Four-Way Split

While I was at Seattle Opera, the entire month’s rehearsal schedule was devoted to one new American work; at Opera Theatre St. Louis, four shows will run rehearse and run simultaneously: American composer Peter Ash’s Golden Ticket (based on Dahl’s Charlie and the Chocolate Factory), Tchaikovsky’s Eugene Onegin, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro, and the company’s first Sondheim production—A Little Night Music directed and with costumes/set design by fashion designer Isaac Mizrahi. Daily schedules must be printed in tiny font sizes on paper in landscape orientation, like some kind of bizarre bus timetable that’s much less reliable but even more crucial.

All this shuttling to and from music rehearsals to stagings, coachings, etc. is aided by the multitasking of Opera Theatre St. Louis’s artistic personnel and building with a few larger rehearsal rooms to shuffle among various components of the four productions. All this has served to impress upon me what can be accomplished by quality planning and organization, especially when budgets and rehearsal resources may be comparably modest.

One of the reasons I’m glad I had a chance to visit several opera companies rather than investing in a longer stint at just one is that it’s become apparent how differently opera companies of various sizes are structured. As far as I can tell, it’s a lot more varied than the world of abstract music—despite huge variations in budget, both chamber ensembles and orchestra of all stripes operate under vastly more uniform templates than the spread of most American opera companies—and that’s not even counting other forms of music drama. OTSL is not a musical theatre company, but this year they’re producing Sondheim.

Although can Sondheim be said to be a musical theatre composer by today’s standards? While deeply wedded to many musical theatre traditions, a good portion of Sondheim’s work approaches opera in its dramatic scope and intensity. With folks like Andrew Lloyd Weber afoot, one wonders whether Sondheim might fit happily in some musical definition that placed him closer to the operas of Leonard Bernstein than to some of the comparatively lifeless Broadway fads of recent years. These questions of genre are ubiquitous and unavoidable for opera companies, and each company defines itself in part by how it answers them. Seattle Opera, for example, seems mainly to exist to produce the Ring cycle, with all other projects, however important, operating on the periphery.

Meanwhile, an inkling of OTSL’s answer can be glimpsed from the organizations actions. By simultaneously programming a new American opera that will appeal to children, a sumptuously detailed staging of Eugene Onegin that will most likely be attended by a more “connoisseur” audience, and The Marriage of Figaro in English which should have a broad appeal. Along with the aforementioned Mizrahi staging of A Little Night Music, OTSL has provided a good spread of choices that ought to have broad appeal to audiences. By opting for a decidedly non-snobbish and inclusive definition of opera, OTSL’s programming choices give some indication of what might be gained in embracing a vision of opera that allows for many points of view, rather than just one.

4 thoughts on “Four-Way Split

  1. philmusic

    No living American opera composer has the theatrical experience that Sondheim has. It shows doesn’t it? (no pun here) Jealous? Certainly but Amazed as well. As long as your asking Sondheim’s work does not usually feature the operatic voice in his original casts.

    Belting yes Bel canto no.

    This is not a criticism just the facts. Anyway City Opera has been successfully performing Broadway with operatic voices for some time.

    Phil Fried, who is willing to overlook the lack of serial music performance this time. Didn’t he study with Milton Babbitt?

    Phil’s page

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  2. davidwolfson

    Sondheim’s shows are musicals when they’re done by musical theatre people, and operas when they’re done by opera people. Same with Bernstein’s, for that matter. It’s not the text, it’s the performance.

    The only other definition of the difference between an opera and a musical I’ve heard that makes sense is attributed to Andrew Lloyd Webber, of all people: “It’s a musical if you’re pitching it to a producer, and it’s an opera if you’re applying for a grant.”

    David Wolfson

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  3. philmusic

    I agree about the voice, as I said, and if you wish to disagree that a successful dramatic arc is irrelevant so be it. It is true that the forms are always in flux.

    “It’s a musical if you’re pitching it to a producer, and it’s an opera if you’re applying for a grant.”

    I find that answer a little too pat and a little too condescending. There are many works in the opera rep that have commercial roots, sing-spiels like the Magic Flute. Also there are quite a few musicals that started out with grant support.

    There might also be a difference between a composer’s intentions and the actual results.

    Phil Fried Phil’s Page

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  4. philmusic

    “…Sondheim’s shows are musicals when they’re done by musical theatre people, and operas when they’re done by opera people…”

    As I said before composers don’t get to decide what an opera is.

    Gate keepers and institutions do.

    Phil Fried Phil’s page

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