Wednesday, August 10, 2005

Which Came First, the Chicken or the Opera?

Recently a friend of mine posted a blog about a rather virulent response he received to some earlier offhanded remarks on the difference between opera and musical theater.

To wit, my friend had written "operas emerge from the tradition of classical music, while musicals emerge from the tradition of drama" and "Operas are pieces of vocal classical music to which a story is loosely set." The reader commented, "Everything you said...is wrong" and "Story is always first in opera with the music following from the situation and the characters."

As ill-informed as my blogger friend's stance might seem, he's more right than she is.

The question of whether story or music is more important has been a centuries-long debate, and the composer Richard Strauss actually wrote a full-length opera, Capriccio, on the subject, in which the Countess has to decide between two suitors, a poet and a composer. She goes to bed without telling us her choice. But what is the difference between, say, Götterdämmerung and Chicago? (Chicago will get you home before The Golden Girls is on.)

Mankind has probably been using music to aid dramatic storytelling since we lived in caves, so the actual "origin" of opera is lost to the mists of ancient history. But what we call "opera," which is the Italian word for the Latin "opus," meaning "work," had its formal beginnings in Florence at the end of the 16th century. As with other artforms during the renaissance, there was a fascination with idealized visions of classical Greek and Roman culture.

There was a desire to present ancient Greek dramas in an "authentic" manner. Since research indicates that the great dramas of Euripides and Sophocles were at least partly sung or chanted, a group of scholars known as the Florentine Camerata set about devising a way to provide music for them, and what they came up with resembles the recitativo accompagnato of later composers like Händel. There were no long, beautiful arias, tuneful duets our rousing ensembles; it was just the text of the drama "set" in a rhythmic approximation of actual speech patterns, accompanied by a very small orchestra (harpsichord and a couple of string instruments).

So, no, in fact it is exactly wrong to say that opera developed from a musical rather than dramatic tradition.

It is also exactly wrong to say that the story is always first. As European music grew more complex and opera grew in popularity, the demand for performances roughly mirrored today's audience for Hollywood blockbuster movies; the biggest stars could be counted on to show up and do what they do, and whether the story made sense or not was hardly a primary concern.

Most composers placed a high value on drama, but the demands of the market sometimes made high standards impossible. In-demand composers working on commission often had to churn out several operas a year: Donizetti wrote 70 operas between 1818 and 1843; Rossini wrote 40 before he retired at the age of 36 in 1828 and became a chef. To save time, composers often recycled good pieces from unsuccessful shows. Perhaps most famously, Rossini took his overture from Elisabetta, Regina d'Inghilterra and stuck it on the front of Il barbiere di Siviglia. If music "always" follows from the situation and the characters, I have a hard time seeing a relationship between Figaro's capers and Queen Elizabeth I.

And then there's Richard Wagner, who went from straightforward storytelling in Der Fliegende Holländer and Lohengrin to Parsifal, where what "story" exists is merely a skeletal framework upon which to hang a deep philosophical treatise. Of course, Wagner didn't call Parsifal an opera. It's a "Bühnenweihfestspiel."* (Gesundheit.)

But you know, if you're going to compare opera and musical theater, convincing, compelling drama isn't the standard to go by. Dance of the Vampires, anyone?

So what is the difference?

Mike's whole thing got started because our favorite intellectuals down at the New York Post called Caroline, Or Change an "opera" because it is through-sung. But that's hardly the criterion; by that standard, Les Miserables is an opera while Carmen, Fidelio, Die Fledermaus and Die Zauberflöte are not because they have spoken dialogue. And then there's Stravinsky's The Rake's Progress, which has no music.**

One might be tempted to argue that operatic music is more "sophisticated" or "complex," but having sung them I can tell you that Bernstein and Sondheim can be every bit as harmonically and rhythmically complex as Puccini. You could almost say that musical theater grew out of "popular" music as opposed to opera, except that, especially in the 19th century, opera was popular music. In the days before Linda Ronstadt and Eminem, young ladies would entertain themselves at parties attempting to sing "Di tanti palpiti" and "Caro nome." (Actually, in New York City, you can still find parties like that...and it's not just the ladies singing "Caro nome.") Nineteenth-century opera tended to be nationalistic, and you'll find folk-music influences from Weber to Mascagni to Massenet.

