When Musical Meets Opera

Friday, July 15, 2011 - 03:02 PM

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:


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Comments [12]

Phyllis Sharpe from Teaneck, NJ

Of course you and I don't remember when women could not sing in public, so there were boy sopranos in churches. But opera came later and had women, but generally without a happy ending though. And later Operettas had women, sometimes with a happy endling but mostly sad (think of the Student Prince finale "Deep in My Heart" or "Bitter Sweet"). And in Broad-way 's "West side Story "There's a Place for us", a very sad ending but does this make it Musical Comedy? or Classical?
Why are we so hooked on labels? Why can the Boston Pops play W.C. Handy but not the NY Phil? Or WQXR?

Jul. 22 2011 09:08 PM
Barry Owen Furrer

The comments on this topic make for good theater! (Opera or Musical!) Anybody out there old enough to remember the great Met basso Ezio Pinza starring in "South Pacific?" I fail to see the difference of Ms. Voigt singing "Annie" or Mr. Pinza singing a "musical" role. I think in this economy, the idea is to fill seats with quality entertainment regardless of the medium. The Sousa Band performed numerous concerts at the old Met playing opera, operetta, and vaudeville repertoire, people ate it up and the Met never had trouble filling seats when Sousa's Band was engaged to play there. Mr. Feldman - I love your sense of humor! A former band director in another life? We must have a drink together sometime!

Jul. 18 2011 10:30 PM
Frank Feldman

Come one, you phony high-brows. The Magic Flute is a musical. Just a damned good one. If Camelot had recitatives with a plinking harpsichord, would it then be an opera? Deborah Voigt as Annie is no scarier than Ethel Merman. Better that than Isolde or Brunnhilde.

Jul. 18 2011 09:06 PM

No, no, 1000 times no! Musicals and opera are two entirely separate genres sometimes requiring separate environments/venues. Technique (often-not always-overlooked in musical performances) aside and for countless other reasons, there is more than enough in the opera repertoire to choose from than having to pull from the musical theater repertoire! I'm with unrepentant on all the last points made. American audiences today do not have the time/patience to read, let alone sit through a 3-hr opera, read titles, and appreciate opera in its entirety.

Jul. 18 2011 02:38 PM
MAK from NYC

Just a small 'giving credit where credit's due' correction to OG's article-

Joe Papp may have 'presented' that famous PIRATES OF PENZANCE, but it was directed (and largely conceived) by Wilford Leach - BTW- there's a technically flawed but spirited DVD of the original Delacorte production that's a huge improvement over the DOA filmed version made a few years later with most of the same forces.

Jul. 18 2011 11:49 AM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

Agree a little with Bernie. Opera was a form of popular entertainment. My mother's uncle always went to the opera and sat in what could be called the bleachers. He always spoke fondly as having been at the first perfermance by Enrico Caruso. My great uncle did not belong to the elites, he helped build the Empire State Bldg. As for people not having the committment to listen to great music, how many spend the time to read. Plenty of time for Real Housewives and other garbage on tv.

Jul. 18 2011 09:47 AM
concetta nardone from Elmont, NY

I thought Sarah Palin was going to be in Annie Get Your Gun. She can target the audience. Usually she kills helpless wolf cubs, moose and when she can, liberals.
Just kidding folks. Actually would love to see Ms. Voight in this musical.

Jul. 18 2011 09:41 AM
David from Flushing

I suspect the musical culture of this country has bifurcated into "rock" and "non-rock." While the musicals of the early to mid 20th century hardly fall into the classical category, they are now considered traditional non-rock or even perhaps light classical. As such, they appeal more to the classical crowd than the rock crowd and can find their way into opera houses.

There are some operas with spoken dialogue and I do not think that can held against musicals.

It would be a shame if the work of Rogers & Hammerstein, for example, vanished from live performance, but I do not know who would put on these musicals other than opera companies at this point. Broadway has clearly gone over to rock.

Jul. 18 2011 08:41 AM
The Unrepentant Pelleastrian from Teaneck, New Jersey

@ Will and Bernie:

Ok, scratch the point on attire but I think you got the gist of what I wrote.

Bernie wrote:

"Opera was a popular form of entertainment until the 20th century. It's time we go back to that if only for its own survival"

Not sure about that.

I think its appreciation and love will always be confined to a relatively narrow segment of the population.

Bernie wrote:

"Who feel that opera is something for the wealthy elite. That's why audiences are in decline around the country - people don't like to feel uncomfortable when they go out."

No that is NOT the reason why we are seeing a decline.

We are seeing a decline because opera requires a degree of focus and concentration and a willingness to subsume oneself in the art form and I don't many in our technologically obsessed world have the patience.

Sitting down and listening to a recording - with one's own inner world - strikes me as a little too much like hard work for them.

Jul. 17 2011 10:37 AM
Bernie from UWS

@ Unrepentant - Are you kidding? I'm not sure how keeping a "dress code" is going to make opera a more vital and vibrant art form. If anything, the conventions of tuxedos and ball gowns has driven away the curious who feel that opera is something for the wealthy elite. That's why audiences are in decline around the country - people don't like to feel uncomfortable when they go out.

Secondly, how are supertitles detracting from your enjoyment? If you don't like them you can turn them off at most houses. Simple as that.

Opera was a popular form of entertainment until the 20th century. It's time we go back to that if only for its own survival.

Jul. 17 2011 09:20 AM

They never should have relaxed the dress code! That's what makes art great!

Jul. 17 2011 03:06 AM
The Unrepentant Pelleastrian from Teaneck, New Jersey

Hi Olivia,

"Do musicals belong in the opera house?"


Absolutely NOT.

Sorry but this is getting ridiculous.

First they relaxed the dress code. Then they introduced supertitles. Then came the Regie nonsense from Europe.

Opera is going through a period in which its artistic directors seem to want to *justify* its *relevance* to our particular time in history... The move to want to absorb musicals into the opera world is a part of this.

Why do we assume that the audience is too parochial to appreciate something outside of its immediate realm of experience?

Come on folks, don't be silly..... Aesthetic pleasure does not have a 'best before' date.

Jul. 16 2011 09:47 PM

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