Professor Ellen T. Harris has a special relationship with Francis Scott Key.
The Class of 1949 Professor of Music will sing The Star-Spangled Banner at Commencement for the eighth time since she arrived on campus as an associate provost in 1989. She also sang it at Charles M. Vest's inauguration as MIT's president in 1990 and before a Red Sox game in Fenway Park in 1991.
When she told the Red Sox management that she would not record it earlier and then lip-sync, they were dubious about letting her singit live before the game. So they invited her to try it over the microphone system in an empty ballpark.
"As I sang, the ground crew stopped their work, stood up and placed their hats over their hearts," recalled Professor Harris, a operatically trained soprano. "I think that must have done it. They let me sing live."
On game night, someone asked which version she sang. Stumped for a moment, she replied "the Marine Band version," meaning she sang it straight through at a quick tempo. With 31,179 in the stands, it was an unforgettable experience for her.
"To hear your name announced at Fenway and jog out to a live mike between home plate and the pitcher's mound and let loose with no accompaniment or backup of any kind with the national anthem is quite an experience," she said. "Because of the echo, I started out more slowly than normal, but got into it by the second half. It was exhilarating to get to the high note at 'land of the free' and have the crowd roaring -- even though I knew it wasn't for me exactly.
"I'm very glad I didn't know that there was a closeup of me on the SpectraVision board behind me, but as a result, everyone in the stadium knew who I was by sight. As I made my way to my seat (down the right-field line) I was repeatedly greeted with 'yo, Ellen' or 'way to go, Ellen' from complete strangers. I was offered beer and asked to sign pennants. Amazing."
The crowd was less happy with the Red Sox, who lost to the California (now Anaheim) Angels, 2-0.
Professor Harris, who began singing the anthem before audiences as an undergraduate at Brown University, does not rehearse per se but does start warming up several days before a performance to assure that her voice is in good shape. Although she has fun singing the national anthem, Professor Harris noted that its wide range makes it difficult to perform: the first half is very low and repetitive, while the second half is very high, which "can be thrilling."
"Of course, if you pitch the first half up at a comfortable pitch, then the second half is stratospheric," she said. "If you lower the pitch for the second half, then the first is in the basement. A conundrum. Most nonprofessional singers have a difficult time trying to manage the two separate ranges."
Her favorite musical section, beginning with "the rockets' red glare," fits her vocal range perfectly. While singing, she concentrates on projection.
"Singers take that as a primary object of singing, but what does one do to project a text that includes phrases like 'the bombs bursting in air'?" she wondered. "I've decided that for this song, the best plan is to think of national pride without focusing on the specific words, which are much more violent than I would prefer. I think America the Beautiful has a much better message, and it's easier for amateurs."
In all of her previous MIT Commencement performances, the conductor was the late John Corley, director of the MIT Concert Band for 51 years, who "made singing it a joy by providing an energetic rhythm." In 1990, which was Paul Gray's final Commencement as president, she also entertained during the recession with a medley that included the MIT alma mater, Auld Lang Syne, Till We Meet Again, Tomorrow and movie cowboy Roy Rogers's theme song Happy Trails.
Professor Harris performed with the Boston Pops on Tech Night in 1997. Her favorite operatic role is Cio-Cio-San in Puccini's Madame Butterfly. She also enjoys singing Gilbert and Sullivan.
One of her more challenging engagements was to sing the Canadian national anthem in French and English at former MIT Dean of Science Robert J. Birgeneau's inauguration as president of the University of Toronto last July. "I began thinking I should set up a business," she said, "and call it anthems.com."
A version of this article appeared in MIT Tech Talk on June 6, 2001.