It's not a fully satisfying answer, but I think the principle difference is the demand placed upon the singers. I say "not fully satisfying" because Purcell's Aeneas is a far easier sing than Elphaba, and the tenor tessitura in Jesus Christ Superstar is right up there with I Puritani. If you can sing "Glitter and be Gay," you can sing "Je veux vivre." But the fact is that high school girls across America can sing Maria or Eliza Doolittle just fine, but you don't see community theater productions of Tristan und Isolde. (Thank God. The Vienna Opera meant to give the world premiere back in the 1860s, but gave up after seventy rehearsals and deemed it "unperformable.") Evita might seem like a marathon, but it's no Brünnhilde.

Futhermore, the critical standard to which classical performers are held far outpaces that of Broadway stars. Leaving aside the deplorable state of acoustics on Broadway that rely totally on deafeningly amplified music, in terms of intonation, musical accuracy, diction, vocal health and idiomatic performance across a wide range of styles, being a professional opera singer requires abilities that make musical theater singers look like church choir ladies.

But that's comparing Aidas to Oklahomas.


*Stage Dedication Festival Play
** That's a joke. I just don't like Stravinsky.

18 comments:

Anthony said...

You make several good points, though I would argue that the term "opera" has itself several connotations which, it seems, have been lost through the ages. For instance, Mozart used all sorts of terms to describe his twenty sung stage works, dramma giocoso and festa teatrale among them, yet these are all designated operas today.

Not to mention that the changes brought about by the composers themselves. You mention the dominance of virtuosi in Handel's days (love the Umlaut, by the way, even if I don't use it myself!), but what of Gluck's role in bringing opera back to basics, bringing the psychological portrayal of the characters back to the fore?

Incidentally, I'm loath to belittle your beloved Strauss, but Salieri got there first with Prima la musica, poi le parole in 1786 ...

Andy said...

These are all excellent points and believe me I considered making them -- however, I was mindful that I was writing a blogpost, four volume history. : )

Andy said...

d'oh, "blogpost, NOT a four-volume history."

Anthony said...

Hmm ... You could have fooled me!

David M. said...

Two different Beasts... Different Skill sets... Both Valid...
I do think that Opera fans get too obsessed with their beloved recordings ... we're talking about a live art here! Have you ever seen Callas perform live? I don't think so. People get to transfixed on which singer is best or which recording is the definitive recording... Phuckit! You can't know until you see them and hear them perform live!

You have a good case up until the end. BUT
Being a music theatre performer requires much more versatility than being an opera singer. To be a good opera singer you need to have a good voice ... granted (most of the time) , but, they forgive inability to express emotion (other than vocally), inability to move (dancing aside, I mean literally move), inability to believably physically portray the character they are playing. How many white Othellos have you seen... How many white Porgys? How many mountainous MIMIs !
Aside-Porgy and Bess was written by a Music Theatre composer. It is Music Theatre. Just because it is good don't try to mark it as opera.

Vocal technique and style reflect the music style of the time period and vocal demands of the performer of that time period. They didn't have mics so they needed some major technique to be heard.
Wagner shoved his orchestra under the stage for christ sake. I wonder if his ideas and that of other composers might not have been different if they had been afforded the luxury of (tasteful) amplification. The first half of American Music theatre was also performed without Mics! And so we have the birth of Ethel Merman - more honk less hoot. LOL

Gilbert and Sullivan used a mix of voices... Don't comment on the bad recordings... Their shows... Written as OPERAS (only later described as Operettas) use a mix of voices from character patter baritone to full on Mezzos and Tenors etc.... And a happy meeting place (when well performed) of musical and opera. Many people think they can perform them, when they should not, thus the bad wrap.

Another consideration is The 8 show a week principle. Could it be argued that a pleasant voice that can withstand 8 performances a week is in better health than that of a voice which can only do 3 ? Technically DIFFERENT not more or less challenging. Che anyone?

