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American Musical Theater in the Opera House
Larry Bomback, Director of Finance and Operations, OPERA America
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Opera America Magazine9/1/2007

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The American musical theater tradition, beginning with the musical comedies of the early 20th century and continuing through the musical plays and concept musicals of the present day, are rooted in a European tradition that has long captivated opera audiences around the world — from the Viennese operetta of Lehár and Strauss to the French opera bouffe of Offenbach and Chabrier, and even the British comic operas of Gilbert & Sullivan.

This article looks at several opera companies and their differing attitudes toward the inclusion of American musical theater in regular season programming, and celebrates those that have historically included the stage works of Romberg, Friml, Herbert, Weill, Gershwin, Porter, Kern, Rodgers, Berlin, Arlen, Loewe, Bernstein, Loesser, Willson, Sondheim and others as part of Lyric Opera of Chicago’s 2002-2003 production of Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd. Photo by Dan Rest/Lyric Opera of Chicago. their core repertory.

According to both the artistic core values and strategic principles of the Houston Grand Opera, opera is music theater, and music theater, for the company, is the complete synthesis of the aural and the visual. In fact, said General Director Anthony Freud, “the line between music-theater and musical theater is non-existent because the greatest operas and the greatest musicals throughout history have also been the greatest examples of music theater.”

Although Houston has not done much musical theater in the past decade, in the 1980s and early 1990s the company staged a substantial number of Broadway musicals including Show Boat, Carousel, My Fair Lady, The King and I, Candide and Regina. The decrease over the past decade and a half is attributed to the erection of the nearby Hobby Center, which tends to be the Houston home of national touring companies. Nevertheless, Freud and Artistic Director Patrick Summers feel that musicals have a place on their stage if a particular production “can benefit from the scale of HGO’s orchestra, chorus and entire production team, and if we can bring something to the work that requires our range of skills,” as was the case with recent productions of A Little Night Music and Porgy and Bess. As a result of this belief, the company has maintained the tradition of requiring musical theater selections for its Eleanor McCollum Competition for Young Singers. “We are looking not only for great singers but great actors as well to ensure that all our artists possess a wide range of skills,” said Freud. It is a stated goal of the company and its leadership to provide its audiences with a “balanced diet of contrasting styles, from traditional opera, to works that may be loosely called opera, all the way to true Broadway musicals.”

Some of Houston’s productions were collaborations with The Minnesota Opera, which produced musicals — at a profit — during the summer in the late 1980s and early 90s. “When we moved into the Ordway in 1985, we were doing three operas in the fall, then a spring new works festival, and the summertime was wide open,” said General Director Kevin Smith. The opera company partnered with the Ordway Center to produce a summer musical, beginning with The King and I in 1986. “We wanted to produce classic American musicals in a fullscale manner, with full orchestra and chorus. We didn’t know how it was going to work, but people flocked to it. We made a profit, which helped balance our budget. So that had us off on an annual musical for the next several years.”

These included Show Boat and My Fair Lady (both coproductions with Houston Grand Opera) South Pacific, Oklahoma and Carousel. In the early 1990s, the Ordway found that it was more lucrative to bring in touring musicals than to continue to partner with the opera company. “We decided then to just focus on being an opera company,” said Smith. He noted, however, that the company’s broad definition of opera extends to works that might be categorized as musical theater, such as Sondheim’s Passion, which was produced in the company’s 2003-2004 season. “In fact, even The Grapes of Wrath was meant to blur the lines.”

Contained within New York City Opera’s mission statement is a mandate of populism, and every general manager has interpreted this mandate in his or her own unique way. Nevertheless, there has been “an amazing continuity in programming since its founding, owing to the many reinterpretations of this particular mandate,” according to City Opera’s dramaturg, Cori Ellison. It is precisely this populist mandate, said Ellison, that has allowed the company to flourish in a musical environment that is dominated by one of the greatest opera houses in the entire world. For Ellison, the mandate is “what makes City Opera the Volksoper to the Met’s Stadtsoper.”

In its first decade, the company, under the leadership of European immigrants, frequently mounted lighter works of Flotow, Lehár, Strauss and others. In 1954, Kern’s Show Boat represented the first major reinterpretation of the populist mandate, and its pecuniary success paved the way for City Opera premieres of American operas and revivals of other full-fledged musicals, including works of Weill and Blitzstein, as well as Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess in its original version with operatic orchestration, unamplified sound, virtuosic vocal writing and lengthy passages of recitative.

After the late Beverly Sills took over in 1980, Broadway musicals became an annual event, with her interpretation of the mandate even allowing for some less operatic musicals to enter the repertory. New productions of Kismet, Brigadoon, The Music Man, The Pajama Game, The Sound of Music, The Most Happy Fella, Candide and Cinderella all had their City Opera debut under Sills, and several were revived during former General Director Paul Kellogg’s recent tenure. Ellison believes works of American musical theater that would “benefit from or thrive within the resources of an American opera company are the only ones appropriate for an operatic stage,” and all the musicals that Sills introduced fit that caveat.

The future of City Opera and opera in New York in general promises to be very exciting with Gerard Mortier and Peter Gelb in the nascent years of their respective tenures. According to Ellison, the fact that Mortier has not embraced American musical theater in the past is most certainly a reflection of where he has been, and cannot be used as a gauge for any future plans at City Opera. She called Mortier “a perennial student, very open to learning about new things.” His interpretation of the populist mandate may well indeed prove to be the most interesting, especially with his next-door neighbor securing the likes of Kristen Chenoweth and Audra McDonald for future projects.

Lyric Opera of Chicago will only present a musical if the company believes it “can do it better or at least appreciatively differently than a traditional musical theater company,” according to General Director William Mason. He noted that there are certain musicals that happen to fit very well in an opera house, pointing to Show Boat and Street Scene as examples. “The many works of Rodgers and Hammerstein and even Kiss Me, Kate have vocal and musical requirements that lend themselves to an operatic treatment,” said Mason. In recent years, the Lyric has staged Weill’s Street Scene and Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd — the latter starring Bryn Terfel in the title role. Next season, Chicago audiences can look forward to a production of Porgy and Bess t
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About the Author: Larry Bomback is operations manager of the New York Youth Symphony and Lecturer of Music History at Hunter College. His work has been published in The Musical Times, Musicological Explorations and The Harmonizer, and he has presented papers and lectures in the United States, Canada and Great Britain. He is currently working on a book about Irving Berlin for University of Mississippi Press.
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