In your opinion, what is the difference between opera and musical theater? Jack Beeson, Composer


Jack Beeson
Jack Beeson
Photo by Dietrich Dettmann, courtesy Boosey & Hawkes

Surrounded by Columbia composers, faculty and students, Stephen Sondheim was asked, “Since a couple of your musicals have been performed in opera houses, why don’t you write a real opera?” Answer: “Because I don’t like their audiences.” Then he asked, “Why don’t you write musicals, Jack?” And I answered, “Because I don’t like their audiences.” Both answers were flip, but there are audience expectations. In musicals, all the words — miked — are to be understood. Opera audiences, used to libretti in foreign languages, are awed when all the compositional and acoustic conditions are in order, and they understand an English libretto, and forget to watch the supertitles. But they have more to listen to than words: more varied, rangy voices, ensembles, and instruments. Imagine a musical in an unknown tongue!

It’s often forgotten that some musicals are through-composed and that some operas have quite a lot of spoken dialogue. Bernstein’s prediction that American opera would grow out of our musical theater was mistaken, but the ‘Rain in Spain’ scene in My Fair Lady and the Kander and Ebb final Zorba scene are operatic.