Aside-not all musicals use mics and I know of operas that have and do use mics.

The wide variation of styles for music theatre far surpasses that of opera, and can even incorporate some of opera. I have heard baroque opera with voices that could easily been transferred to a Musical. Musicals vary from Forever Plaid 4 person tight 1940-50's Harmony to (a well done) R&H show to Sweeny Todd to Hair and Tommy, a full on rock show.

The Jud who won a Tony was a wonderful singer AND actor. (also MSM Alum)

Another factor to consider is Comedy. The ability to throw a punch line or deliver a believable monologue can be of the utmost importance. Most operas do not call for that skill. The few that do are usually being cutesy with a wink and a nod, not delivering jokes. Or oh look I'm in a disguise and I'm fooling someone...

But the best of both worlds HAVE the best of both worlds, a good story line and wonderful music to fit it, AND the performers who can do it justice.
West Side Story,Traviata etc... Both need good singers and are better with good actors.

Andy said...

I don't buy all of David's reponse. It's true that for many roles, vocal qualities surpass all other considerations in terms of casting, and that's one of the important differences between the two forms. But more often the complaint is not really that Mimi is overweight, it's that she's not pretty. Well, average-looking people fall in love and die, too. For some reason that's not as sad, I guess.

The microphone is irrelevant. Rodgers & Hammerstein didn't write for amplified voices and living opera composers still don't.

And I don't at all accept the range/versatility argument. The distance from "The King & I" to "Rent" is shorter than from Monteverdi to Richard Strauss. True, in decades past, a singer could have a career singing exclusively Verdi & Puccini or only Wagner and Strauss, but not today. Not to toot my own horn, but I have performed everything from Handel to Puccini to Strauss to Debussy to Menotti to Henze and even a Philip Glass world premiere. That's a standard skill set for the modern opera singer.

Anyway, the temptation is to fall into this pointless, snobbish debate over which is better. Neither is better, they're just different...but the distinction is nearly impossible to define.

Paul Schleuse said...

This debate seems to go all the way back to... let's see... 1994, when I first got to MSM myself! All the voice majors--grad and undergrad--were very het up about the whole issue, generally in ways that revealed intense insecurity on their parts, regardless of what position they took on the matter.

To inject a little historical perspective from a non-singer (OK, I'm a singer, but I specialize in music written before opera-as-we-know-it existed), I would argue that musicals and operas are essentially parts of the same complex tradition. In their own time, no technical or aesthetic distinction anyone tries to make between the styles can stick: not sung-vs-spoken, not music-driven vs text-driven, not high-art vs low-art, not acting vs singing, not vocal technique. Nothin'

There IS, however, a clear distinction between the two in present-day America (how many works are actually hard to assign to one category or the other?), which is embodied in a few easily identifiable traits:

1) Singers always specialize in one or the other. Even if they "cross over," they remain singers from one style dipping into the other as a sideline. (Renée Fleming remains an opera singer, and Audra McDonald remains a musical singer. This has nothing to do with the quality of their work in either field, but the reality of the marketplace.)

2) Musicals are generally produced in for-profit theaters on an entrepeneurial model, while operas are produced by non-profit companies. (When Baz Luhrman put La Boheme on Broadway it became either a musical or just a bizarre curiosity). Again, this says nothing about the relative merits of either, but it does relate to the issues of canon and authenticity: see below.

3) Most musicals written today assume that the voices (and usually the instruments too) will be amplified, and many musicals written in the past are performed this way without any serious sense of inauthenticity. Operas, on the other hand, do not use amplification, and if they do the presenters must find justification for this decision (poor acoustics, "growing the audience," etc.). This gets back to the issues of canon and authenticity that I mentioned before.

So, about canon and authenticity... the defining thing about operas in contemporary society is that they are works written in the past by composers who are now dead and (more importantly) for audiences with a different set of values and aesthetics than modern audiences. Yes, modern opera does exist, but you show me a successful company that specializes in it, and I'll show you a 501c(3) with a great grant-writer and rich firends (see American Opera Projects).

