When Musical Meets Opera

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This weekend marks one of the hottest anticipated events in Glimmerglass's—and summer opera's—recent history, namely that of soprano Deborah Voigt assuming the title role in Irving Berlin's Annie Get Your Gun. But for many, the draw is not necessarily seeing one of America's foremost opera divas sing a classic role from the golden age of American musicals, it's hearing the work played unamplified and with a full orchestra.

New York Times critic Anthony Tommasini recently examined the gradually-crumbling wall between opera and musical theater (citing another Glimmerglass performance this season, A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck, written by Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner who also wrote the musical Caroline, or Change) arguing that "Both genres seek to combine words and music in dynamic, felicitous and, to invoke that all-purpose term, artistic ways. But in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first."

Though Tommasini makes a series of convincing arguments with excellent example, I'm not sure I entirely agree with this distinction. Is the music in Candide subservient to the lyrics? Or do we call Candide an opera in this case? (And where does operetta fit in here?)

Moreover, Glimmerglass's production of Annie Get Your Gun is nothing new in terms of Broadway musicals treading opera house floorboards. In fact, sometimes that's the preferable climate for them. New York City Opera's dreamy production of A Little Night Music boasts a lot over the recent Broadway revival, not in the least for its use of a full orchestra. Similar distinctions were at work when NYCO did Sweeney Todd in 2004, a year before John Doyle's chilling pared-down version in which singers doubled as the orchestra. Conversely, works like Gilbert and Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance have migrated in the opposite direction, thanks in Pirates's case to the legendary Joe Papp and director Wilford Leach—along with Linda Rondstadt and Kevin Kline.

More than just offering familiar fare as an entrée to the less familiar world of opera or presenting musicals in grander settings, musicals in the opera house show a continuation of the line that started in antiphonal Syrian chant before winding through points including 17th-century Florence, 18th-century Vienna and 19th-century Paris.

And while what Monteverdi would make of The Book of Mormon is debatable, there are closer connections—ones that go even beyond the typical Broadway fare offered in opera houses today (case in point: composer Michael Gore wrote Carrie, the Stephen-King–based musical that is considered to be Broadway's greatest flop, after seeing Berg's Lulu). Below are my four picks for musical–opera cross-pollination.

Shaun Davey: James Joyce's 'The Dead'

Fate has conspired against giving an official cast recording of this 1999 musical that starred Christopher Walken as Gabriel Conroy and won a Tony award for its book by playwright Richard Nelson. James Joyce's musicality is not lost on Davey, who weaves in an intimate nostalgia that Times critic Ben Brantley described as "a sterling virtue out of a trait rarely associated with American musicals: shyness." The low-key nature of James Joyce's "The Dead" lends itself nicely to budget-friendly theater companies, however the musical backbone also demands a strong ensemble cast with a set of voices to match. Joyce's family dynamics of a multi-generational Epiphany party add to the chamber feel for the work and could make it a staple for young artist and studio programs.

Adam Guettel: Floyd Collins

Like Ricky Ian Gordon, Adam Guettel is a contemporary composer whose works defy categorization. The grandson of Richard Rodgers, Guettel has also experimented with straight operatic form (and performed as a boy soprano at the Metropolitan and New York City Operas as a child) but blurs the line in many of his musical works, most notably Floyd Collins. Drawing on Americana and bluegrass, Guettel has a Bartokian flair for folk-based idioms that lends an authenticity and heart to the rather bizarre story of a pioneer and cave explorer who caused a media sensation when he became stuck in Kentucky's Sand Cave, dying before rescue workers could reach him. Unlike Jason Robert Brown's frenzied Parade, Guettel's newsroom number has a quietness that puts the listener in close quarters--not unlike the quarters that became Collins's rocky tomb--with the musical drama.

Robert Wright and George Forrest with Maury Yeston: Grand Hotel

The characters in Vicki Baum's 1929 novel and play, Menschen im Hotel (and its subsequent Greta Garbo vehicle, the 1932 film Grand Hotel), are each the stars of their own life operas: a fading prima ballerina with Callas-ian presentiments, an impoverished nobleman whose thievery does him in, a ruthlessly ambitious stenographer and a meek, mortally ill accountant who resolves to go out like Violetta rather than Mimi. The collision of their storylines under the roof of one Weimar-era Berlin hotel, however, results in one resident to quip that "Nothing ever happens." The nihilism underneath peppy Charleston numbers adds a greater depth and tragic element to the comings and goings of the guests and sets the stage for more sinister entrances and exits in 20th-century Germany.

Jason Robert Brown: Parade

Jason Robert Brown's early works toe the line between Broadway pop and modern classical, as seen in his Schubertian two-person show The Last Five Years. Written with librettist Alfred Uhry, Brown's Tony-nominated 1998 musical takes an equally operatic story--the mistrial of Jewish businessman Leo Frank in 1913 Atlanta for the murder of one of his young factory workers--and, while touching on the event's racist and antisemitic implications (it was Frank's lynching by an angry mob that led to the formation of the Anti-Defamation League) puts the focus on Frank's relationship to his wife, Lucille, and the strengthening of their tepid marriage throughout the murder trial. Vivid ensemble numbers and musically meaty lead roles for both a bari-tenor and mezzo soprano round out the work's complete package.

Chime in: Do musicals belong in the opera house? Which ones, if so, would you like to see on the stage? Leave your thoughts below and take our poll: