What’s the Difference Between an Opera and a Musical?

MORE than ever, composers are busily breaking down walls between stylistic categories. Opera in particular has been a poacher’s paradise. We have had folk opera, jazz opera and rock opera. Bono, who collaborated with the Edge on the music and lyrics of “Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark,” called the show “Pop-Art opera.” Whatever that means. But of all such efforts, mixing opera with the Broadway musical might seem by far the most natural combination.

Then why are so many efforts to crisscross that divide so bad? For one thing, composers from outside the field often have a distorted understanding of what opera actually is. They borrow the most superficially grand, inflated and melodramatic elements of the art form, whereas opera is actually a richly varied and often tautly narrative genre of musical drama.

Consider “Séance on a Wet Afternoon,” the first venture into opera by Stephen Schwartz, the composer and lyricist of “Pippin,” “Godspell” and the long-running “Wicked.” “Séance” was presented this spring by the struggling New York City Opera. The promise here was that a leading musical-theater artist might bring fresh energy to opera. But Mr. Schwartz’s tepid, sappy score had little of the spark and originality of “Wicked.”

Another much-discussed production this season, presented by the Lincoln Center Theater, earnestly tried to split the difference between opera and musical theater: “A Minister’s Wife,” with a book by Austin Pendleton, music by Joshua Schmidt and lyrics by Jan Levy Tranen. It was adapted from George Bernard Shaw’s play “Candida,” about an officious minister with Socialist convictions, his ebullient wife and a dreamy, dangerous young man who idolizes her. As performed by a chamber ensemble and a small, gifted cast, the musical score was alluring and nuanced, with intricate ensemble numbers and long-lined melodic writing cushioned by lush orchestral harmonies and rippling figurations. But “A Minister’s Wife” seemed a precious piece: either pretentious musical theater or tame quasi-opera; take your pick. And with Mr. Pendleton’s adaptation of Shaw’s brilliant dialogue, the musical numbers sometimes felt superfluous.

In some fields fusing different kinds of music is a potentially creative and liberating endeavor. But creators in musical theater and opera are better off working their native turfs. It’s fine to pull in other styles and influences as long you stay rooted in what you, and your art form, do best.

The reason attempts to combine opera with the musical have been problem prone, I think, is that these genres are too close for comfort. The differences, though slight, are crucial. So what are they, exactly? To begin with, in no way do I see the matter as a lowbrow-highbrow debate. Opera is not by definition the more elevated form. Few operas are as overwrought as Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard.” And there is no bigger crowd pleaser than Leoncavallo’s impassioned “Pagliacci.”

The opera Nguoi Tac Tuong (The Sculptor) perfomed by Vietnam National Opera and Ballet (VNOB) in 2019
The opera Nguoi Tac Tuong (The Sculptor) perfomed by Vietnam National Opera and Ballet (VNOB) in 2019
Musical Maria de Buenos Aires performed in 2018 bay VNOB
Musical Maria de Buenos Aires performed in 2018 bay VNOB

Nor is the distinction dependent on musical complexity. Frank Loesser’s “How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying,” currently enjoying a vibrant revival on Broadway starring a disarming Daniel Radcliffe, is a more musically sophisticated piece than Carlisle Floyd’s affecting opera “Susannah,” the story of a sensual young woman in rural Tennessee who is unfairly branded a temptress by her community. And you cannot argue that operas tell stories only through music, whereas musicals rely heavily on spoken dialogue. Lots of operas, and not just comic works, have spoken dialogue, including “Carmen” and “Fidelio.”

Here’s the difference: 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.

This explains why for centuries opera-goers have revered works written in languages they do not speak. Though supertitles have revolutionized the art form, many buffs grew up without this innovation and loved opera anyway. As long as you basically know what is going on and what is more or less being said, you can be swept away by a great opera, not just by music, but by visceral drama.

In contrast, imagine if the exhilarating production of Cole Porter’s “Anything Goes” now on Broadway, starring the amazing triple threat Sutton Foster, were to play in Japan without any kind of titling technology. The wit of the musical is embedded in its lyrics like:

Good authors too who once knew better words

Now only use four-letter words,

Writing prose,

Anything goes.

(And this point leaves aside the whole issue that musicals like this one are also about dance.)

If you accept the distinction that words have the upper hand in musical theater but music does in opera, then lots of matters fall right into place: the nature of lyrics, singing styles, subject matter, orchestration, musical complexity. Theatergoing audiences may not care much whether a show is a musical or an opera. But the best achievements in each genre, and the occasional standout hybrid work (I’m thinking of Bernstein’s “Candide” and Adam Guettel’s “The Light in the Piazza”) have been from composers and writers who grounded themselves in a tradition, even while reaching across the divide.

To underscore this point, let me compare, of all things, Bernstein’s opera “A Quiet Place,” which had a revelatory production at the City Opera last fall, and the audacious hit musical “The Book of Mormon,” with book, music and lyrics by Trey Parker, Robert Lopez and Matt Stone.

“Mormon” is a show that proudly hails from the words-first heritage of Broadway musicals. For all the outrageousness of the blasphemous story and the foul-mouthed satire, at its core, as Ben Brantley argued in his review in The New York Times, “Mormon” is an “old-fashioned, pleasure-giving musical.” The opening song, “Hello,” an ensemble piece in which the fresh-faced Mormon missionaries introduce themselves, both mocks and embraces a lineage of similar numbers. Think of “So Long, Farewell,” the treacly goodnight greeting of the Von Trapp children in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s “Sound of Music.” Or even Stephen Sondheim’s bracing title song of “Company,” with its insistent refrains of “Bobby, Bobby, Bobby baby” over a rhythmic riff that evokes a telephone busy signal.

