What makes opera, opera? What makes musical theater, musical theater? What elements and practices determine the difference between the two? This highly contested debate in the artistic community becomes more difficult as theater-makers create productions which blur the lines between these performance styles.
Opera and musical theater share more than they differ. Some basic essential similarities include:
- THE PEOPLE: Both employ performers who sing and act, directors, designers, stage managers, musicians, and more collaborate to tell the story.
- THE ELEMENTS: Both types of performance utilize costumes, props, lights, sets, hair, and makeup.
- THE PROCESS: Productions must be written, workshopped, auditioned, and rehearsed before being performed for a live audience.
While both have roots in the musical performances of Ancient Greece, opera as we know it today began around 1600, while musical theater as we know it today began around 1850.
- Operas are primarily sung with no spoken dialogue while most musicals intersperse songs with spoken dialogue.
- The “classical” singing style in opera has remained virtually unchanged since its inception, while singing in musicals evolves based upon popular music.
- Opera values beautiful singing voices while musicals often use “character voices.”
- Opera employs a large orchestra with strings as the primary instruments, while musicals employ an orchestra or band with piano as the primary instrument.
- Opera is typically performed in the language it was written (typically Italian, French, German, English) and rarely translated. Most popular musicals are written in English, but translated to match the audience’s language.
- Opera values vocal quality and music over clarity, using supertitles (even for English operas) to help the audience follow along. Musicals value words and emphasize diction and rhyming to help audience comprehension. They do not use supertitles.
- Opera performers are considered singers first, then actors. Musical theater performers are considered actors first, then singers.
- Traditionally in opera, voice type is tied to characteristics (Example: low voices are villains or fools, high voices are romantics).
- Dancers are often hired in opera, while musical theater performers often need to be accomplished dancers.
Operas are rarely performed by musical theater companies. Several musicals however, are determined to meet the criteria of an opera and are performed by opera companies. Examples are Sweeney Todd and West Side Story.
Sweeney Todd: Opera Or Musical?
Composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim (often referred to as the “father of the modern musical”) wrote 18 musicals over five decades. Many of these pieces straddle the line between musical theater and opera. One such show is Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Does the plot of Sweeney Todd strike you as an opera or a musical?
In Victorian England, Sweeney Todd, an unjustly exiled barber, returns to London seeking vengeance against the lecherous judge who framed him and ravaged his young wife. The road to revenge leads Todd to Mrs. Lovett, a resourceful proprietress of a failing pie shop, above which, he opens a new barber practice. Mrs. Lovett’s luck sharply shifts when Todd’s thirst for blood inspires the integration of an ingredient into her meat pies that has the people of London lining up… and the carnage has only just begun!
Listen to the following songs from Sweeney Todd. Does each song sound more like musical theater or opera?
- ‘Green Finch and Linnet Bird’
- ‘Worst Pies in London’
Do the characters of Sweeney Todd sound like they belong in an opera or a musical?
- Sweeney Todd – baritone: A wrongfully imprisoned barber seeking to right the wrongs committed against him. He is Johanna’s father, singularly focused on taking bloody revenge.
- Mrs. Lovett – mezzo soprano: An entrepreneurial and amoral meat pie shop owner. She falls in love with Todd and turns his desire for revenge into a profitable business venture.
- Johanna – soprano: A spritely girl, full of innocence, constantly yearning for freedom. Todd’s long-lost daughter and Turpin’s ward.
- Anthony – tenor: A naive and youthful sailor returning to London. He helps Todd return to London and unexpectedly falls in love with Johanna.
- Judge Turpin – bass: A lecherous public official who portrays himself as a sanctimonious authoritarian. He takes advantage of his position in the city and is responsible for imprisoning Todd.
So what’s the answer? We think Stephen Sondheim says it best.
ESSENTIALLY, THE DIFFERENCE, I THINK, IS IN THE EXPECTATION OF THE AUDIENCE. OBVIOUSLY THERE ARE DIFFERENCES IN TERMS OF PERFORMERS AND HOW THEY APPROACH SINGING AS AN ART FORM. BUT PRIMARILY AN OPERA IS SOMETHING DONE IN AN OPERA HOUSE IN FRONT OF AN OPERA AUDIENCE.
– STEPHEN SONDHEIM