Are We Afraid of Musicals?

As soprano Dawn Upshaw trades Górecki for Gershwin on her new CD, Michael Oliver asks: Why can’t more singers do opera, operetta and musicals on the same stage?

While we’re worrying at the sick-bed of opera, can we think about the state of health of the musical? (You think opera isn’t ill? What sort of art is it that relies almost entirely on dead composers and hasn’t had a genuine, international crowd-pulling hit since… Britten’s Peter Grimes, 50 years ago?). For ages now, admirers of the musical have been insisting that it’s opera’s successor, drawing bigger audiences and providing them with memorable tunes, stirring situations and plots that speak to a contemporary audience, just as Verdi and Puccini did in their day.

They used to say the same about operetta. Offenbach, Sullivan and Lehár reached audiences that even Verdi couldn’t: they were, to borrow the name of operetta’s Viennese home, Volksoper, People’s Opera. But who writes operetta any more? It had a late, nostalgic autumn in the works of Ivor Novello and Noël Coward; since then, nothing. So perhaps if we care about the survival of popular musical theatre it’s to the musical that we should look. In recent years, however, most successful musicals have been either revivals (welcome in themselves, but no way of building the future) or ‘concept musicals’, strong on spectacle but either plotless or relying on some other art form from the past (an elderly film, as in Sunset Boulevard, an elderly novel, as in Les Misérables) for both ‘concept’ and story-line. Almost as backward-looking as opera.

So, of the three great forms of lyric theatre, one seems to be dead, another worryingly poorly, and the third may have lost its forward thrust. It hasn’t helped that the three have tended to regard themselves as self-sufficient, the others as rivals from which little can be learned. For many opera-goers operetta is at best pretty but trivial opera, while the musical is crudely vigorous but vulgar opera, and the bouquets thrown in the opposite direction haven’t been too fragrant, either. But with the decline of operetta (its French home, the Opéra Comique, closed its doors in 1972; the D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, fossilised by a repertory of nothing but Gilbert and Sullivan, disbanded in 1982; it has been reborn, but at present does no more than two productions a year) some opera companies have seen a chance of refreshing their repertories with classic operettas; some have even mounted musicals.

The shrinking orchestra
A promising development, and a vitally necessary one, since ‘authentic’ revivals of musicals and operettas are unlikely to be staged these days by any company other than a large subsidised one. Next time you go to a musical, count the orchestra: there are unlikely to be more than ten of them, probably less; they’ll sound bigger due to amplification (thus the singers have to be amplified too) and synthesisers. A West End or Broadway revival of the original score of West Side Story would need an orchestra of 31 and a cast of 36: terribly risky in the commercial theatre. Kurt Weill’s One Touch of Venus (long overdue for revival: it’s a brilliant score) would need 28 players. Can you imagine Kurt Weill rescored for electric guitars, synthesisers and amplified voices?

Operettas too, in the absence of specialist theatres, will be revived by opera companies or not at all. But opera houses mostly choose only the grandest, most opera-like operettas to revive (Orpheus in the Underworld, Die Fledermaus, Yeomen of the Guard), leaving 95 per cent of the repertory untouched. The problem with much of that 95 per cent is magnified when opera houses try to stage musicals. You can get away with casting a Mimi and a Rodolfo as Maria and Tony in Bernstein’s West Side Story (Bernstein himself did in his own recording with Kiri Te Kanawa and José Carreras; it worked, up to a point) but there is no experience more gruesomely embarrassing than hearing the other Jets and Sharks (Baby John, A-rab, even Anita and Riff) sung by operatic voices. Opera singers these days are taught to act, often admirably, but they are not taught the intensely physical, athletic dancing that many musicals require, nor how to abandon most of their vocal training in order to project a text idiomatically and with maximum clarity. Operettas are more likely to respond to operatic voices in the romantic leading parts, but they often have leading roles which are not romantic, conceived for a skilled comic actor of real personality with a necessary but secondary ability to sing pleasingly.

Is this the answer?
I live very close to a well-known acting school, and those students have often given me more pleasure in operettas and musicals than professional productions by opera companies. They have the physical exuberance, the ease in moving about a stage while singing (and of singing while dancing), the pleasure at putting across every word of a text that trained actors have and trained singers often don’t. One drawback: their singing, under the influence of rock and other popular styles that are dependent on the microphone, is sometimes short-breathed and short-phrased, a nasal, breathy crooning idiomatic neither to the Broadway musical nor to operetta. But could there be a clue here to an answer to the problems of all three forms of music theatre?

For a start we could stop regarding them as different countries with iron curtains between them, and stop regarding operetta and the musical as inherently inferior to opera. Once we’d done that, what might not happen? The development of a true music theatre company, with actors, dancers and singers of various styles all co-existing, capable of idiomatically presenting opera, operetta and musical? A new generation of much more versatile singers, dancers and actors (a lyric soprano who can also do a tap number, a character actor who can hold a tune and has been taught to read music)? A real rethinking of the repertory, even, recognising that if Faust and Don Pasquale deserve a place in it, so do Annie Get Your Gun and Countess Maritza? And if that taught opera composers that they could learn from and build on the traditions of operetta and the musical as well as those of opera…?

Classic CD magazine, 1995

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