7. OPERA AND MUSICAL THEATRE
What is the Difference Between a Musical and an Opera?
Both are types of theatre that rely on music to carry much of the emotional content of the story, but what are the differences between an opera and a musical?
The easiest way to define them is to say that an opera is sung all the way through, while a musical has more spoken dialogue and dance. However there are some operas, and most operettas, which have spoken dialogue, while several musicals, such as Les Misérables, are sung all the way through.
Another difference is that musicals tend to use popular musical forms, whereas opera tends to be associated with “classical” music forms. (Although the word “classical” is itself a difficult word to define.) Again, however, there are exceptions. When Gershwin wrote Porgy and Bess in 1935, he called it an “American folk opera”. It was sung through and scored for a full orchestra, but much of the music was drawn from contemporary jazz and folk music.
Leonard Bernstein once said: "I really think that when something plays Broadway it's a musical, and when it plays in an opera house it's opera. That's it. It's the terrain, the countryside, the expectations of the audience that make it one thing or another."
Perhaps this is the most useful definition of all.
When people go to the opera, they often go to see operas that were written centuries earlier, often in a foreign language. Musicals are drawn from a more recent, popular tradition (it is unusual for musicals written before the 1920s to be staged today). However, the line between these two artforms is being constantly challenged. Opera composers and directors fight against traditional expectations of what an opera should sound and look like, or what it should be about (for example, the National Theatre’s Jerry Springer: The Opera in 2003), while musicals continue to be written that tackle serious subjects and break new artistic ground.
The Enchanted Pig uses singers from both musical and opera backgrounds, is sung all the way through, and uses a small band: is it an opera or a musical?
A History of Opera and Musical Theatre
The following is a brief introduction to the history of opera and musical theatre, illustrated with examples of productions currently being performed in England. If students would like to learn more about the composers and works mentioned, Wikipedia (en.wikipedia.org) has a comprehensive entry on many.
The very beginning…
Western theatre began in Greece over two thousand years ago as songs sung in religious festivals. As the centuries progressed, these songs began to present stories, and eventually the stories started to be spoken rather than sung and music took a supporting role to the main drama.
In Florence in 1600, the Greek practice of singing the text to music was revisited when a composer called Peri wrote several pieces of drama which were set to music. One of these pieces – Euridice – has survived and is the earliest example of what we know as opera.
Opera from the seventeenth to nineteenth centuries
A few years later a composer called Monteverdi wrote an opera called Orfeo, which tells the story of the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus (see below). Monteverdi used recitative (sung dialogue with little melody to drive the plot) and arias (which explored the emotions of the characters and was much more melodic).
Touring this winter with the English Touring Opera
Composed by Monteverdi, this opera was first performed in 1607. Based on the ancient Greek myth of Orpheus, who attempts to rescue his dead lover Eurydice from Hades, the underworld, Orfeo is the earliest opera to be regularly performed.
This period of opera, which also featured composers such as Handel and Gluck, is known as the Baroque period. Baroque operas often used stories from classical mythology and featured a small orchestra, comprising mostly string instruments and some early wind and brass instruments. During the Baroque period, most libretti (the words of an opera) were in Italian, even when a German composer like Handel was writing for English audiences.
During the eighteenth century, a composer called Mozart created a form of comic opera called opera buffa. His operas focused on everyday characters and situations, rather than the heroes and gods of Baroque opera. Some of these operas remain popular today, such as The Marriage of Figaro (see below), Don Giovanni, Così fan tutte and The Magic Flute. These operas also had more ensemble singing (where two or more characters sing together) rather than the solo arias of earlier opera. Italian continued to be the most common language for operas to be sung in.
Marriage of Figaro
Playing this winter at English National Opera
Composed in 1786 by Mozart this is a comic opera. It tells the story of Figaro, a servant to the Count and Countess Almaviva. It is the day of his marriage to Susanna, but Figaro has to overcome many comic obstacles to marry the woman he loves. The Marriage of Figaro is one of the world’s most famous and best-loved operas. The production, like all operas performed at ENO, is sung in English, although the libretto was originally written in Italian.
During the nineteenth century, several Italian composers including Rossini, Donizetti and Bellini developed bel canto opera, which means ‘beautiful singing’. It demanded excellent breath control and vocal agility from its singers. The emphasis moved from the character and story to showcasing the ability of the singers. The most famous examples of operas from this period are Rossini’s The Barber of Seville and Donizetti’s L’elisir d’amore.
German opera in the nineteenth century used a much larger orchestra. Operas were through-sung and were no longer separate arias divided by recitative. Wagner, the most well-known opera composer of this period, also introduced the use of leitmotif – musical melodies which were linked to particular characters, themes or emotions. Operas became much longer in duration and required singers with heavier voices to be heard above the orchestra.
