Saturday, July 16, 2011

Words on words and music

I'm here in New York for the summer, chipping away at the dissertation and enjoying the panoply of free cultural events the city has to offer (a sampling: outdoor screening of Manhattan in Brooklyn Bridge Park, Brooklyn Rider's eclectic and invigorating concert of classical, Brazilian, bluegrass, Japanese, and Roma music, and dreamy atmospheric rock of Radio Dept. at sunset at the Seaport). Farmers markets have bountifully overfed me.

Life is good, so good in fact that I'm going to complain just for a change of mood. I haven't seen any Broadway yet (except Kelli O'Hara and Matthew Morrison's great performance at the Capitol Fourth concert (yeah, I know they had the cast of Million Dollar Quartet too, but that doesn't cut it at the moment)).

A few days ago, I came across this article in the Times, asking one of the perennial favorite musical quirky questions: what's the difference between musicals and opera? For my money, I'm still partial to Sondheim's distinction: if it's on stage by an opera company and the audience goes in expecting to see an opera, it's an opera. In other words, nothing is inherent in the work, it's all about expectations. Nevertheless, I think we all can identify common tropes in both the work and performance style, and so I looked forward to this take. For the record, I don't think a satifying single definition will ever be found—in fact, I don't think one even needs to be articulated—but as with any marker of genre, they can be useful.

Tommasini doesn't start well with a title asking us to "respect the difference." To me, this suggests snobbery from the start, and an implicit critique of ones that purport to borrow from or assimilate to the other. He begins by noting the common word "opera" appearing all over the place, and indeed suggesting that so manny efforts to cross the boundary are unsatisfying. He makes a few points I contest. For instance, I wouldn't peg Pagliacci as unrivaled in crowd-pleasing, and most importantly I wouldn't follow the conclusion he draws from A Minister's Wife, where, after praising the score insists it must be "pretentious musical theater or tame quasi-opera." I think there's space for a work like that, or if not we should make space.

Tomassini quickly dismisses highbrow/lowbrow, complexity, and spoken dialogue, all things that do not yield a strong division, but I think might be more fruitfully considered at length. Instead, he writes, "Here’s the difference: Both genres seek to combine words and music in dynamic, felicitous and, to invoke that all-purpose term, artistic ways. But in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first."

There's something to this, performance-wise. The bain of crossover singers from opera doing showtunes is that the words get garbled, but I don't think that's the issue. I mean, I can recite the text by heart, but hearing Kiri Te Kanawa try a cockney accent in My Fair Lady is no match for Julie Andrews. There's a great bit too on José Carreras singing West Side Story where Bernstein continually stops rehearsal because he cannot sing "still" properly. Jerry Hadley has fared a little better with a brighter more natural sound. Dawn Upshaw, with her clarity comes close. (Renee Fleming surprised me, although her most recent crossover album of indie rock loses the operatic quality altogether but never really finds something to replace it and the result sounds just empty, boring). For my money, the only true cross-over artist is Audra MacDonald. I think there is something vital to not just the words, but how they're sung, their placement and clarity, their ease and naturalness. Musical theater does not, as opera does, repeat lines at least not verbatim. Although they do take more time to ease out their sentiments than a normal conversation.

But as his reasoning went on, I grew more skeptical of his theory. He draws on Cole Porter's lyrics to "Anything Goes," but says nothing about their setting. For opera, he turns to Bernstein's Trouble in Tahiti. But this example is surely flawed, right, since the entire second act is lifted from a Broadway show, and the surrounding material is so self-consciously Serious Opera that it hardly illuminates anything. I'm not an expert on libretti, so perhaps someone could speak to how important the text is in opera studies, but I hesitate to put the music in the backseat when it comes to musicals. I think, "in olden days," the melody, the standalone work carried just as much importance as the text. And with a variety of scores inching toward the operatic- Bernstein's Candide and West Side Story, Sondheim's Sweeney Todd, Guettel's Light in the Piazza, the score carries the words more often than not. Now Tommasini grants that all these works are musically strong but that the words "do most of the heavy lifting." I'm not sure what that means. Does it mean that the music tells the story more effectively in opera? Because I don't think that's true—I think viewers rely on the action and/or the text just as much, and plenty of moments in musical theater tell a story through music. Does it mean that the story is more important to the musical? I think just the opposite is true, given the equally common practice of excerpting a tune from Broadway show and an aria from an opera and the interpolation of new songs into early musical theater (and Baroque opera).

In the end, I'm disappointed largely because the distinction feels unnuanced and ill-thought out. For instance, he attributes the importance of melody to opera, not musical theater. But also because Tommasini never provides a good reason why this distinction he's drawing matters and to whom. He writes that theatergoing audiences may not care about the divide. Well, if that's true, then why is this article being written? I think audiences do care, returning to Sondheim. When going to see the Glimmerglass production of Annie Get Your Gun, what will make the work a success? For those going because they love Deborah Voigt, their definitions will vary from those whose first love is Berlin's tunes (and lyrics).

When thinking about the differences—yes, I think it has to be plural—between these two, at the forefront should be our understanding of to whom and why. For listeners, words play a big part, performance style, production values, choreography, maybe even subject matter. For composers, it would look different. There's something interesting: why compose an opera or a musical theater piece. There, money, advertising, subject matter (again), prestige (probably again, though I didn't initially list it and now think twice), all matter there. We might also gain something out of the overlap. The opera-ness of many rock operas derives in part from near continuous underscoring. This is also what makes them often worse for the wear, because they lack any distinctness. So I'll end with a beginning of my own definition as an avid listener. Musical theater thrives on distinctness of moments: a choreographed number, a set number, even in the shows like Sweeney Todd's second act or Next to Normal (the best rock opera to date in my opinion). Opera produces a more fluid (not unified, necessarily) product that divides into longer scenes. Operatic excerpts always feel to me a little arbitrary and incomplete in the way they begin and end, perhaps because of this. But such a distinction alone is not satisfactory enough, it's just one piece of a complex question whose answers is a lot further than Tommasini would have us believe.


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