Photo by Christian Steiner, courtesy G. Schirmer, Inc.
Even if we limit discussion to contemporary American work, we first need to define terms. The musical play, as defined by Rodgers and Hammerstein, extends from Oklahoma through Fiddler on theRoof to Ragtime. The songbook-style musical comedy, covers most of the Rodgers & Hart, Gershwin, Berlin, Comden and Green, and Jerry Herman shows: a new example is The Full Monty. With the latter, opera has little to do at all. With the former, one primary difference is that the books of the serious musicals are, for the most part, infinitely more intelligent about how to combine music and words for dramatic expression than most contemporary opera libretti, which are, bewilderingly often, written by writers experienced in every kind of writing except the theatrical.
But the theatre doesn’t encourage musical sophistication, only the sophisticated use of unsophisticated musical materials, which is why the only possible place that music-heavy shows like Rent or Les Miserables could be called operas would be on Broadway. The musical thinness is understandable, given the unreliable skills of that category “singing actor,” which has covered everyone from elegant croaker Rex Harrison to opera-singers-on-Broadway Alfred Drake and Barbara Cook. And the musical’s up-from-songbook history has sown, if not active resistance, than striking disinterest in the idea of symphonic or motivic development as analogous to dramatic process. Conversely, American opera hasn’t always encouraged theatrical sophistication, just the musically sophisticated elaboration of theatrically often simple-minded ideas. The skill-sets of the usual performers are again germane here, because the category of “acting singer” has included everyone from Lauren Flanigan to Luciano Pavarotti.
As economic quantities, obviously, they’re part of different cultural categories: Musicals belong to the business of theatre, which retains its shimmer of populism despite $80.00 Broadway tickets, while opera belongs to the business of “elitist” classical music. There are technical differences, too. Musicals are amplified these days (though ‘twas not ever thus): operas not, for reasons good (few know how to do so either appropriately or creatively) and ill (the new fundamentalism about the sacrality of the acoustic voice, a catechism about as sensible as loyalty to gut strings or the fortepiano.) Composers orchestrate their own operas: theatre composers almost never score their own shows. Most actresses sing about a fifth lower than their operatic counterparts, with more use (and abuse) of the chest voice; men sing about a third lower (though A Little Night Music calls for tenor high-B’s.) Opera singers are invariably better musicians, and generally have broader ranges and more (unamplified) dynamic and timbral control. Theatre singers are generally, though not always, more methodical and resourceful actors. There are, for the composer and librettist, no other substantial artistic differences at all. When I composed Little Women, I imagined writing the libretto for Broadway and the score for Lincoln Center, much as, I imagine, did the writers of Porgy and Bess and Candide. In every production so far, the farce scene that most regularly plays like that of a musical comedy is, coincidentally, the scene most driven by twelve-tone recitativo secco. When talking about opera and musical theatre, the operative word has to be AND.