The Blurry Line Between Opera and Musical Theater

Tuesday, June 12, 2012 - 03:00 PM

“I love opera!” I am so frequently told. “I have seen The Phantom of the Opera and Les Miserables ten times each and have every record by Andrea Bocelli, Il Divo and the Three Tenors!” Sometimes I ask these enthusiasts if they have ever seen a performance in an opera house and the answer is almost always no. More often, I bite my tongue, wanting to tell them that they don’t know what they are missing but at the same time not wanting to hurt their feelings.

Lately, I have been thinking anew about how much opera and musical theater have in common and yet how their fundamental differences give each art form a specialness that stubbornly maintains the blurry line between them. I do not wish to imply that people cannot work successfully in both musical theater and opera. Consider just a short list of artists who have done so with great success: George and Ira Gershwin, Grace Moore, Kurt Weill, Leonard Bernstein, Ezio Pinza, Audra McDonald, Patti Lupone, Frederica von Stade and Julie Taymor. What made these people successful, apart from talent, outstanding colleagues and good material, was the awareness of the aesthetic differences between the forms and the ability to make them real on the stage.

The Revival that Wasn't

My renewed thinking about musical theater and opera (which is, after all, musical theater but with a unique combination of elements) is also not due to the fact that The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess won the Tony Award on June 10 for Best Revival of a Musical. In my view, this was not the revival of a musical (as was Stephen Sondheim’s Follies), because what is now being performed has never been performed before. It is a new creation by director Diane Paulus and writers Suzan-Lori Parks and Diedre L. Murray using music and words from the original opera by George and Ira Gershwin, Dubose and Dorothy Heyward.

Paulus and Parks are very gifted artists. I adored Paulus’s production of Hair for the Public Theater and greatly enjoyed her direction of Haydn’s Il Mondo della Luna for the Gotham Chamber Opera at New York’s Hayden Planetarium in 2010. Parks wrote the splendid Topdog/Underdog that fully merited its Pulitzer Prize for Drama, and her 365 plays in 365 days project for the Public Theater was one of the most fascinating creations for the stage in a long time. However, for me at least, their take on Porgy and Bess gets very little right and a whole lot wrong, despite having a very talented cast.

I am not echoing Sondheim, who famously criticized this version without seeing it. I saw it in the winter and my disappointment still has not abated. Anyone who loves this music will immediately note all of the cuts and the fact that the orchestration sounds tinny due to a smaller number of musicians being boosted by amplification. Anyone who knows the rich depth of feeling found not only in the principal characters but in smaller roles such as Serena, Jake and Clara will feel frustrated when these portrayals come up short due to how they have been restructured.

Great liberties are taken, such as having Maria, the community matriarch, pretend (or perhaps not?) to be the lawyer who helps Bess get a divorce from Crown. And most egregious was enabling Porgy to walk with a cane rather then having two crippled legs that require him to drag along the ground or be transported in a cart pulled by a goat. In the current version, he hobbles out of town in the finale in search of Bess. We are expected to be inspired by his resolve and think that he might actually find her, making for a happy ending.

At the heart of the original Porgy and Bess and every other version since then is the great music that reveals the heart, complexity and frailties of its characters and then acknowledges that many lives are touched by genuine tragedy. Stunt the music, chop up the story and give it an upbeat conclusion and that is not a Porgy and Bess in any but the most tangential ways. I am reminded by this production and most other shows that musical theater makes very little room for tragedy while opera and its creators know that both tragedy and comedy are part of the human experience.

Andrew Lloyd Webber's Finest (Seriously)

Actually, the stimulus for this article was my attendance last week at the revival of Evita, with music by Andrew Lloyd Webber and lyrics by Tim Rice. It should not surprise you to learn that musicals by Lloyd Webber are not my cup of tea, with their overblown but superficial emotionalism and the one hit song that worms its way into your ear. Lloyd Webber has often been accused of shameless appropriation of melodies from elsewhere — most famously, Phantom of the Opera’s use of music from Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West

For me, Evita has always been an exception to all of this. It is a deeply cynical take on power and image-making and has, in Eva and Juan Peron and Che Guevara, three fascinating and contradictory figures from recent history. In a good production of this show, we care about them as much as we do Floria Tosca, Mario Cavaradossi and Baron Scarpia. Evita has lots of beautiful and dramatically specific melodies, lyrics with tang and bite and, as in an opera, it is almost entirely through-sung and carried along by music and words at the same time. 

