What do we call it?

Last May, the day after the concert premiere of my opera, one of my singers and I drove up to Palm Desert to see a friend of ours perform in Sondheim’s, A Little Night Music. On the way back to San Diego (about a two-hour drive) we had a lengthy debate/conversation about music for the stage: opera vs. musical vs. operetta, etc. What I remember most clearly about our conversation was when we both agreed that Night Music is certainly an operetta. I’m much more liberal than my friend about calling something an opera rather than a musical, so I was willing to call Sondheim’s show an opera—or a musical. Honestly, it doesn’t matter much to me. I like to think of myself as someone who doesn’t get dragged into long debates about the finer details of what genre a work of music might be; still, the fact that I felt comfortable calling the work an operetta did seem to undermine my convictions, so the moment stuck with me.

Recently this subject popped into the music news cycle with an article by John Suchet about West Side Story whose subtitle reads: “With its serious themes and operatic arias, the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim masterpiece deserves a promotion.” Throughout the article Suchet discusses the different elements of Bernstein and Sondheim’s show that would qualify as opera, such as “Maria” and “Somewhere,” and parts that would qualify as musical theater, like “Gee Officer Krupke.” Suchet also cites a conversation where Bernstein himself addresses the issue: “You just know,” were Bernstein’s words; and although it may be dissatisfying to get such a vague response, it’s probably the best answer on how to tell the difference between an opera and a musical.

Although Suchet’s article addresses an important issue, he reinforces a narrow definition of opera that does not account for the history of the art form. When Suchet says “opera,” he is probably referring to a style of dramatic stage music that is performed in major opera houses in the United States and Europe that features a particular style of unamplified singing. However, when one takes a closer look at the history of what we call opera, it becomes clear that this definition does not accurately reflect the wide historic and stylistic diversity of the style. Opera has been performed in many countries over hundreds of years, and it’s much bigger than how we commonly experience it today.

One of my biggest complaints about Suchet’s article is the subtitle: “the Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim masterpiece deserves a promotion.” A promotion, really? I’m not sure if he meant it, but the statement implies that operas are more important and valuable than musicals. The idea is ridiculous, and I can easily name a few musicals that I would call more important than hundreds of operas. Rather just comparing shows however, it’s better to simply dismiss that sense of self importance, appreciate both styles of music, and celebrate their accomplishments.

It’s not terribly surprising that opera fans and performers have developed this sense of value from their art. They train at prestigious schools, they develop extraordinary talents, and they tell profound stories that have survived for hundreds of years. Additionally they practice an art that doesn’t enjoy wide popularity, so monetary rewards are not as readily available. Many of my friends are opera singers, and they pursue it for a love of the art. As an opera composer, I’m not driven by the money; I’m driven by a love of storytelling and music. Broadway, on the other hand, is driven by dollars, and hit musicals can make “$600,000 to $1,000,000 per week in ticket sales.” This kind of money can have the effect of diminishing the artistic or aesthetic experience of a work.

Opera almost never profits solely from ticket sales, and companies raise large sums of money from donors. Besides small perks such as advanced ticket purchases, private backstage tours, and chances to meet artists, donors gain the satisfaction of being patrons of great art. This reality portrays opera as having more artistic value than musicals, but when one examines the history of many of the great operas, especially from the 19th Century, it was all about money.

During the 19th Century opera was popular music. Impresarios ran opera houses all over Europe trying to make fortunes. Money drove the business of opera and many of the productions of the period form a large part of the standard repertoire performed today in opera houses. Much like movies today, hundreds of operas premiered every year and the public consumed them voraciously. This is similar to the wide popularity of movies today, and much like today’s movies, there was a lot of crap. But are these works opera? Of course they’re operas, just bad ones.

When Suchet draws a distinction between opera and musicals, he cites the subject matter of the two genres. Operas deal with more serious subjects, while musicals are lighter and more comical. Thankfully this was called out in the comment section of the page and many people cited famous operatic comedies that would never be considered musicals. Mozart was known for some great comedic productions: Così fan tutte, The Magic Flute, Marriage of Figaro, etc. Would we be willing to call these productions musicals? Performing them in the same context as Broadway musicals could be an interesting experience, but I doubt the major opera houses that mount productions of these Mozart shows would agree with calling their productions “musicals.”

A response to Suchet's article

One of my favorite responses to Suchet’s feeling about humor vs. drama

Rather than being demeaning toward musicals, the statement reflects the prevailing perception of comedy and drama. It is rare for a comedy to win the Oscar for Best Picture, and comedic subjects and performers are generally held in less regard than drama.

There are lots of distinctions that are made to separate operas from musicals. One of the most common is that operas are completely sung through, with little, if any spoken dialog. If this was true then Magic Flute would be a musical, but Les Misérables would be an opera. Similarly, when the distinction between opera and musical is made in terms of the content—i.e. lyrics, music, subject matter—then exceptions will almost immediately surface and genre’s definition breaks down. A solution to this problem is to create many subgenres so as to explain the variety. This fragmentation can easily explode out of control, as is evidenced by the startling number of subgenres in metal music.

Ultimately Suchet makes a great point about Bernstein: “Why pigeonhole him?” He’s right, it’s a waste of time to say Bernstein is particular kind of musician, but it’s also a waste of time to say that West Side Story is a particular kind of musical work. When I read Suchet’s article a couple weeks ago, I was compelled to ask “why does it matter?” Bernstein and Sondheim’s show is one of my favorite stage productions, and I often joke with my students and colleagues that everything you need to know about music is in West Side Story. So instead of spending time and energy trying to figure out which parts of the show are opera, and which parts are musical theater, let’s acknowledge it for what it is: a masterpiece of music and amazing work of art.

1 Response

  1. Andy August 18, 2013 / 4:09 PM

    I have had this conversation with my students. One of the points I make is Les Miserables, to me, is an opera. The fact that the story is driven almost entirely by aria and recitative is what clinches it for me. West Side Story to me is musical theater since its storyline is driven by dialogue and music. But the idea that anything needs to be ‘promoted’ to another category is counter productive in the sense that we want audiences who enjoy amazing performances no matter the genre. It seems to add an air of elitism that is unnecessary and hinders the forward progress of art. I agree with you Jude that placing too much emphasis on genre or sub-genre only proves divisive if given any more merit than an interesting conversation among friends.

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