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Pushing the Boundaries between Opera and Musical Theater
Anne Choe, Artistic Services Manager, OPERA America
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ArtistLink5/12/2008

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The edge between opera and musical theater is definitely becoming more permeable as artists explore different ways to tell stories through music. OPERA America recently hosted a panel discussion on this subject as part of the Making Connections series — "Pushing the Boundaries between Opera and Musical Theater" — with composer Richard Danielpour; Sarah Schlesinger, director of the graduate musical theater writing program at New York University (NYU); and Kris Stewart, executive director of New York Musical Theater Festival (NYMTF). The discussion was moderated by the producing director of Music-Theatre Group, Diane Wondisford.

At the session, held in OPERA America's New York offices, Danielpour noted: "We've come to a point in which a number of composers are writing opera that is no longer European influenced opera, nor is it American musical theater as we've come to know it, but rather a hybrid of the two."

Schlesinger says of the program participants at NYU: "I think a lot of people who are trying to write music that has both music and words attached to it are writing in a genre that has no boundaries and has no names attached to it. Half the students in the program are international and are coming from 15 different countries, including students from South America and Asia. They have a whole different concept of how stories are told using music. We haven't even begun to explore what's possible yet as to how these music genres can be merged. I see this urge to express oneself through music and words. It comes to writers who suddenly start hearing music in their work and comes to composers who see these secret little stories in their music. Ultimately, there are some practical demands that create differences."

One of the biggest differences that Stewart pointed out is the priority the music has in opera. Stage directors in opera find themselves asking, "Why does this person keep singing? What is he doing during this music?" Stewart said, "My experience with opera is that the composer is the biggest gorilla in the room because he or she makes sure that the music remains the artistic priority."

Wondisford was then prompted to ask, "What, then, is the biggest gorilla in the room for musical theater?" The answer: the necessity of collaboration and cooperation. The potential for disaster is great with musicals often because there are so many creative stakeholders.

Of course, many things can go wrong in opera as well. So many pieces go from commission to score to stage without any workshops or readings, which is definitely not the case in musical theater. Musicals are rarely performed on Broadway, or even off-Broadway, stages before having gone through a series of readings and feedback.

Stewart created the NYMTF out of the idea of giving artists a way to bring other collaborators into the creative process. "Friends of mine were caught in the cycle of 'the workshop'" says Stewart, "We do such a resource-heavy art form — so we created NYMTF for writers to get actors in the room to put their scripts down or dancers to see the movement with the piece."

An initial question about the festival was "What if you perform a work and it's bad?" Stewart's emphatic reply: "Who cares? That's fundamentally better than not doing the piece at all. It's better for the writer because they spend all this time working on a piece with a mentality of 'You never know. Someone will see it I'll be famous and rich.' It's better to get the show up and realize, 'You know, it's not that great and the second act really doesn't work, but I've got this great idea for a new show.' It helps the artist to get over it, which is a healthier act for him or her than obsessing over a mediocre project. They can get in this cycle of just trying to get their work up and not actively creating, which it's so defeating."

Stewart also noted another difference: "The thing about musical theater is that it has to pay for itself. There are a lot of people on stage and there have to be 15,000 people in the house during a given week to pay for seeing a little green witch flying around at the end or you don't pay your bills and everyone loses their jobs! The opera and theater are funded culture. Audiences start to thinking about them as broccoli — that's it's good for you, but not necessarily good. Somehow you're a better person if you go to the theater or to the opera. It's 'fibrous.' The priority is not necessarily that it's entertaining; the priority is that it justifies the fact that it's good for the soul."

Though these differences definitely do exist between the opera and musical theater camps, the panel members also discussed particular breakthrough pieces that stood out to them as crossing the divide — creating a new genre through music and words that pushed further into the zone of considering the whole story. Porgy and Bess, Dreamgirls, In the Heights and A Chorus Line were cited for the way that English vernacular was translated into recitative and flowed from the spoken word to song — the way a composer used a contemporary, culturally-specific musical language to make the singing become a natural and viable part of the ensuing drama.

The audiences, however, can differ depending what label you put on a particular piece. Schlesinger said, "I think it would be possible for many people who think they hate opera to love it if they find their way in to a work that has integrity and is accessible to them because they are invited in."

The possibilities are endless and exciting as we work together to continue creating operas, musicals or whatever you want to call them. If a piece has music that flows seamlessly through a story, themes that stir the soul and a performance that stretches the imagination, perhaps the label of "opera" or "musical" doesn't matter all that much.

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