I May Have a Helpful Suggestion …

It’s taken me until now to watch this podcast, recorded in November 2008, in which the differences between opera and musicals are discussed. It’s a good chat session, although a little heavy on directors’ issues: I wanted to hear more from Michael John Lachiusa on the comparative freedom of composing opera, after writing for musical theatre (I like his Bernarda Alba score, because it sounds a bit like me).

The panel covers nearly all the traditional definitions of operas and musicals, but none of them is really satisfactory, and I think I may have thought of a helpful sidestep. First, though, here are the standard definitions, in the order I encountered them as a teen:

1. Operas are through-sung, while musicals have numbers with script in-between

I heard this one quite a bit in high school, but I don’t think anyone buys it anymore. Carmen has dialogue, and is certainly an opera. Cats has no dialogue, and certainly isn’t.

2. Operas are just old musicals.

I wish it were this simple, but the number of entrenched conventions is too high, and the range of audience expectations is too wide. Plus there’s that difference in rungs on the cultural ladder. In Pretty Woman, when Richard Gere the billionaire takes Julia Roberts the whore to the theatre, in order to class her up a little, it’s to the opera they go. He says:

People’s reaction to opera the first time they see it is very dramatic; they either love it or they hate it. If they love it, they will always love it. If they don’t, they may learn to appreciate it, but it will never become part of their soul.

This is crap. Screenwriters are always writing this kind of crap. For starters, if Edward, Richard Gere’s character, really loved opera, he wouldn’t say “opera”, he would say “La Traviata”, the particular opera they’re off to see. In fact, he would say something like this:

People’s reaction to La Traviata the first time they see it is very interesting; they either recognise the famous tunes, or they recognise the quality of the longer, less famous scenes. Incidentally, it’s about an impossibly pretty whore, with an undefined terminal illness. So it’s a fairly tasteless choice on my part.

Now, if someone suggested that Gilbert and Sullivan operettas “are just old musicals”, I’d probably agree with them.

3. Operas tell their story through the music; musicals tell it through the text.

This is an attractively snobby pair of definitions, but it also doesn’t wash. It implies that the tonal drama of a well-wrought opera score, and its motivic development and key scheme, all serve to convey the story in ways that words alone cannot. Truer ways, perceivable only by the sensitive and receptive mind. Musical numbers, on the other hand, written individually and without concern for the evening’s overall arc – even if they never stop for dialogue – need vulgar, intelligible text to tell the audience what’s going on. The sensitive and receptive mind, should it attend, is left alone to think about renovations on the laundry.

I think these definitions were developed as a slap in the face to unschooled musical composers, and as a lame excuse for unintelligible opera singers. In any case, a chop-and drop Handel opera, in which arias were (and are) rearranged and interpolated without any regard for a score’s motivic development, doesn’t fit the definition. And neither does a musical like Sunday in the Park with George, which has all the motivic development, faithfully wedded to the plot, that any musicology major could desire.

4. Operas are written for classically trained singers, in rooms designed for their unamplified voices.  Musicals are written for all kinds of amplified voices, only some of them trained.

This one’s attractive because it smacks of a horse-for-courses egalitarianism. And it’s certainly true that I won’t write the same kind of vocal line for a classically trained soprano that I’ll write for a Broadway belter. But that doesn’t make what I’m writing an opera. Just as the work won’t magically become a musical by putting microphones on everybody. All music theatre works should be written with the types of voices, the type of room and the type of amplification (if any) reflected in the score. You know how those old fashioned orchestrators used to make everything quiet and delicate under the dialogue and the weaker singers? We should all still be doing that.

This leads me to my sidestep. It might seem like mere sophistry, but I find it liberating. Ready?

The Sidestep

They’re not forms, the musical and the opera. Musical theatre is a form. Opera and the musical are genres within this form. Big genres, sure, but still just genres.

This means that all the typical structures and procedures of both operas and musicals are not ‘hallmarks of the form’; they’re just conventions of the genre. It’s much easier to mix, to subvert, to rearrange, and even to ignore conventions within a genre. There’s much less pressure involved, too, and writing is a lot more fun.

Thanks to my sidestep, I’m not writing an opera or a musical. I’m writing a piece of musical theatre that uses many of the conventions of opera, and doesn’t use many others (like awful lyrics). Should the time come to describe it in a programme, the Marketing Manager will probably call it a chamber opera. But when I’m writing it, I’m thinking about vocal types and the size of the room. And I’m thinking about the reluctant husband in the audience, wanting – above all – to be entertained.

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2 thoughts on “I May Have a Helpful Suggestion …

  1. Another great article, and I agree with your conclusion – it really comes down to marketing. Les Miserables fits every definition of an opera but they still call it a musical. I believe this is because it’s pitched mainly at the Andrew Lloyd-Webber audience – upwardly mobile, love musical theatre, but might balk at anything called an opera. It also avoids the possibility of classical types sneering at an opera that has synthesizers in the orchestra.

    • I’m certain that if Les Mis is performed in 100 years, it will be tackled in the same way that, say, I Puritani is done now: the best voices you can get, crowd-pleasing big moments, and lots of dull stretches in between.

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