Or, how I learned to stop worrying and just get used to the musicals.

Tonight's presentation is, I submit to you, opera:  Sondheim's Passion.  What part of it is NOT opera?  True, there is some spoken dialogue -- but very little.

Passion is a musical with music and lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by James Lapine.


Set in 19th century Italy, the plot concerns a young soldier and the changes in him brought about by the obsessive love of Fosca, his Colonel's homely, ailing cousin. Passion is the only known epistolary musical, with parts of the story being told through letters.

(h/t Wikipedia)

So, what is the difference between an opera and a Broadway musical?  The NYT comes to help:

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.”

 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.)


For example, this is clearly a musical number:

Whereas Bizet's Carmen is generally accepted as opera:

(although I watched the movie Carmen Jones not too long ago, and it read more as a musical to me: don't know whether it's me or b/c it was a Hollywood production).

Amazingly, I found the whole production of Sondheim's Passion with very good production values on YouTube:

If you have a couple of hours, do watch it.  I contend that it is opera marketed as a musical b/c musicals get audiences, especially out-of-towners, whereas opera is...not a draw, much, beyond those who already love opera.

Of course, YMMV.

Originally posted to Theatricals on Mon Feb 11, 2013 at 05:00 PM PST.

Also republished by An Ear for Music.


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