There comes a time, once in a while, when articles we read strike such a perfect balance between approachable and informatively evaluative that it’s hard to do much else than sit back, read, contemplate and applaud the author.
One story out of the New York Times “Theater” section, written by Anthony Tommasini, absolutely resonated with me the other day. Constantly walking this moving line along the abysses of conservative, liberal, experimental and typecast music, finding a strongly articulated commentary on the past, present and future identifying state of affairs between musical theater and opera left me doing all of the above in spades.
Occasionally, even the most trained and seasoned of musicians and musical/opera fans alike may have a memory lapse wherein the sudden appearance of spoken dialogue or lack thereof makes them do a double-take on what they’re watching, to make sure the production really is what it’s supposed to be and not something else. Namely, the NYT article is titled, “Opera? Musical? Please Respect the Difference.”
When I think about the explanation given on the main difference between the two art forms, I am easily reminded of an old, basic riddle-esque question that goes something like this:
“Is a zebra a white horse with black stripes or a black horse with white stripes?”
Here’s where actual fact helps us out. If you were to shave a zebra to try and find out the answer, you’d see that nothing changes, A zebra has both stripes down to its bare skin. The amount or thickness of each set of stripes is about the only thing that will set the shades apart from one zebra to the next. The same applies to the traditions of opera and the musical.
Both can have non-sung dialogue and music, or just music and no spoken dialogue. (the third element of intricate dance numbers in opera is another animal entirely. e.g. Iphigénie en Tauride.) The amount of either or, with regard to the ‘expected’ formula for each respective performance, is what set the two apart.
“…in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.”
A significant factor to consider in Tommasini’s commentary is the discussion and observation of how opera and musical have changed and evolved to more easily stand among their artistically-complementing brethren, while staying noticeably within the pre-conceived lines of artistic definition. His chosen examples of this year’s Tony winning “Best Musical,” “The Book of Mormon,” and Stephen Sondheim‘s musical, “Sweeney Todd” and the quintessential reference, 1996 ‘rock-opera’ “Rent,” by Jonathan Larson, manage to touch upon a variance of points showing tradition exclusivity in both directions, while including a popular success story that has feet all in operatic roots, musical (lyrically driven) structure, relatable alterations to modern times and a well-received infusion of (what was at the time,) atypical, pop-rock orchestration.
With that last element applied to the example of “Rent,” it is also encouraging to observe how Tommasini takes the time to clearly state his opinion of a “low brow-high brow debate” being irrelevant in identifying operas and musicals. Once a person has broken down and understood what makes an opera and opera and a musical a musical, that other elephant in the room of, “How do I make my work cool and modern to ‘the now,’ without being looked down upon as possibly too commercial or musically inferior in terms of compositional intricacy?” usually come out to play. To then tackle that ongoing conundrum with more examples of ‘case-in-point” works, refuting the implication that commercial / pop lacks intricacy or vice versa, the only things I feel left confident to take away from Tommasini’s piece are that:
A) Musicals and Operas have their own, very identifiable qualities if one takes the time to understand them. And,
B) Just because you choose to stay in your designated art box of structural rules, every other time-laden tradition does not have to remain in there with you. Something can be “new” (made this year,) and current, (in this case, sometimes meaning there’s a drum kit and synthesizer in the orchestra pit,) but masterfully epitomize the “old” and original definition of an art form that flourished long before one’s existence. In this way, we may be seeing more accepting maturity in the vein of musical and opera that can lead the way to diffusing the elitist schism still rampant in arts today. After all, everything is cyclical; especially fashion trends and musical fads.
P.S. My most recent feeling on this comes from a rising American indie / soul based band called Fitz and the Tantrums. Their debut album came out just under a year ago, but if you didn’t know that, you might be inclined to think the group was much older, given their affinity to a much less digitally driven and more old fashioned sound –easily heard on this track, “We Don’t Need No Love Songs,” via things like the deliberate insertion of a crackling effect emulating a vinyl recording or low frequency radio signal.