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, opera became influenced by the Realism movements in literature, art and theatre. Verismo operas (from the Italian word meaning realism) began to use plots from real life, especially that of the working classes and the harsh poverty they lived in. Songs also became more conversational or naturalistic. Bizet’s Carmen (see below) was the first verismo opera, and popular composers Verdi and Puccini followed in a similar style.
Playing this winter at the Royal Opera House
Written by Georges Bizet and first performed in 1875, Carmen tells the story of a beautiful gypsy who works in a tobacco factory in Spain and the soldiers stationed at a local barracks. Several men fall in love with Carmen and their rivalry for her love ends in tragedy. Aiming for greater realism and more detailed characterisation, Carmen was considered a failure at its first performance, denounced by critics as ‘immoral’ and ‘superficial’. Today, it is one of the world's most popular operas.
Development of the Modern Musical
One of the first pieces of British musical theatre was a deliberate reaction against opera. John Gay's The Beggar's Opera, written in 1728, makes fun of the Italian-language, through-sung operas which were popular in London at the time. For his anti-opera, Gay borrowed popular songs of the day and rewrote the lyrics, creating a story about a group of beggars and thieves in the poor areas of London. Ballad operas, as they came to be known, based on this formula, would be popular throughout the eighteenth century.
During the nineteenth century, European operettas, or ‘light operas’ were popular on the London stage. With spoken dialogue and less serious plots, operettas were very similar to early musical theatre. In England, Gilbert and Sullivan created an English equivalent to French operetta, called comic opera. Their creations included HMS Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance, and The Mikado, which became hits in the 1870s and 80s.
The musicals of the 1920s tended to ignore plot in favour of star performers, big dance routines, and popular songs. At this time, popular music was dominated by hits from the shows. Many of the “standards” we listen to today by George Gershwin (eg “Someone to Watch over Me”) and Cole Porter (eg ‘I've Got You Under My Skin’) come from musicals of this period.
In 1927, a musical called Show Boat opened on Broadway in New York. Rather than simply linking a few musical numbers together with a thin plot, this musical told a complex and dramatic story through both the music and dialogue. Other similar serious musicals would follow. Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) (see below) was even called a ‘folk opera’, styling itself as an opera using popular music forms, rather than a musical with serious storylines.
Porgy and Bess
Currently on in London’s West End
George Gershwin wrote this folk opera in 1935. Painting a picture of African American life in South Carolina in the early 1930’s, Porgy and Bess tells the story of Porgy, a crippled black man living in the slums of Charleston, and his attempts to rescue Bess from the clutches of Crown, her pimp, and Sportin' Life, a drug dealer. Trevor Nunn previously directed Porgy and Bess in 1986 at Covent Garden as an opera (it was originally written to be through-sung with a full orchestra). This production at the Savoy Theatre in the West End has been produced as a musical, with spoken dialogue added in and the music rescored for a smaller band. There has been much discussion in the press about whether the piece is an opera or a musical.
The Golden Age
The 1940s, 1950s and 1960s saw the Golden Age of American musical theatre. The first major hit of this period was Rodgers and Hammerstein's Oklahoma! which, like Show Boat, had a strong plot and song and dance numbers that furthered the action of the story. It was the first blockbuster Broadway show, running a total of two thousand, two hundred and twelve performances, and continues to be produced today. Other hits from this period include Rodgers and Hammerstein's The Sound of Music (1959), Loesser and Burrows' Guys and Dolls (1950) (see below) and Lerner and Loewe’s My Fair Lady (1956). Popular Hollywood movies were also made of these musicals.
Guys and Dolls
Currently on in London’s West End
Loesser and Burrows' Guys and Dolls was first performed in 1950 and enjoyed a long initial run (one thousand two hundred performances). It has a cohesive (if somewhat slim) plot, songs that further the action, and lots of big, brash song and dance numbers. The plot is based around a group of petty criminals in New York and the women they love: a nightclub singer and a sister in the Salvation Army.
During the 1960s and 1970s, musicals tried to break away from tradition by experimenting with new musical and theatrical styles. Hair (1967) featured not only rock music, but also nudity and controversial opinions about the Vietnam War. A Chorus Line (1976) was based on verbatim theatre techniques, using tape-recorded workshop sessions. John Kander and Fred Ebb’s Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975) (see below) paid homage to earlier forms of musical theatre such as European cabaret and American vaudeville.
Cabaret and Chicago
Currently on in London’s West End
Both written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, Cabaret (1966) and Chicago (1975) have both been made into successful films. Cabaret is set in a cabaret venue in pre-World War II Nazi German, and the love story is told between cabaret acts. Chicago is set in the era of prohibition Chicago and tells the story of a group of criminal women who achieve celebrity in the press. The song and dance numbers are staged as vaudeville acts.
