On Opera

Musical Lessons

Could the jazz-hands pizzaz of musical theatre be just what opera needs?

This article is taken from the February 2022 issue of The Critic. To get the full magazine why not subscribe? Right now we’re offering five issue for just £10.

People often ask me: Master, what is the difference between opera and musicals? To which I say: well, duh! — people like musicals. Actually, this has also dawned on the dimwits who run our opera houses, and every so often they attach their rather flaccid suckers to the lucrative market by sticking on Oklahoma! or something, which you might call “introducing the piece to a narrower audience”.

It’s totally not fair, of course: musicals, at least in their origins, are very much ours, and while you can keep The Lion King, we’d quite like some of the others back. Though spot-the-difference isn’t usually too difficult — not much in common between the unendliche droning of Wagner and Anything Goes, except now I come to think of it Tristan und Isolde is also about romantic mix-ups on a boat, and so is The Flying Dutchman — Cole Porter, Richard Rodgers and so on are the unmistakeable love-children of Offenbach, Strauss and Sullivan, and you can’t always tell which way the blanket is turned.

Any kind of trad operetta becomes shameful, ultra-camp panto for emotional retards

Take West Side Story, in the news thanks to the lily-livered newish film and the presumably unconnected recent death of the show’s wordman Stephen Sondheim. Of course all sane people recognise this as a high-tab musical — except, as it happens, its actual composer, Leonard Bernstein, who, having produced this highly-wrought score, couldn’t take hearing it sung in the amplified, nerve-shattering bleat of Broadway singers. (Actually, he thought they wouldn’t be able to sing it at all, given the demands of stuff like that augmented fourth in “Maria”, but it turns out that Broadway singers, as with many middling mammals, can be
trained to do surprising things.)

He fought back with an eccentric 1984 recording, with José Carreras trying only fairly successfully to be the Anglo (or Polo) Tony, and Kiri te Kanawa doing a kind of Speedy Gonzalez number on Maria. This could only be an audio recording, obviously, given the traditional difficulties opera singers experience in singing and moving without falling over, but despite the comedy accents and tutti frutti delivery, there is a point: watch Bernstein exasperatedly coaching Carreras through the rhythmic maze of “Something’s Coming” on YouTube and you get what had been lost in the soupy scoring and approximate crooning of the 1961 film or any stage version.

I grant you we probably don’t need to hear Joan Sutherland doing, say, Evita, but younger opera singers have learned (via the pre-Mozart and 20th century stuff which don’t need the full Castafiore treatment) to turn it down a bit — and these days some of the less heffalumpy ones can even move around a stage without knocking over the scenery; hence the fashion for doing the posher sorts of musicals in opera houses, properly orchestrated and sung as well as they are played. Do that, and the music gets to reassert itself as the real drama in a way that Broadway and film treatment, with their overwhelming visuals, athleticism and showstopper dance routines, couldn’t care less about. Check out the reviews of the recent West Side Story film: not one mentioned the orchestral track, though it was a high-octane performance fizzingly conducted by Gustavo Dudamel, a million times snappier and more dynamic than the old movie … and nobody noticed.

America pimped up the old European operetta for a new commercial age

When our opera houses succumb (as with hives) to an outbreak of musical comedy, results are kinda mixed. ENO has an occasional half-hearted attack of Bernstein or Gershwin, or goes completely gay with Kismet. Covent Garden tries fatuously to turn Sweeney Todd into Macbeth. Any kind of trad operetta becomes shameful, ultra-camp panto for emotional retards — Welsh National Opera are the wooden-spoon champs here, though again, ENO are no sluggards.

Almost alone, Opera North has actually cracked it, reviving Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus and doing wunderbar numbers on Kiss Me, Kate and Carousel just as physical and zippy as any West End version, unleashing the music to do what God intended, ditching the pinched vowels and strangled squawks of theatre singers for the whole voice-is-character commitment of opera — and dumping music-theatre cliché for properly theatrical, smart, touching productions by the likes of Jo Davies. Northern Ireland Opera, similarly, has had best-of-both-worlds stagings of The Threepenny Opera and Sweeney Todd, and the company’s Into the Woods, Sondheim’s fairy-tale job, plays at Belfast’s Lyric Theatre through February.

You might well think there’s an obvious lesson here. America pimped up the old European operetta for a new commercial age, and opera signally failed to take the hint. A less dull-brained idiom might have learned something, borrowed a bit of showbiz stardust along with the many forms of music available … but the only operas I can think of that have properly plundered 20th-century idioms of jazz, song and theatre (enriching and dignifying them all en route, too) have been Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess and Bernstein’s own Candide — plus the razzy orchestral interludes of Shostakovich’s Lady Macbeth of Mtsensk of 1936. Yet our mimsy European opera ignores it all and moons about in low-wattage dreams of modernist purity, its dainty fingers unsullied by the horrors of music people might actually like. If opera wants to survive, a transfusion of music-theatre vitality, and a willingness to put on at least a teeny, decorous bit of the Ritz, might be just the ticket.

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