The current production has many virtues that are undone by maddening interpretive choices, most of which I lay at the feet of Michael Grandage, its director. The scenery by Christopher Oram (who also did the costumes) is monumental when necessary but also creates intimate spaces. It would work well in many operas. The lighting by Neil Austin is outstanding as it moves from sun to nighttime, from spotlighting iconic political figures to a ghostliness in Eva’s dying and funeral scenes. Michael Cerveris, who plays Peron, is one of the most valuable and versatile performers in the American theater. Only he, of the principals, creates a characterization informed both by music and words, and sings and acts with equal depth.

The title character of Evita is one of the toughest “sings” in musical theater, certainly as daunting as Mama Rose in Gypsy. It is to Broadway what Turandot is to opera, but much longer. Elena Roger, who is from Argentina, has a voice that gets strident and lacks the dramatic heft Patti Lupone brought to it. Roger does nothing to render Eva sympathetic, making the character an anti-heroine. That is a courageous and valid choice, but I suspect it was not so much a choice as an outcome.

Che Guevara is the only Argentine as storied and mythical as Eva Peron, perhaps even more so. In Evita his is a large role with a lot of music and acting. The ingenious notion in this show was to have a contemporary of Eva, one who would think of himself as being a man of the people as much as Eva fashioned herself as the savior of the disadvantaged, be the one who tells the audience the story.

Ricky Martin plays Che in the current Broadway version. He has a strong, secure tenor voice, exemplary diction and abundant unforced charisma. But it seems as if he has been directed to just be a cute narrator who happens to be named Che rather than a man whose image is universally recognized nearly 45 years after his death. Ricky Martin has the gifts to be a top Broadway performer and not simply a recognizable star, but he needs a director who will help him build a layered portrayal rather than being eye candy with a nice voice.

What does all of this have to do with opera? There has been a trend of late to ask theater directors without the requisite skills to stage operas in major opera houses. In addition to not being comfortable and conversant in the operatic aesthetic, they might well bring some of the negative values now on display in musical theater: avoidance of emotional complexity; unwillingness to fully plumb tragedy; sidestepping political and social issues; a preference for pretty people with pretty voices and little else rather those who can really sing, act and have something to say. 

In other words, they could make opera superficial and less exciting for audiences who buy tickets because they want to be challenged, enlightened and moved rather than simply being entertained. Opera will never work if it is merely pleasant. And if, Heaven forbid, the musical theater’s tolerance of electronic amplification of singers, chorus and orchestra (with a smaller number of instrumentalists) infects opera, we might as well give up now and resort to our collection of old recordings. Microphones in opera, with the rarest of exceptions, is a line that should never be crossed.

Weigh in: Do you think the Broadway aesthetic benefits opera in any way? What can opera contribute to musical theater?


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Comments [13]

PM from USA

Thanks. Disappointed to hear about the P&B revival. As stated, no editing needed. I know from discussions with Mr.Sondheim, he would be sickened by altering what he would consider the greatest work of American musical theater. Additionally, it may be that Lloyd-Webber poached from la fanchiula, I know he stole from Turandot. When I perform Turandot, the rental music, on occasion, will have marginalia as to where the theft occurs.

Jul. 07 2012 10:08 AM
Tony from Iowa

I think the article was excellent. The other major vocal distinction that I would point out is the tessitura of the main characters. This is often the reason for musicals "requiring" microphones. In addition to loud keyboards, drum sets, and electric guitars and basses, musicals are the realm of the "belter" and "bari-tenor." Voice types that thrive on a few money notes, but require singers to stretch to extremes.