1980s and 1990s
The 1980s and 1990s saw the arrival of European ‘mega-musicals’ or ‘pop operas’, which typically featured a pop-influenced score and had large casts and impressive theatrical effects. Many were based on novels or other works of literature. Les Misérables (see below) is the best known of these, along with Andrew Lloyd Webber’s Evita and The Phantom of the Opera.
Currently on in London’s West End
Written by the French team, Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil, Les Misérables has been running for over twenty five years in the West End. Based on the novel by nineteenth century French writer Victor Hugo, it tells the story of ex-convict Jean Valjean and the policeman who pursues him. The musical is set against the backdrop of nineteenth century France, and shows the struggles of the poor and the attempts of a group of students to form a revolution. Like an opera, Les Misérables is sung all the way through with no spoken dialogue.
After decades of movies and pop songs coming out of musical theatre hits, the 80s and 90s saw the reverse begin to happen. Disney began to adapt its popular animated movie musicals – such as Beauty and the Beast and The Lion King into stage shows. Another trend has been to create a musical from songs that have already been hits, and writing a plot to fit them. These ‘jukebox musicals’, as they have come to be known, include Mamma Mia! (1999, featuring songs by ABBA) (see below), We Will Rock You (2002, featuring songs by Queen) and Daddy Cool (2006, featuring songs by BoneyM).
Currently on in London’s West End
Featuring songs by ABBA, Mamma Mia is set on a Greek island. On the eve of her wedding a woman is trying to discover the identity of her father. Three men from her mother's past are brought back to the island they last visited twenty years ago.
Opera and Musical Theatre Today
Modern opera continued to develop throughout the twentieth and into the twenty-first century, telling more realistic stories, experimenting with musical forms and using smaller orchestras and performance spaces.
Today, both opera and musical theatre continue to produce new work, refusing to limit themselves in subject matter or style. The National Theatre is currently showing Caroline, Or Change (see below), a musical written by Tony Kushner, a Tony-award-winning American playwright whose previous work included Angels in America. Contemporary opera tackles subjects as diverse as trash TV (Jerry Springer the Opera) or the events on the world stage (Nixon in China).
Caroline, Or Change
Currently playing at the National Theatre
Written by Tony Kushner Caroline, Or Change opened on Broadway in 2004. Set in Louisiana in 1963, this musical tackles issues of race and human rights. When asked in a recent interview by The Telegraph why the National Theatre was staging a musical, Artistic Director Nicholas Hytner said "It's not really a Broadway musical. I do think it resists classification. We're not in the business of producing Broadway musicals for people, but we're doing this because it seems to me to be an absolutely vibrant addition to our repertoire of contemporary theatre. I see it as part of our repertoire, rather than part of some season of musicals."
Singers and the Chorus
Singers, and the roles they play, are categorised by how low or how high they can sing.
Voices from the highest to the lowest are:
Professional singers need to train hard to become performers and never stop having voice lessons. They learn how to breathe and warm up their voices by doing scales and exercises before they practise their music. Opera singers do not use microphones, unlike singers in some musicals. Most singers study vocal techniques at a music college and work with a pianist or coach to prepare their music. They study dance and acting, too, as these performance skills are important. Opera singers also need to study languages as operas are often sung in Italian, French, German and Russian. It can take years to become a singer because voices develop with age.
As well as the solo roles in an opera or musical, many singers are part of the chorus. The chorus are an important part of music-based theatre. Theatre began as songs sung in praise of the god Dionysus at a festival each year. The songs were sung by the chorus, which was originally made up of twelve singing and dancing members. The whole chorus tried to stay in rhythm with each other so they would be heard as one voice rather than separate entities.
Later, as theatre developed and solo actors began to play the main characters in the story, the chorus came to play the crowd or members of the community. They offered background and summary information to help the audience follow the performance, commented on main themes, and showed how an audience might react to the drama as it was presented.
Choruses have remained an important part of both opera and musical theatre. The chorus in The Enchanted Pig help us follow the play and think about some of the ideas explored by the story - they play scientists who are investigating the nature of love; wedding guests at the princesses’ marriages; and servants at Pig’s palace.
Three princesses, Mab, Dot and Flora, sit sewing. Their father, King Hildebrand comes to say goodbye – he is off to war.
Before he leaves he forbids them to enter the locked dark room at the end of the passage. He entrusts Flora with the key.
The two elder sisters decide to find out what is behind the door and steal the key from Flora.
As the princesses run through the palace they imagine what they might find. When they enter the dark room they discover a large book – the Book of Fate in which everyone’s destiny is written.
