In your opinion, what is the difference between opera and musical theater? Dominick Argento, Composer


Dominick Argento
Dominick Argento
Photo by Tom Foley, courtesy Boosey & Hawkes

When I think of opera, characters such as Figaro, Iago, Octavian and Mimi come to mind. When I think of musical comedy, songs such as “Old Man River,” Some Enchanted Evening,” “Tonight,” and “Send In The Clowns” come to mind. This is because operatic music is primarily concerned with defining characters and creating atmosphere, whereas the tunes of musical comedy are essentially decorative and ancillary. Notable exceptions exist on both sides of that distinction but the fact that the opera composer–unlike the musical comedy composer–is always the orchestrator permits, through the accompanying instrumental tone color and timbre, a much greater focus on the character’s persona. “Old Man River” is a beautiful song and practically any orchestration of it is adequate to make that point. “Iago’s Credo” is not especially beautiful (it was never meant to be) but its orchestration is indispensable for limning Iago and what drives him.

Musical comedy composers can specify the tempo of the songs but the pace of the drama, its point of view, color, etc., is determined by another party, the stage director. The piece can change significantly as it moves from production to production. In opera, tempo and atmosphere, character and situation, from beginning to end, are controlled by a single mind. That sort of artistic integrity explains why I believe La Bohéme will still be playing somewhere in the year 2100 while Rent will be a footnote in Broadway history.