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Wednesday, January 1, 2014

Xmas blog #11: Operas and Operettas and Musicals, OH MY!

This whole craze of opera companies producing musicals. What's that about?!

Putting butts in seats? Not quite.

A trend that will fade? Don't think so.

An evolution of the art form? Yes.

I believe that a major generational shift has occurred in opera. No longer are people (either those who produce/perform or those who attend) picking one art form and sticking to it.

Gone are the subscribers of old. Reborn as SINGLE TICKET BUYERS.

Marty and Jenny will get tix to see an Arcade Fire concert, a one-woman show in a Fringe Festival, a symphony concert program that fires something in their imagination, go to the Nutcracker with their nieces, spend a great dinner and date pre-Porgy and Bess, and then have fun at the Lion King on tour. For this imaginary couple, all of the afore-mentioned tickets are seen as CULTURAL events.

No one cares, at least most ticket buyers I speak with, what the definition of singspiel or operetta or Broadway, etc. is. They just want to be entertained. And marketing does count in the game to get people to spend their hard-earned money on live entertainment, btw.

What's my stance on this subject?

Awhile back, someone asked me what the difference between opera and musical theatre was and I answered: "In Opera, there's no tap dancing".

I stand by that statement. It makes Street Scene a musical...

Sadly, many think that operatic works are superior to musical theatre works. Naively, many think that singing operetta is "lighter" than singing opera. (Check out Die Fledermaus' orchestration and compare it with Die Zauberflöte and then tell me which is more operatic...) And truly, truly, very few people in the business (either business mind you) know enough about the OTHER repertoire to make any real judgements about opera or musicals. I'm shocked by those on both sides of this genre aisle who know very, very little about how the other half lives, (i.e. what their core repertoire is) let alone the vast oceans of repertoire that exist in opera, operetta, and musical theatre.

In 2014, Glimmerglass, San Francisco Opera, the Lyric Opera of Chicago, and Vancouver Opera are producing pieces that most would define as musicals.  I'd like to buck that idea and just throw all of them into one genre: OPERA.

For me, opera is simply a story that is told through singing. That means The Messiah, that means "Despite and Still", that means "Widmung", that means Owen Wingrave, that means A New Moon, that means Oklahoma!, and that means Next To Normal.

It's just the style of singing that changes.

And isn't that true for ANY opera? You certainly don't sing Carmen in the same way you tackle Rinaldo or Little Women. These are stylistically different pieces, just like Manon and Manon Lescaut or Roméo et Juliette and West Side Story. Opera folk hate it when their art form is stereotyped into the "fat lady singing loudly with horns on". Opera lovers discern the differences between Fidelio or Faust or Figaro and really don't like it when non-opera lovers describe it all as "sounding the same." Same goes for musical theatre lovers -- it's not all belting like Ethel, or screaming out Rent tunes. Same for recital goers -- not all Schubert songs are strophic and easily learned and easily sung because they have an octave range.

I bet I might have made a few of you upset on that last remark.

Let's get over ourselves and move on.  Not all operas are great, or written by geniuses. Not all musicals are trashy or simplistic. Not all operettas are funny or easy to sing. Every genre, every type of repertoire has its subtleties and lumping one idea or bias onto an entire genre is, in a word, dumb.

The art is changing (actually, it's changed kids, catch up!) There are new works that defy these old genre classifications: "Myths and Hymns" by Guettel, which is a song cycle but also a musical; some of the newest operas are, well, barely "operatic" in the old sense of the word  (Machover's "Death and the Powers"), and many cross bridges between song, opera and musical (Ricky Ian Gordon's work"Orpheus and Euridice: A Song Cycle in Two Acts" which takes place in a swimming pool and one of the lead characters is a clarinet.)

I know that this blog will fall on some ironically deaf ears for the most part.

Too many want easy answers, or are simply uneasy with change.

We shouldn't box people, and shouldn't box works of art. Let them all stand on equal ground. The great works will not be diminished by the lesser. There's nothing to be scared of...

And I challenge anyone to tell me that the subtleties and challenges of singing an honest, moving rendition of "Being Alive" doesn't match up to doing the same with "Vissi d'arte" or "Morgen" or "Vilya". The chills are the same for me.

Diva 1: Patti Lupone "Being Alive" live at Carnegie Hall

Diva 2: Maria Callas "Vissi d'arte"

Diva 3: Arleen Auger "Morgen"

Diva 4: Renata Tebaldi "Vilja lied"

I remember playing classes for the great director Frank Corsaro at The Juilliard School back in the early 90s. He held a weekly class for the JOC singers that was sometimes tough to get through. Lots of method acting techniques, which included lots of tears. But one of his other "methods" was simply brilliant and made a lasting impression on me: he would ask the singers to bring in a piece of musical theatre that corresponded to one of their arias and then perform them back-to-back without a break. He felt very strongly that American singers needed to learn to act their arias with the same immediacy that came when they sang a piece in their own language, and for Frank that meant not just in English, but the American musical theatre language. One day a young dramatic soprano walked in with "Can't help lovin' that man" and followed it with "Du bist der Lenz". It was Brilliant with a capital "B"! There were so many connections between the two pieces. One informed the other.

Gosh, just think what might happen if all singers were encouraged to make connections between art songs, arias, and pieces from musical theatre! Then they'd be working along the same lines as our current great singers of the early 21st century: Renee Fleming, Stephanie Blythe, Audra McDonald, Nathan Gunn, and Deb Voigt.

Gunn and the NY Phil

A great singer sings their stories honestly, true to the text and vocal line, with just their vocal chords and a ton of humanity shining through, like a beacon.

If someone is out there telling you your beacon should only shine for opera, make sure you understand what their definition of opera is and ask them why you should be limiting yourself to one person's definition of an art form that defies definition.

And make sure YOU understand that it's 2014 and the world is a mighty different place than it was twenty years ago.

I leave you with two thoughts:

Move On from "Sunday in the Park..."
Bernadette and Mandy

Things Change, Jo from "Little Women"
Joyce singing Adamo

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