People go to an opera (here's my real point in this post) to participate in an act of historical re-imagination. You can't understand Figaro without imagining that you understand something about 18th century society. You can't udnerstand the Ring with imaginging that you understand something about 19th century society, Wagner's politics, Norse mythology, and/or the flattened submediant scale degree in Western music. And this isn't just snob appeal: it can be a very moving experience (OK, for a lot of people there's a lot snob appeal involved). For this reason, operas exist in what is know as a canon--a finite repertoire of established works which form both the core and most of the periphery of what most opera companies perform. We see an opera (usually) already knowing the story, and judging the performance against a standard we imagine to represent an ideal: past singers, past producations, etc. We have more-or-less clearly defined limits for what kinds of license can be taken. (Performing "Cosi fan tutte" with electrical lighting in a 3000-seat hall: yes. Amplifying the singers: no. Setting the whole thing in a diner... maybe.)

This process of setting an art-form into a historical setting is growing quickly in the musical tradition (witness the flood of successful Broadway revivals in recent years--and the aesthetics used to judge them), but it still coexists with a principle that new work is the core of the genre (so-called jukebox musicals being an interesting counter-trend).

In other words, we can only draw a distinction based on how artworks are used and perceived in a given culture (such as here and now), not on any features internal to the works themselves. Pick apart the arguments of anyone who is strongly partisan and you'll usually find a more-or-less coded assertion that one is superior to the other because it: a) emphasizes music over text (or vice-versa), b) is more popular (or more refined), c) calls for "more" vocal technique (or acting ability), or d) relies on the audience's suspension of disbelief more (or presents a more realistic drama).

This argument has been going on in one form or another since before opera was invented. (And, as an historical aside, Andy is not quite right to say that the Florentine Academy was attempting to recreate Greek drama--they were interested in ancient theatre, but they had no illusion that they were recreating it, and they had both musical and theological justifications for their position. But this is a picky conversation for another night, over another cocktail...)

asparry said...

Right then - lovely blog, Andy, and lovely comments all. Everyone is always so knowledgeable and so expressive. Unfortunately, I’ve yet another comment, but I’ll make an attempt at being brief,

This Opera vs. Musical Theatre debate has been the bane of my existence for many a year. As a stage director and former performer (singer-actor) who has worked and continues to work extensively in both mediums, I have found a tremendous amount of high-minded judgment emanating from each side toward the other. We can certainly look back and chronicle the history of each art form and debate the true intentions of the original creators and jump through hoops and what have you ad nauseam. We can talk of forms and functions of various pieces, mentioning the through-composed recitative/aria structure of Les Miz and the habit of the Restoration theatre to call upon Mr. Purcell for song and dance to create the then popular “semi-opera” and the philosophical choice for microphones now used in some modern opera compositions (yes indeed, composers have actually stipulated in their scores the use of mics in some of their works). But at base, this distinction, this bright red dividing line between the forms, will eventually cease to exist and soon enough not matter in the slightest. Good riddance.

There is no hard and fast rule in this debate that cannot be argued in it’s opposite. There is no official agreed-upon yardstick by which a piece measures up or falls short and thereby gains its generic title. We instinctively know an opera to be so and a musical to be such because of our collective cultural knowledge based on certain explicit and implicit signs and signals. We know it somehow, even if we don’t know exactly why. It’s pure academia to try to parse out the strays. What matters most is the needs on the ground, the actuality of the situation and not the theoretical conundrums (however interesting and enjoyable the resulting ruminations may be).

In New York, both the Broadway theatres and the opera houses at Lincoln Center are thirsting for distinction and relevance, not to mention off-Broadway and off-off-Broadway and the myriad of independent chamber operatic endeavors. But how is this accomplished? How is this thirst quenched? Strangely enough, by drinking from each other’s water coolers. One finds traditional “musical theatre” fare being offered at the opera house, and playing to sold-out crowds no less. One finds shows of musical complexity and artistic seriousness being tread on the boards of traditional theatres, and these shows are highly acclaimed and are being called “operas” by the critics. It seems both mediums are trading in on the other’s core commodities. And in truth, this is exactly what must be done for either art form to continue and survive.