Webber's Phantom is a good example of this--the Phantom himself has to conjure notes from both bass and tenor registers. Generally, they choose a singer who has the higher notes in full bloom and can barely hit the low notes, requiring amplification and compression to "even out" the range of these pieces. True, they aren't required to sing a string of 128 32nd notes, but these pieces have an inherent challenge, as well.

On the flip side is the female counterpart: the belter. Fantine from Les Mis comes to mind. This role almost requires a soprano due to the full voice "high" notes, which are belted out, much to the chagrin of the sound engineer. These have to balance out with the tenor register notes in the low part of her main "aria." There is almost no choice but to amplify when given such an unusual register and requirement to sing full-voice all notes on the page.

This gives rise to another issue: longevity. In order to "belt" out many of the broadway roles, night after night, the singers must scale back the belting or suffer the consequences (nodes, vocal fatigue, etc.). So, the combination of odd-register plus soft singing requires amplification, often in the smallest of houses.

What is the solution to this, and why do some "old school" musicals sound more like opera? My take is that the composers actually studied composition. They knew the range and tessitura of the singers for whom they were writing. They studied voice leading and realized that jumping back and forth over cumbersome intervals wasn't in the singer's best interest. They knew how to orchestrate for an ensemble of acoustic instruments who would compliment the singers on the stage.

I'm not here to bash musicals; simply to point out the differences. Like the author of the article, I enjoy well-done music of any genre. But, musicals--as they are *now*--are more akin to an orchestrated rock concert. The vocalists are expected to be actors first, and singers second. This is obvious by the emotional break-downs that occur in many musicals--to the peril of the music. But, the emotion is the more important component.

Tell that to the Queen of the Night! Have you ever seen a QotN miss half her aria because she was crying, and then have the audience roar to their feet because the raw emotion engulfed the entire theater? No.

Jul. 07 2012 12:46 AM
Cesar from Kissimmee, Fl

This person Fred Plotkin should not be allowed to write online. He is not is touch with reality. Ricky Martin does not play as Che Guevara. He plays the role of "Che" which is the felling of the common Argentinian.

Jun. 24 2012 01:20 PM
Madeleine from New York

The blog was much different than I had expected it to be. When I think of the blurry line between opera and musical theater, I think about Frank Lesser and Lerner & Lowe and their use of coloratura, which is as difficult to sing as any Rossini. There have been cross-overs in both directions: Jeanette MacDonald was no doubt the first, but even Audra MacDonald is basically a mezzo who would probably be just at home doing Amneris as Bess. Many opera companies--NYC, Glimmerglass and DiCapio--to name a few regionally, recognize that the line is quite blurry.

Jun. 14 2012 03:41 PM
Peter O'Malley from Oakland, New Jersey

I haven't seen the "revival" in question, but this piece is one more strike against it. Too bad, as I really like the actual opera itself.

What can opera contribute to musical theater? I guess it would be too much to hope for that a return (especially in houses built for projected, unamplified voices) to a singing style that did not rely on amplification would be too much to hope for. The idea of sung-through composition is an intriguing one, but has been tried in such far-afield ventures as "Tommy", which at least paid lip-service tribute to opera in its concept.

as to what opera can take from Broadway: I can only say that Broadway would be a better place to borrow from than is TV, which is having too much influence on a certain famous opera house in its alternate audience outreach program. Broadway requires a technique that is aware of a live audience rather than a camera, and that is what oper really needs to keep its sights on.

Jun. 14 2012 12:36 PM

A fine and very true piece, Fred, that made me think of another revival of PORGY & BESS and perhaps marriage of opera and musical theater-that of William Warfield & Leontyne Price. I imagine their life and work- together and on separate paths- embodied the very best for both worlds and would be an example of excellence for both genres.

It seems that Mr. Warfield's diverse career also touched on a very different time of musicals that did deal with hefty issues, as miscegenation(SHOWBOAT)& abuse(CAROUSEL) just to name two. Some of today's musicals may, sadly, just reflect the tastes of a portion of modern audiences in the shows that "got plenty of nuttin". As to "what opera can contribute to musical theater"-I think that you have answered that question quite well in this and other articles, that inform & educate to raise the tide for all musical boats.

