphone, of course),” says Barker-Asto. Hui, too, plays the starting note on her piano app just before she goes on.
Be Mindful of Your Fellow Musicians
If you’re not singing a cappella or to a recording, make sure that you take your fellow musicians into consideration. “When accompanied,” McNeil advises, “whether by an entire marching band or an organist playing from somewhere else in the stadium, trust them and lead them as much as you follow them. If there is a conductor, he is boss!”
Distractions abound at sporting events. If you encounter rude audiences, “sing your heart out and ignore the hecklers,” says Georgetti. “Look people in the eye, no matter how far away they are,” suggests McNeil. “If cameras and big screens are involved, include the camera lens as one of the ‘eyes’ you look into. Trust yourself and get the heck out of your own way and go for it. Find the flag, too,” he adds. “You are singing to it!”
Make Practical Preparations
Some of the ways you can ensure a successful performance have nothing to do with singing. Wilkerson shows up to Redskins games for a sound check about three hours before game time. “Bring a good book to read,” he advises, “make sure the battery on your phone is charged, and eat before the sound check. They might provide food, but it may only be chips and soda.”
“Make sure you show up early,” says Barker-Asto. “It puts the people who hired you at ease, which means they are much more likely to call on you again. If it’s a new place, be sure to add extra traveling time so you can find where you need to go.”
“If you’re going to be singing outside,” she continues, “make sure you check the weather and dress appropriately. I learned the hard way when I showed up for a golf course event in a flowy dress on a windy day.”
Successful performances of “The Star-Spangled Banner” are ones enjoyed by not only audiences but also performers. Georgetti, an avid hockey fan, finds the experience “quite exhilarating.” Hui says, “I sing my heart out, and to hear the applause and cheers when I hit my note at the end makes me feel like a rock star. Nothing is more satisfying than to honor our country with the singing of ‘The Star-Spangled Banner’ and do it right.” Soprano Alessandra Rossi-Filippi, who once sang the anthem for the New York Mets at Shea Stadium, pronounced the experience as “wonderful” and quips, “It’s always fun to get a standing ovation!”
“Bottom line is to enjoy the wonderful moment you are sharing with so many enthusiastic listeners,” says McNeil. “Relish the moment. It goes by very fast!”
***Auditions: Where and How to Start***
You don’t necessarily have to know the right people to secure an anthem gig. Many teams have open auditions. Do a Google search to find out if your favorite local teams are holding some soon.
If you’re ready to make inquiries or apply to audition, Rachel Barker-Asto has some suggestions. “Try to avoid saying you’re a classical singer and be sure to have a recording of you singing the anthem,” she advises. “People often get nervous about hiring you when they hear the word ‘opera.’ I think they associate it with a really bad wobble or histrionics or something. The recording doesn’t have to be high quality, just a phone recording to prove that you aren’t Florence Foster Jenkins. Once they hear your smooth, silky voice, they will be overcome with joy at their good luck—but only after you drop that little MP3.”