‘Surely this isn’t opera!’

By August 31, 2012Music, Other, Society

Apparently one woman made this comment after taking her seat for South Pacific at the Sydney Opera House. And the couple next to us included a woman who had already seen the show, loved it, and had persuaded her non-opera-loving husband that he should see it. He loved it too. So did we.

I’d never seen a stage performance, and saw the 1958 film only once, soon after its release in Australia. But the music — ah, I’ve known it ever since. I used to play some of the songs, especially ‘Some Enchanted Evening’, in pubs during my period as a poorly-paid piano-player. The songs  were standards.

But I too was a bit puzzled at the Australian Opera’s staging this Lincoln Center production. Did it need some quick coin? Is it trying to attract a new audience? Either would be an acceptable response, because the first rule of opera companies is ‘Survive!’ In any case, the outcome is a great night out. Everything I’ve seen in the Opera House over the past few years has been at such a high level of performance, in every respect. And South Pacific has that complete stamp of professional authority. My only complain was the over-miking of Teddy Tahu Rhodes, who needs no microphone at all, though I guess he would sound odd if everyone but him was amplified.

And from the moment we emerged, cheerful, humming, holding hands, like so many other opera-going pairs, I’ve been thinking about where ‘opera’ starts and finishes. Mozart’s The Magic Flute is the fourth most performed opera around the world, and was advertised at its opening performance as ‘grand opera’, though Mozart himself wrote it into his own catalogue as a ‘Singspiel’, literally ‘sing play’, or a ‘play with singing’. Such works were in the vernacular, thus German in Mozart’s Vienna, rather than in Italian, the language of serious opera. They tended to be light-hearted, and might also be called ‘comic opera’.

The Magic Flute opened in September 1791, with Mozart conducting the orchestra. He died only a couple of months later, but within a year of his death the opera had already had a hundred performances in Vienna alone. People whistled the tunes in the streets, and the theatre was packed out. It has always been in the repertoire.

Rossini’s La Cenenterola, the story of Cinderella, was another immensely popular fairy-story opera. Rossini’s Barber of Seville isn’t a fairy-story opera, but is a comic opera of the highest quality. Does anything in particular distinguish them from the best of what appears on Broadway? I can’t think of what it might be. What distinguishes them from the best of Gilbert and Sullivan? What, if anything distinguishes the  best of G&S from Jacques Offenbach? Where does The Phantom of the Opera sit? And so on. I think these distinctions are artificial.

Somewhere along the road from the 18th century to now, musical theatre found divergent paths for new forms, like folk opera, musical comedy, cabaret, and then, of course, film. You could say that while all these examples of musical theatre have a similar structure, and often similar plots, the demands on the singers are greater in so-called grand opera. Yet while one of the stars of The Magic Flute, the Queen of the Night, has to sing a remarkably difficult aria, another, the bird-catcher Papageno, can get by with quite an ordinary voice (and Mozart wrote Papageno’s songs for an actor who could sing a bit, not a singer who could act a bit).

All in all, I don’t think there is much difference in the works themselves. Musical comedies, which is the generic term we use for popular operas that  aren’t generally staged in opera houses, have the great advantage that they can make lots of money if they are successful, and South Pacific ran for five years in the one theatre in New York, and an eight-year touring run in the US. Grand opera, with its great buildings, giant stages and elaborate sets, needs subsidies so that ordinary people can afford to see a production — and even then they have to pay a serious amount of money.

So, let us look forward to the Australian Opera’s staging more revivals of the great musical comedies. It has put on, and very successfully too, some great G&S. If it makes a decent profit, even better! The 2012 South Pacific season comes to an end in a few days, but there will be two solid months of it in September and October next year — nothing else will be on offer.

Join the discussion 4 Comments

  • marcellous says:

