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.