Jun. 13 2012 05:10 PM
DW from DC

I think we're mixing the crux of the argument here. Musical theater is storytelling by singers who act (regardless of whether or not it makes their voices turn foul), opera is storytelling by singers who don't act. It's boring, and that's coming from someone who has seen many opera's because I so desperately want to appreciate them. Also, I get free tickets.

Jun. 13 2012 01:25 PM

I could not agree more with your comments about Porgy and Bess. The original needed no tampering or "fixing up".
Kathryn Berelli

Jun. 13 2012 12:45 PM
Les from Miami, Florida

Weighing in, no to the first question, yes to the second, if operatically trained voices are employed and skilled composers will so choose to write for orchestral texture rather than an amplified watered-down pit band with computer and/or synthesizer blaring tedious rock riffs and tiresome rock timbres. Treasured examples are the musicals of Kern, Gershwin, Friml, Porter, Rogers, and Romberg. I think Bernstein and Sondheim are the last of the greats as far as musicals are concerned; and I think Copland and Britten are the last (most recent) great opera composers.

Jun. 13 2012 12:02 PM
David Richie from Reading PA

Without having seen the Porgy and Evita productions Fred discusses, I still can't help but agree 100% with his philosophical points. Opera is simply a "higher and better" art form than musical theater for the reasons he points out. The closer musical theater comes to opera, the better it is. The fact that more people like musical theater than real opera is irrelevant.

Jun. 13 2012 10:07 AM
Tasha from Western U.S.

Something my very Austrian voice teacher told me years ago when directors first began mic'ing singers: if a singer needs a microphone attached to their body because they can't project to the back wall, they're not singing correctly. Then again, he was one who despised musical theatre.

On the other hand, as a lyric soprano who's performed in musicals as well as operas/operettas, I learned years ago that it's a lot easier for most people to sit through a musical than an opera. One has to be trained to sing opera or grow up listening to it to appreciate what one is hearing--"appreciate" being the operative word on a great many levels (historical as well as musical). I will admit to enjoying Bocelli's vulnerable sound in some of his pieces, but I cringe at his lack of phrasing, breath control, et. al. when he's trying to sing opera. I also wouldn't dare trying to explain to his other fans what's lacking in his technique because they're not trained to hear it. But perhaps some of those fans--and musical theatre's--will be inspired to explore not just musicals. Then again, I was exposed to Webber in school far more than, say, to Mozart. Not all operas are enjoyable to everyone; for example, I absolutely loathe singing "The Consul," both in terms of the music and the story.

On the other hand, I deliberately bought the original Broadway cast recording of "Evita" for Patti Lupone, and just as deliberately ignored the London cast recording with Elaine Paige. On the other hand, the London cast recording of "Cats" was better than Broadway's, if only for Brian Blessed's rendition of Deuteronomy.

Music is so intensely personal a thing, I'm glad there's so many different genres. The world would be boring, indeed, if all we had to listen to was...whoever.

Jun. 12 2012 10:18 PM
David Sanua from Brooklyn

Interesting blog. I think "Phantom," by the way, IS an opera, not a very good one. It's at its best when Webber is satirizing 19th century French operas (and sending up the music as well), and at its worst when--Webber starts composing his own music. It seemed clear to me, without looking at the score, that his big tunes were clotted with quarter and half tones and nothing smaller! Or maybe eighths and quarters. A real musician could tell me if I was right.

Jun. 12 2012 09:20 PM
Cathryn D'Arcy

Amen, Fred, Amen!

Jun. 12 2012 06:16 PM

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Operavore is WQXR's digital 24/7 audio stream and devoted to Opera. The Operavore blog features breaking news, expert commentary and reviews by writers Fred Plotkin, David Patrick Stearns, Amanda Angel and others. The music stream features a continuous, carefully programmed mix of classic and contemporary opera recordings.

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