The line between operas and musicals is blurring. Earlier this month the English National Opera announced that the company will team up with Michael Grade and Michael Linnit to stage musicals – on top of their regular programme of operas. Aside from making full use of the Coliseum round the year, ENO is hoping that musicals will form part of an “audience development programme”, nurturing opera goers of the future.
Will it work? The answer seems to be yes. When the Lyric staged Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Oklahoma! last year, a staggering 50 per cent of the audience had never set foot inside an opera house before. Over the next few years, the Lyric will present The Sound of Music, Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific, whist the Theatre du Châtelet in Paris will do Singin’ in the Rain and An American in Paris in their 2014-15 season.
Yet musicals are tricky to pull off – if you’re an opera company. In 2003 the Royal Opera House attempted Stephen Sondheim’s most operatic work Sweeney Todd with mixed results. The problem was that the production (originally from the Lyric) had all the refined sensibilities of an opera and none of the grit of the musical. It was an interesting experiment but the main stage has not presented a musical since. Rumour has it that Sondheim was so displeased with their Sweeney that he banned it from ever being revived – but, alas, I cannot confirm this bit of gossip. I’d love to know, so do tell me if it’s true.
Possibly the worst example of opera singers in musicals must be Bernstein’s own woefully miscast West Side Story with Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras. You can barely hear what language Dame Kiri was singing in:
Robert Carsen, whose Dialogues des Carmélites was recently staged by the Royal Opera, created a beautiful My Fair Lady for the Châtelet in January. He points out that there are many more scene changes in a typical musical than in an opera. He explains: “Musical comedy is much more difficult than an opera (to stage) because you have the combination of spoken dialogue and singing, a lot. You have a lot of dance. You have the use of microphones…. so it’s very demanding.”
Music alone dominates opera as an art form. An opera can survive ridiculous plots twists and nonsense lyrics but ultimately it lives or dies on the merit of its music. Il Trovatore springs to mind: a ludicrous story even by operatic standards, but one thrilling tune after another, deliciously orchestrated. Similarly, a modern production of an opera can rise above preposterous stagings – provided that the music performed is of a high standard. A case in point is the new Maria Stuarda currently in repertory at Covent Garden.
In musicals, lyrics (along with the “book” from which the story is adapted) are considered as important as the music. Operatic arias are static, essentially meditations on a situation (Callas once opined that Tosca’s “Vissi d’arte” should be cut because it impedes the flow of the drama) whereas in musicals the songs often propel the action – think of “If I Loved You” from Carousel, “Let Me Entertain You” from Gypsy, or “Pretty Women” from Sweeney Todd, all containing key plot and character developments within the numbers.
“In opera, I always feel that the musical action dictates to the stage,” says the stage director David McVicar (quoted in the Independent). “In Sweeney the stage action dictates what the players in the pit must do.” This probably hold true of musicals in general.
In his fine book Broadway Babies Say Goodnight, Mark Steyn knowledgeably illustrated the evolution of musicals from Viennese operettas. In operettas “every widow is merry and every hussar gay…. every simple peasant girls holds out the possibility of being the Margravine of Reuss-Schleiz-Greiz in disguise, and every cheery barrow boy is mayhap the Count Tassilo Endrody-Wirttenburg.” There’s a template plot where the composer slots in some fabulous music in and everybody will be happy.
The Merry Widow was a turning point. It was the first operetta that operated like a modern musical: in scale (at one point there were over a hundred productions of it internationally) and in marketing – products, from gloves to cigarettes were sold off the back of it. It made Lehár a multi-millionaire within two years. Still, everyone knows the music but nobody remember the lyrics. Because of its success Broadway churned out sub-Viennese musicals based on this glamorous formula.
Viennese operettas died in 1914. In August that year a musical called The Girl from Utah opened on Broadway. In it there’s a catchy number called “They didn’t believe me” that managed to capture the appeal of The Merry Widow waltz but at the same time completely de-Viennesed musical theatre. Significantly it is in modern 4/4 time rather than the old 3/4. The music was written by a young composer called Jerome Kern.
Before completing his masterpiece Showboat, Kern paired up with P G Wodehouse in a number of musicals that play on simple boy-meets-girl plot lines. “If boy-meets-girl now seems a Broadway cliché,” says Mark Steyn, “it still beats boy-Count-disguised-as-goatherd-meets-girl-Princess-disguised-as-scullery-maid.” Slowly musicals are inventing new ways to tell stories.
The clever lyrics written by Wodehouse, Cole Porter and Lorenz Hart are another yank away from the world of opera and operettas. Suddenly we notice the words. Yet these lyrics of the 20s draw attention to themselves rather than contribute towards character building. With Showboat, America’s first musical dramatist arrives on the scene. Kern and Hammerstein achieved where no previous musical managed: they built a coherent drama where music, words and story integrate.
With Rodgers and Hammerstein the evolution seems to come full circle: they brought back the waltz. The Carousel Waltz, “This Nearly Was Mine”, “Edelweiss” and “Shall We Dance” (actually a polka) – what started life in Vienna is now an all-American art form.
This clip from South Pacific was from the sell-out revival at Lincoln Centre in New York in 2010. Earlier this year the same venue hosted another performance of a musical that is rumoured to arrive at the ENO at 2015: Sweeney Todd with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in the leads – though the ENO’s press office tells me that nothing has been decided yet. By all accounts this was a resounding success in New York, and I’d like to think that we’ve learnt a few things about producing musicals with opera stars since Bernstein’s West Side Story.
Reduced Arts Council funding means that the ENO have to be creative about bringing in audience. Along with this move to produce large-scale musicals, the ENO will open up the “Coli” to the public by creating a restaurant with Benugo. On top of that they’re still committed to putting on high-quality opera productions such as Richard Jones’s five-star Meistersinger, as well as newer works like Joanna Lee’s The Way Back Home at the Young Vic.
Paraphrasing Rodgers and Sondheim: Do I hear a Waltz? I hope so, and maybe with their plans the ENO will dance into a new exciting era.