Musical Theatre must raise the bar on its musical integrity and further its artistic reaching beyond mere entertainment, and Opera must find itself in a more straightforward directness in its physical production and a more accessible melodic orientation in its composition. We must cease to use the terms “opera” and “musical theatre” as words of derision and separation, but rather must find a fusion of intent that allows for a synergetic growth into our collective musico-dramatic future. We must fund, develop, and support the idea of Lyric Theatre.

That is indeed what this all is at base. What we’re talking about is theatre that has as its very core a singular method of communication: the lyric, meaning simply “sung word”. All pieces under discussion are covered by this term. Chicago. Arabella. Alceste. Company. Aida (both the Verdi and the Elton John). The main mode of communication in each is musicalized speech. The focuses of these works are essentially the words that are sung and the people that sing them.

Let’s stop splitting hairs to find the differences and instead use all elements at our disposal to create the best possible whole. That’s been my mission and continues to drive me artistically forward. No difference between the one and the other, except the uniqueness that happens piece by piece by lovely lyrical piece.

Andy said...

Wow, I'm so delighted with all this additional commentary! Woo-hoo! Thumbs-up to continuing this conversation further over a cocktail. Or 4. One for each Ring opera.

Paul, I'm so disappointed you didn't have a clever retort to my crack about Rake. Maybe you didn't want to dignify it with a response. ; )

Anthony said...

They're not operas, they're a trilogy music dramas with an introductory evening!

I need to re-read all the comments at my leisure before contributing my own further response. That said, what's the latest word on transatlantic cocktails?

jwc said...

i have to disagree with asparry slightly. I think it's pretty clear that we today call musical comedy gets its genesis from vaudeville and music hall rather than some sort of indefinable ether.

I think that that tradition is important. I don't think that in order to survive, the musical theater must "raise the bar on its musical integrity." I think that shows which aspire to greatness: Caroline or Change, Lights in the Piazza, etc, should definitely raise the bar on their musical integrity. But i think there's a solid tradition of whimsical shows with peppy songs and good, solid jokes that is still in full force: for good reason. I think there's room for both the serious musical with integrity and the silly romp (or, in the case of "Company," both).

What's lacking in the musical theater today to my mind isn't integrity, it's the solid sense of entertainment asparry thinks musicals should be moving past. I say, achieve the entertainment first before trying to move past it.

Andy said...

Tony: my cell phone has speaker function on it, so..let's see, I guess we could do a late brunch here in New York and with the time change that would be just about right for you to start an evening out. We could have a conference-call cocktail.

JWC brings up an interesting and valid point. (There's something I don't say too often. Aw, hugs, Jon.) This post focused mostly on opera and musical as dramatic theater, but there is great value in entertainment purely for the sake of being entertained. "Il Trovatore" is pretty stupid, but if the cast is good it can be a lot of fun. "Cats," anyone?

asparry said...

"That's Entertainment"

Yes, of course, there are a variety of particular knacks that each 'opposing force' can claim as its own. Entertainment, however, in not one as it is essential in all performance art, as is also Art reflexively essential in all performance entertainment. These somewhat conflicting but more than occasionally consonant goals are aspects both "operas" and "musicals" must claim in varying degrees for their perspective futures to be made sure. I suppose I was making a generalized statement with the “raising the musical bar” remark, but I indeed meant it in a generalized way. We definately need for all things to be themselves and allow for each thing a place. Variety is the spice of life and the spice of art and entertainment as well. All things should have their place, but I simply try to promote the idea of an accepting non-scornful perspective that accounts for all things and shuns any idea of exclusivity.

Certainly, origins also account for an awful lot, as has been said in above comments. In fact, without them, most everything simply wouldn't exist. Not much material stuff is as Athena springing fully formed from the great Zeus. As a former Professor of Musical Theatre (I’ve had a very varied past - don't ask), I taught many a class on the development and origins of the Broadway Musical and have studied reams and reams of historical material. Really in fact, it did all come from “opera” (pace theatre-centric-ologists) but it just filtered a bit differently once it hit the New World. Minstrel shows most especially furthered the cause when the idea of the English Ballad opera failed to gain a popular public here in America. But this is all beside the point.

