The question is often asked, "What’s the difference between a musical and an opera?" The quick, simple answer used to be that an opera is all sung, while a musical has dialogue. Now I find myself responding, "Let’s sit up until 2 a.m. with a good bottle of wine and talk about that." The easy answer no longer applies. Sweeney Todd, The Phantom of the Opera, and Les Miserables are among the many musicals that are through-composed, and several works generally considered operas-such as Carmen and The Daughter of the Regiment-were written with dialogue.
In musical theater, we expect the plot to advance through dialogue and staging, with the musical numbers functioning as a break in the action for song and dance. Yet in many musicals, the song is more than a mere diversion. Billy’s soliloquy in Carousel could be considered an aria, because the audience gets a high-resolution look at his soul as his inner thoughts and emotional transformation are clearly expressed through song.
Up until Mozart’s time, "singspiel" (or sung-play) combined dialogue and music in the lighter, comedic works. The general theater-going public was enjoying these popular pieces in the vernacular, while in the European courts, "serious" operas-usually in Italian-were sung with arias and ensembles alternating with recitative-dialogue that was sung-accompanied by the orchestra or continuo. A marked class distinction developed. The common folk were being amused in plebeian fashion, while the aristocracy enjoyed more refined fare.
As society changed in the 19th century, live theater was the foremost entertainment for the public-all classes, especially the growing middle class. Before movies, television, or the other choices that abound today, concerts and spoken drama thrived. But the combination of the two, music-theater, was the most popular. And, as with movies today, these works catered to the different tastes and moods of the theater-going public, yet everyone went to everything. The separation of the classes by genre disintegrated. It was all popular entertainment patronized by all sectors of society, as long as you could afford a ticket. The comic works of Gilbert and Sullivan or Offenbach played alongside the tragic works of Gounod or Meyerbeer.
The quality of music for the less serious works wasn’t necessarily inferior to that of the dramatic works. The myriad musical varieties available now complicate things, but it can’t necessarily be said, when comparing and contrasting opera and operetta, that it’s a matter of superior versus second-rate music. The music in The Magic Flute, a comic piece with spoken dialogue, is no less worthy than that of Wagner’s massive Parsifal, while Rodgers and Hammerstein’s scores easily outclass the operas written by composers rarely remembered today (who’s ever heard an opera by Vincent Wallace?).
In the 20th century, though, the discussion takes on an added dimension. The American musical is the direct descendant of operetta. The earliest composers for the Broadway theater, such as Rudolf Friml and Sigmund Romberg, were following in the tradition of the German operettas by the likes of Johann Strauss and Franz Lehar with formulaic, comic plots; a love interest (or two); good music; witty dialogue; and dancing in a variety of settings.
Throughout the last century, the musical has evolved considerably, starting as early as 1927, with Jerome Kern’s Showboat branching away from opera even as it takes on more operatic characteristics. You might consider opera and operetta as siblings or close cousins, but musicals became an entirely separate genre, with elements of both opera and operetta within a whole new performance practice. The moniker "musical comedy" is no longer apt. Tragedy is abundant, particularly in those pieces set in the time of war. Death, poverty, disease, abuse, and even torture are evident, as well as-or instead of-the madcap mix-ups and silly love stories. The tendency for an uplifting finale remains present, but living "happily ever after" is no longer a given.
The primary difference now between the musical and opera is a function of intent and finance. Musicals are written and produced as entertainment, by for-profit entities, with the hope of making money. This isn’t to say that lessens the value of the work. It’s a fact, just as Verdi wrote operas to be seen, for entertainment, by a ticket-buying public, made him rich.
But now, not-for-profit cultural organizations produce operas and operettas, believing in their artistic and educational worth-as well as entertainment value-not for the express purpose of making profits. With the help of contributed income, since opera has become so difficult and expensive to produce, advancement and promotion of the art form are the main goal.
To some, this implies a presumed higher purpose and has resurrected the ghosts of class distinctions. That needn’t be. Personal preferences are to be expected and accepted, but I would welcome a return to the thinking that it doesn’t really matter what it is-just go and enjoy. AA!