Flora begs her sisters to leave but they read the book and find that the eldest sister will marry the King of the West, the middle sister will marry the King from the East and Flora must wed a Pig from the North!
King Hildebrand returns with two young men who have helped him win the war.
The King introduces the King of the West who he has promised may marry his eldest daughter in thanks for his help. Meanwhile, Dot falls in love with his noble friend, and King Hildebrand consents to their marriage despite the fact that he is not a King. The nobleman reveals himself to be the King of the East.
The Book of Fate is coming true.
A terrible smell fills the palace and grunting and squealing can be heard. There is a knocking at the door and the voice of the Pig from the North calls out claiming his bride.
At first the King reassures Flora, but when he hears that she has read the Book of Fate he knows she must marry Pig.
Flora tries to escape from the Pig but her family encourage her to accept her husband despite his flaws.
After the weddings the three sisters go their separate ways and Flora heads towards Pig’s palace. Once there, Pig wallows in the mud and makes Flora join him. He kisses her.
Sitting in her bedroom covered in mud she wonders why she isn’t upset kissing a pig. Pig is surprised his new wife wants to talk to him rather than weep or sleep. He begins to cry. As she dries his tears she notices his deep, clear eyes. He tries to leave but she commands him, as her husband, to stay. This breaks the spell he is under and he is transformed into a handsome prince.
However as dawn breaks he once more becomes a pig. In order to break the spell forever Flora must love, trust and be patient.
However, Flora thinks there must be a quicker way to break the spell.
An Old Woman finds her crying and offers to help. She is sorry for her as her daughter has also had her heart broken by love. The Old Woman gives Flora a piece of magic red thread and tells her to tie Pig’s ankle to the bed in the night. When he wakes up, he will be restored to human form.
She follows the instructions but the spell is not broken. The Old Woman is the witch who enchanted the Prince in the first place, and Flora’s love has not been strong enough to save him.
The Old Woman claims the Pig as a husband for her daughter and says Flora will never see him again – not even if she wears out three pairs of iron shoes looking for him. Pig begs Flora to search the world for him and she accepts the challenge of wearing out three sets of iron shoes.
Flora starts her travels. She walks and walks and she reaches the house of Mr and Mrs North Wind at the World’s End. As Flora rubs her feet on their doormat, her first pair of shoes breaks. The North Wind offers to help her in her search and his wife gives her a broach. The North Wind takes her up in the sky to find the moon. As she flies Flora sees her husband, as though in a dream. He is with the Old Woman and Adelaide her daughter.
When Flora reaches the Moon, she asks him for help and he admires her constancy and determination. He has not seen her husband, but thinks that the Sun might know. He takes her to Sun’s palace and before he leaves gives her a moon jewel. Once again as she flies, Flora sees her husband, this time being readied for a wedding to Adelaide.
At the Sun’s Palace Flora’s second pair of iron shoes breaks. The Sun has seen her husband at the top of the Milky Way, and persuaded by Day, he agrees to take Flora there. As Flora climbs the Milky Way, the stars scratch away at her iron shoes, and her final pair fall away.
Preparations are underway at the palace of the Old Woman, but Adelaide is not happy. She wants everything to be perfect for her wedding in three days time. Adelaide wants Flora’s broach for her wedding dress and Flora gives it to her in exchange for watching over her fiancé.
Flora hopes to break the prince’s spell with a kiss but finds that he cannot be woken, even with the help of the North Wind.
The next morning Flora gives Adelaide the moon jewel for her tiara, and in return is entrusted to look over him for another night.
Adelaide questions her mother’s decision to kidnap the prince but she is told, mother knows best.
The second night Flora tries to wake the prince but once again fails even with the moon’s help.
The next morning Flora gives Adelaide her final jewel. Flora discovers that the prince is being drugged each night, and so when Adelaide tries to make him drink the potion, she throws the cup to the ground. The prince recognises Flora and is set free.
The Old Woman tries to cast another spell but her magic cannot match their love.
9. CAST AND CREATIVE TEAM
King Hildebrand / North Wind John Rawnsley
Mab / Adelaide Kate Chapman
Dot / Day Akiya Henry
Flora Caryl Hughes or
Pig Rodney Clarke or
Book of Fate / Old Woman / Mrs North Wind Nuala Willis
King from the East / Moon Joshua Dallas
King from the West / Sun Delroy Atkinson
Composer Jonathan Dove
Libretto Alasdair Middleton
Direction John Fulljames
Set & Costumes Dick Bird
Lighting Paul Anderson
Choreographer Philippe Giraudeau
Musical Supervisor Stuart Stratford
Music Director Ian Watson/Eddie Hessian
Costume Supervisor Caroline Hughes
Assistant Director Pia Furtado