    Rossini’s La Cenenterola, the story of Cinderella, was another immensely popular fairy-story opera. Rossini’s Barber of Seville isn’t a fairy-story opera, but is a comic opera of the highest quality. Does anything in particular distinguish them from the best of what appears on Broadway?” I can’t think of what it might be.
    I can. La C and B of S require a classical orchestra and singers capable of the singing. Cinderella, moreover, is an archetypal fairy-tale plot. Do not underestimate the music of Rossini – he is a standout composer in this style. In Berlioz’s Les soirées de l’orchestre, set in the 1840s opera pit and ostensibly made up of conversations between the orchestral musicians (only the bass drum player never relaxes into conversation, which is an early equivalent of a viola joke), performances of Rossini pass without any conversation, because of the quality of the work.
    The best of what appears on broadway is a commercial venture designed for long runs, aimed generally quite determinedly towards the middle brow (not simply in terms of plot but also the music) for that purpose; nowadays performed by actors/singers/dancers with microphones. It only requires a small orchestra. There is less music than in an opera because of the spoken parts. It does not need the resources of an opera company to put it on: witness that “South Pacific” is being mounted elsewhere than in Sydney by the Gordon Frost organisation.
    What distinguishes them from the best of Gilbert and Sullivan?
    In Gilbert & Sullivan, the vocal parts are relatively undemanding and the orchestration undemanding; they are not through composed and there is a lot of pretty dated dialogue; the music is tuneful but simple.
    What, if anything distinguishes the best of G&S from Jacques Offenbach?
    Assume you are not talking about “Tales of Hoffman” which is obviously different. Put broadly: the English Channel and about 20 years; inferior music (that is: even the best of G&S is inferior to Offenbach) and higher vocal accomplishment (in the Offenbach). Otherwise, perhaps not so much as in general the objects of Offenbachian satire are as obscure today as those of WS Gilbert’s, though generally we get less dialogue in Offenbach here.
    Where does The Phantom of the Opera sit?
    Nine miles from Gundagai. Or rather, on the coat-tails of Opera and on the way to the bank for Lloyd-Webber as copyright owner but obviously part of musical theatre. Actually, I don’t know why you ask that question at all.
    I think these distinctions are artificial.
    I disagree. They are distinctions principally about the resources which are necessary for a company to perform them. An opera company needs classically trained singers, soloists and chorus, able to sing without microphones. The fact that one singer in Magic Flute need not be (if he is in so small a theatre as that where Mozart initially conducted the work) does not detract from this. Unless they have multiple casts of soloists, they need to do their works in repertoire because the soloists cannot repeat the work every night. That of course is what makes things expensive as then sets need to be struck. The existence of a company helps sustain the art form because of the continuity of work and hence opportunity to develop levels of attainment that this entails.
    Musical theatre/comedy does not require these things. Musicals are not something that only an opera company can put on and indeed opera companies are not necessarily suited to putting musicals on: as with SP, they probably need to hire a different chorus for a start because of the singing and dancing requirements and will generally not be able to draw on their regular roster of principals. which leaves them with the fixed cost of their chorus to deal with when the musical is running – perhaps OA was hoping to slot in 2013’s Brisbane run during SP’s 2013 return period because the chorus would hardly need all that time to get ready for Götterdämmerung.
    Whilst there are some silly operas and some straight-out funny operas (as you have mentioned – though Magic Flute is an exception in the repertoire which probably wouldn’t be there but for Mozart’s music, even such of it which was not cut from the latest OA production-lite), when they get dramatic they dig a very great deal more deeply than you can possibly say South Pacific does. SP is a great night’s entertainment (from which I too emerged in a glowingly good mood) for which you have to make a thousand excuses once you start to think about it. It really is hardly dramatic at all beyond some spectacle and comedy and its tunefulness. Those excuses or exonerations which are offered (oh, it’s so sound about racism for 1949) are pretty lame really.
    I realise that’s getting towards a high-culture/middlebrow culture argument, which a comment here is hardly the place to embark upon. That’s why I’ve tried to concentrate on just the logistic and more straightforward aesthetic distinctions.
    So I can’t join your enthusiasm in welcoming the prospect of annual two-month seasons of “musical comedy” by Opera Australia into the indefinite future. Maybe it has to be done (though I’d even prefer more wall-to-wall Puccini if that is what it takes or if that were possible on top of what we get already) but it’s a big pity that things must be so, if that is in fact the case.

  • donaitkin says:

    What a great post! I simply can’t do it justice at this time of night — and I agree with a good deal of it. I said so with respect to the need for big buildings and sets. I could have added singers who have put years into learning how to do it. Yes, there is a difference, and while a good amateur company can put on a credible P of P they could not put on a credible Force of Destiny. I guess I was trying not to make the highbrow/lowbrow distinction that you also wanted to avoid.

    Thank you again for a most interesting and thoughtful response.

  • […] he said in his blog, riffing off the elsewhere-reported comment of a woman patron that “Surely this isn’t […]

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