Thursday, 15 January 2009

Opera? Musical?

The news that Armando Iannucci has written an opera (or, by some accounts, operetta) about cosmetic surgery in California prompts me to wonder (not for the first time) about the difference between an opera and a musical. Is opera these days anything more than a posh word for a musical? Why was it Jerry Springer: The Opera, not The Musical? I believe the traditional account has it that a musical is a story with songs thrown in, while an opera is a song with a story (and, if you're lucky, acting) thrown in. But does that still hold good? Are operas entirely sung these days, is the dialogue always spoken in musicals? It's hard to tell, but a lot of what I hear of musicals - which is, admittedly, as little as possible - sounds like recitative. Is it? Or is that up-and-down-a-few-notes stuff as close as composers like Sondheim - or whoever inflicted Les Mis on us - ever come to writing a tune? Why doesn't Sondheim call his stuff opera - you'd have thought if anyone did, it would be him? I don't know, and I'm happy to avoid both musical and opera, in their modern manifestations - especially if it involves going to the theatre - but at least with, say, Puccini, and with, say, Fred and Ginger or Rodgers and Hart, you knew where you were...


  1. Welcome to the postmodernist flux, Nige.

    I think the recitative distinction has gone out the window. These days an opera is where the singers sing in big opera voices and a musical is where they sing in pop voices.

  2. I stopped going after I realized that I liked dozing off during the boring bits more than I liked listening to the good bits. That's partly because, if you are tall, the seating in most theatres and opera houses is exquisitely uncomfortable. And that's before the fug in summer, the awful crowds at the bar and a fat lady in the row behind claiming I am blocking her view. I'm happy to listen to traditional opera on CD which means I can skip all the flummery with a single click on the remote.

  3. With you there Mark - the theatre is no place for us tall people, even if what was on stage was worth seeing.

  4. Can't beat yer good old recitativo man, good for a laugh, nobody in the audience except sad sods like me has ever read the libretto in German (my families comment, not mine, after they discovered I knew The Magic Flute off by heart) let alone in English. That's why they laugh in the wrong places I now usually read the Linux mag untill the singing starts again, although there was the time at the Usher Hall I was trying to Peer down the front of Felicity Lott's frock. There has been a natural progression from classic opera, up to and including Wagner and the modern version of opera, the classic musicals. Puccini and Rossini started the ball rolling, Chuck in Bizet (Carmen) and you have the halfway house between Parsifal, Guys and Dolls and West Side story, Bernstein's is definitely opera. I couldn't possibly comment on the latest incantations of the musical, the last one I saw was Hair.
    Haven't a clue where to put B.Britten let alone Cage and Maxwell thingy.

    Keep clear of the BA blog today, Maltese bleedin' crosses and bibles flying about, Torquemada has, I understand been called for.

  5. You can't be hard enough on Les Glums Nige, but Sondheim is surely one of the great tunesmiths, who also manages to marry the words,his words, rather well. Was dragged to Jerry Springer by one of my daughters, who has Van Gogh's ear for music, and spent a very uncomfortable couple of hours wondering why the whole house was going mad for such rubbish.
    The difference? Could it be profundity, or the lack of it? Speaking for myself I think the truth is in there somewhere. A 'musical' seeks to entertain and engage at not too deep a level; you play your part by investing two or three hours of an evening, you have a pizza, and you grab the last tube. 'Opera' is more greedy, expects more from you, and on a superficial level gives you less back for your enormous investment. And then you try and get out of your seat, and you discover that the room is spinning around, tho' you havn't had as much as a warm beer. Next thing you are at home, wondering how you got there. It can happen.
    I have something that may bring you over, and you can watch it on DVD. Rameau - Les Paladins. Bill Christie and Les Arts Florissants did it in Paris in 2004 and it was captured rather magically. Perhaps more than anything else I have seen, it points the way ahead by using multi-media intelligently, and suggesting that the two disciplines can exist in harmony, literally. It almost rocks.

  6. That sounds v interesting Mahlerman, I'll look into it...