“A Quiet Place” is a special case. Here was Bernstein, who in earlier life was Mr. Broadway (“Wonderful Town” and “West Side Story”), striving to write a stylistically eclectic yet full-fledged opera, an epic family drama about a prosperous, unhappily married suburban couple and what happens to them and their two troubled children over 30 years.

That in Christopher Alden’s inspired production “A Quiet Place” came across as Bernstein’s most ambitious, personal and moving work was a surprise. For more than 20 years the piece had been considered a hodgepodge that folded a jazzy one-act opera from 1951 (“Trouble in Tahiti”) into an elaborate three-act structure, composed and revised in the early 1980s. Bernstein draws upon myriad styles here: atonal angst, contemplative Coplandesque harmonies, kinetic musical theater dance music, a trio of jazz vocalists. The libretto by Stephen Wadsworth (and by Bernstein in the “Trouble in Tahiti” scenes) is of course crucially important. Yet when Bernstein evokes diverse styles, even jazz, he does so for the musical and emotional resonances of the sources. He is not just switching on his musical-theater voice. Though “A Quiet Place” has design flaws, it is a music-driven opera in the grand tradition.

You would have thought that Stephen Schwartz had a good opera in him. The main problem with “Séance on a Wet Afternoon,” a psychological drama about an unstable middle-aged medium and her mousy husband who kidnap a little girl as a publicity stunt, is that Mr. Schwartz did not stay true to his own voice. He was approached by Opera Santa Barbara to write the piece, and my guess is that some well-meaning colleague sat him down and explained that the problem with contemporary opera is that those grating scores do not sing; they lack soaring melody, the supposed hallmark of great opera.

“Séance” sings all right. And sings and sings and sings, cloying aria after cloying aria. Mr. Schwartz would have been wiser to give us something closer to “Wicked” but more subdued and menacing and structured as a continuous musical piece.

Now, I am not suggesting that staying true to a words-first tradition of musical theater means a composer cannot stretch musically. The genre can carry a lot of musical complexity, as long as words do most of the heavy lifting.

Tom Kitt, for example, is a standout among the new generation of Broadway composers, and I admired his pop-infused music for “Next to Normal.” But I felt he was being cautious, letting his music animate the drama without getting in the way. I got a stronger sense of his capacity for invention from the multistyled, haunting incidental music he wrote for two productions at Shakespeare in the Park: “The Winter’s Tale” last summer, and now “All’s Well That Ends Well,” currently in a terrific production directed by Daniel Sullivan.

Mr. Sondheim has long offered exhilarating proof that you can be true to the musical-theater tradition and musically sophisticated at the same time. He is completely at home in the words-driven world. Consequently he can draw upon his ingenious compositional imagination, knowing that he will by instinct taper his voice to the demands of his lyrics and the needs of the story. “Sweeney Todd” is often considered his most operatic work. I might pick “Passion,” which, inspired by an Italian film about an unlikely and eerie love story, evokes somewhat the lush lyricism of opera. The songs are woven into an almost continuous musical fabric. Mr. Sondheim has described this flowing score as having “arioso passages that sometimes take song form.”

There was a time when musical-theater composers, impressed by the mega-success of Mr. Lloyd Webber, strove for pumped-up operatic grandeur. This was the era of the schlock-opera. But the success of Jonathan Larson’s “Rent,” in the 1990s helped puncture the Lloyd Webber bubble and inspired a burst of pop-driven musical-theater scores.

Overall I am not so happy that pop-driven musicals have come to dominate Broadway. Many of those in Larson’s wake miss something about the achievement of “Rent.” Here was a work specifically inspired by Puccini’s “Bohème,” also a tale of young artists struggling with love affairs, poverty and disease. But Larson thought the best way to pay homage to “Bohème” was not to mimic opera but to write an up-to-date, pop-infused, sophisticated musical-theater score. Yes, Larson was attempting to bring rock and pop styles into the musical-theater heritage. But “Rent” is a words-driven musical in the honored tradition.

Attempts to draw from and blur the two traditions continue. This summer the Glimmerglass Opera in Cooperstown, N.Y., is presenting the premiere production of “A Blizzard on Marblehead Neck,” a one-act collaboration between the Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Tony Kushner and the Tony Award-winning musical-theater composer Jeanine Tesori, part of a double-bill with “Later That Same Evening” by the composer John Musto and the librettist Mark Campbell.

Mr. Kushner and Ms. Tesori’s acclaimed work “Caroline, or Change” was definitely a musical. “Blizzard” is billed as an opera. What is the difference between the genres in the minds of the creators? This new piece will surely affect the debate.

Drawing from different genres and styles can, of course, produce dynamic results. In contemporary classical music, some of the most interesting young composers are those who unabashedly steal from the diverse musical styles that excite them — atonal modernism, punk, whatever — to fashion a quirky and personal voice. More power to them.

But opera and especially musical theater are art forms with specific needs and challenges. Composers with populist aspirations who merge traditions into some mushy middle ground are asking for trouble. Traditions, even those supposedly confining categories, have their value.


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