Lyric Theatre - where everything is something and nothing is laughed to scorn or dismissed out of hand as being without meaning. All things should have a communal place, a big tent if you will, and from there can be as uniquely unique as there are shades of grey or snowflakes. Unfortunately, along the way, Opera forgot that it was once entertainment, and the Musical Theatre forgot that it was once, or rather could be, art.

My initial posting was intended as a simple spark. The entire 10 tome treatise will be published and distributed at a later date for all those around the world who care. I know you all can't wait. All four of you.

Jere said...

While I do not have the expertise to address all the points made here (I left a comment on Mike's original post about the actual genesis of "musical theatre" in this country), this is, indeed, an interesting debate.

I would also pose the question "Why must we make a distinction?" What's the point, other than as a starting ground for an unanswerable argument?

Obviously, GUYS AND DOLLS is no one's idea of an "opera," but what if it was performed by an opera company, as many opera companies also throw in the occasionally Broadway musical in their seasons. Would the simple fact that it's being performed BY an opera company make it an opera?

And, conversely, would a LA BOHEME on Broadway be a musical simply because it was performed by performers more versed in musical theatre? The Baz Luhrmann production was certainly annointed so.

Now, in the case of living composers and lyricists, these people tend to label their own work as they see fit. If Jeanine Tesori and Tony Kushner choose to call CAROLINE OR CHANGE a musical, I will not disagree. Is it ever permissable to disagree with the creator of a work in this way? I don't know. Do writers have the power to determine whether their work is an opera, a musical, a ballet, or whatever else, simply because they say so?

For myself, when I try to make the determination, there is one thing that often tips the scales one way or another: Is the work meant to be performed 8 times a week? And is it traditionally done this way? I realize that's a pretty arbitrary distinction that is not without problems, but it's no more sound or unsound than any other way.

Of course, there are musical theatre roles that are rarely, if ever, performed that often by the same singer (Christine Daae, Eva Peron, Kim, and Cunegonde come to mind off the top of my head), but the pieces themselves usually go on a full 8 performances a week, with alternates playing scheduled "certain performances," as the current terminology phrases it.

So the Baz BOHEME, with its 3 complete casts in revolving repertory, is still an opera, no matter the venue or the awards for which it may have been nominated, because no one had any reasonable expectation of anyone being able to sing his or her role 8 times a week.

The same goes for MOVIN' OUT, which is still a dance piece, and not a musical, for the very same reasons.

Julia said...

Speaking of repertory, in Germany the fest houses have traditionally included what we would call music theatre pieces in the house rep; the opera singers who are members of the company are therefore singing both standard repertoire operas and American Broadway shows (in German) . . .

Andy said...

Heute Abend, Heute Abend, es gibt nur Du Heute Abend...

Ich bin ein Mädel die "Nein" nicht sagen kann...

Erinnerungen, ganz allein in dem Mondlicht...

Shudder.

Anthony said...

Confession time: I was taken to see "Das Phantom der Oper" in Hamburg aged 17 and even then couldn't help but laugh on seeing the German translations of the original. "Von nun an gibt es kein Zurück" ("The point of no return") is just, well, cheesy.

Paul Schleuse said...

Actually, this:

Erinnerungen, ganz allein im Mondshein,
Hat die Mond ihren Erinnerungen verloren?
Sie lächelt alleine.

... could easily come from "Pierrot lunaire," speaking of music-theatre works with roots in various strains opf vaudeville.

And to toss one more idea into the ring on musicals vs. operas: is this really a debate that exists in the world? If so, is the real question being argued, "What defines each genre in opposition to the other?" or, "Which is better?" As my previous post hinted, I think the second question is frivolous, and the first question can't be answered except by looking at current (and therefore highly relative) performance contexts. But I don't read about any such debate in the press, or hear it from other musicians or musicologists. In my experience it has only ever been a burning issue for young artists who feel pulled in both directions and are wrestling not so much with genre distinctions but with their own career choices. Nicht wahr?

Paul