Recently, on a Sunday afternoon, my partner and I walked into Mel's Burgers in our Columbia University neighborhood. In addition to having the greatest burgers on the West Side, Mel's is something of a sports bar. "Which game would you like to be seated next to?" asked the hostess when we walked in. "Um," said my partner, "I dunno. Do you have figure skating?"
I'm afraid this about sums up our degree of attachment to the world of sports, but we were of course keen to tune in on Super Bowl Sunday this year, because for the first time, the event would feature an opera singer — none other than soprano RENÉE FLEMING — singing the National Anthem. In the days that followed, we were frequently asked what we thought about her performance. My take was: slow beginning, odd, goopy arrangement. In the beginning, I experienced my familiar irritation with Fleming's refusal to sing English words simply and cleanly, without affectation, but I thought she dug in as it went on and finished up triumphantly.
Then I was sent a YouTube clip of soprano/comedienne DOROTHY BISHOP, performing her spoof of Fleming's performance of the anthem. It's not the anthem at all, but a re-lyriced version of Duke Ellington's "It Don't Mean a Thing If It Ain't Got That Swing," which Fleming has performed in concert. "It must be a drag / If you don't love the flag," sang Bishop, launching into a wild scat section and then coming back with "It makes no difference if I'm black or white / I'm singing 'Oh say can you see' tonight!" Along the way, there are riffs on "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," too. It's a very funny — and not at all mean-spirited — takeoff on Fleming's ideas about singing jazz and pop music. I have never liked most of what Fleming has done in this area — I usually feel she is avoiding any real connection with the music in pursuit of what she considers "style" — but the odd thing about Bishop's performance is that it made me relax a bit about Fleming's pop side. It's obvious that Fleming loves this music, and Bishop somehow tapped into the star's immense likability factor. (There's also a strong resemblance between the two women — so much so that once, when Bishop got tired of being stuck in Met standing room, she jumped a parterre box seat and fended off an usher by telling him she was Renée Fleming.) New York audiences will have a chance to experience Bishop's take on Fleming when she brings her show The Dozen Divas to the Metropolitan Room, one of New York's top cabaret venues, on April 30 and May 5.
Bishop is a Yale-educated soprano who came to New York and enjoyed what she describes as "a successful, ten-year B-level career that wasn't going where I wanted it to go." She noticed that she was getting cast in comedies — she did dozens of Rosalindes and Fiordiligis, and she gradually began moving into musical-comedy cabaret, which is not the most remunerative of genres. "I saw that there was money headlining in the cruise ships," she recalls, "and so for a number of years, I made up my own Sarah Brightman show and did a pop-opera tribute — not necessarily to Sarah, but kind of copying her own style. I started throwing in a lot of comedy. I left the ships in 2011, burned out and frustrated artistically, and started to develop The Dozen Divas." The show featured Bishop's impersonations of Cher, Adele, Stevie Nicks and others, and for its run at the Manhattan night spot the Iguana, Bishop was nominated for a Broadway World Award for Best Musical Comedy Cabaret Performance.
"Renée has that gorgeous spin that separates an A-level singer from a B-level singer. My voice probably has more metal, but hers is so pure and spinny. I wouldn't even try to imitate her opera singing. But people are sensitive about her — and about 'The Star Spangled Banner,' too. I think at the moment on YouTube I have fifty-five likes and forty hates. I left some of the bad comments up, but there were so many, with people writing stupid stuff. A lot of Vietnam vets said they were offended that I made fun of the National Anthem.
"Renée is, for some people, the highlight of my whole act," says Bishop. "I don't know her personally, and I'm not making fun of her fabulous, glorious opera singing. I have people who claim to be friends of hers and who have come to my show and say, 'She doesn't care.' Now when I was doing Sarah Palin, she sent some people, and they sat in the front row with arms crossed, not laughing at all. They did not laugh. I closed with a very funny parody of "Rose's Turn" — "Sarah's Turn" — you can imagine. Then I did sing-along Christmas carols with a Rudolph parody that ended with her shooting John McCain. Afterward, they were very sarcastic. They said, 'We're so happy we can go back and tell Sarah she has nothing to worry about.' I just smiled and said, 'Thank you for coming.'"
This July, Fleming herself will be reaching out to a new audience when she stars in Joe DiPietro and Garson Kanin's comedy Living on Love at the Williamstown Theatre Festival.