Musical? or Opera? Operical!

March 18, 2008

I discussed the three options for musical drama these days a few weeks back, trying to decide what HOMER is — a musical, an opera, or a musical drama. The script calls it a musical drama, but when I asked Mel what he called it at our reading last week, “it’s a musical” — I reminded him about what he wrote in his script, but he came back again “it’s a musical.”

I got to thinking what other elements make a piece an opera instead of a musical, and I guess it would have to be dramatic numbers where the music is constantly changing, there is no verse-chorus structure, and dramatic action is occurring. That doesn’t usually happen in musicals. HOMER has at least 5 numbers that fall into this category, so by this definition our piece is a hybrid. Musicals have songs and operas have arias. Both of them feature good melodic writing and, usually, accessible musical language. Songs lean towards popular music, arias lean towards classical art songs. Operas have recitatives, musicals don’t. HOMER has arias and songs and dramatic numbers.

Calling a piece an opera will set in motion critics who only review operas, not critics who review musicals. They come expecting to hear what they think an opera should be in the early 21st century. And if they don’t, they pan it.

Consider Jake Heggie’s new “Last Acts” that was premiered by the Houston Opera in February: the critics seemed cruel to him, as they often are. He is writing accessible music that borders on being a musical. Or shall I say, a sophisticated musical. The referred to the language as “…a cross between palm court and Broadway musical.” In context I suppose this was supposed to be an insult to those in the know.

What would have happened if Jake called his piece a “musical” or a “musical drama”? Might he have had better reviews? I am happy to report that ultimately the world has not listened to the crappy press Jake has received, as his operas are getting performed over critics’ dead bodies world-wide (or more precisely, their barbs mean less and less coming from the declining power base of the traditional newspaper).

I suspect that my future dramatic musicals will be critically panned if I call them operas as well. Hmm, let’s see: musical? or opera? musical? or opera?

How ’bout an “operical! “or a sophisticated musical? YES!

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