It's grand, glorious music, resplendent with costumes, elaborate staging, singers, actors and often dancers. It tells a tale in song and words: a tragedy, a love story, a comedy. Its aim is to entertain, and its identity is opera ... or musical theater. The description works for both performing arts. But there are obvious differences between Tchaikovsky's "Eugene Onegin" and the Broadway musical "On the Town."
F Above High C
The Queen of the Night is a classically trained soprano whose voice, nailing that high F in "The Magic Flute," inhabits a stratosphere mere mortals dare not approach. Nellie in "South Pacific" is singing in the shower when she washes that man right out of her hair. The operatic voice is round and resonant with overdefined enunciation, has more vibrato and is first a musical instrument, second a character. The musical voice is more conversational, with greater reliance on the chest voice and belting, not bel canto, technique. Some performers cross over from classical to Broadway style with ease -- Audra McDonald, Kristin Chenoweth and Bryn Terfel are big stars with big voices and years of opera training.
A Difference in Projection
An opera singer's whispered phrase has to be heard -- sans microphone -- in the nosebleed seats at the back of the house. A musical theater performer has to know her way around a headset microphone. But more fundamental differences in delivery help distinguish the disciplines. A musical, such as "Les Miserables" or "Sweeney Todd," composed with as much singing as an opera, requires gorgeous vocals tempered with emotional grit and pathos. At times, that may mean a hoarse or broken delivery for effect. A raspy, heartbroken voice wins you no applause in opera. An extraordinary tenor can bring you to tears with a "park-and-bark" rendition of "Nessun Dorma" from "Turandot," his feet rooted to the stage, conveying emotion through pure musical technique.
The Play's the Thing
Tosca is a diva and the eponymous opera is an over-the-top melodrama. With the right singers, the music and the story are riveting. The layering of the intense story, evil villain, self-sacrificing hero, doomed heroine, church music, plaintive lament of an unseen shepherd boy and desperate suicidal leap all build to affect the audience. The music is paramount and the story merely accommodates it. Events don't have to make perfect sense in opera. "A Chorus Line" is first a story, second a choreographed vocal experience. Conversation drives the logical action. The songs may be sung-spoken; each one tells the tale of a character. That layering of confessional stories and longing resonates with the audience. There is a lot of pageantry and beautiful music in "The King and I," but the believable character arc of the king drives the show.
The Music That Makes Me Dance
A few operas feature dancing -- "La Gioconda's" "Dance of the Hours" is an interlude that requires real ballet dancers. But most dancing in opera is incidental: a waltz, a minuet, a ballroom scene. Large opera companies have their own dance troupes under contract for a season's operas. Musical theater hires dancers show by show. But a musical is sometimes created entirely around dancing -- "Fosse!" is a pastiche of the renowned choreographer's greatest dances. Other musicals integrate story, song and dance as an inseparable whole -- "West Side Story," "On the Town" and "A Chorus Line" are impossible to imagine without dance numbers. A star in a Broadway or West End musical might be a triple threat, adept at acting, singing and dancing. You won't find many baritones and coloraturas hoofing it around the Paris Opera stage.
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