Hardly a week goes by when some prophet of doom doesn’t call time on opera, the 400-year-old art form that nowadays is seen by many as an expensive and increasingly irrelevant night out for the wealthy. But while the companies vie for their slice of the funding pie to subsidise the costly productions that opera demands, it seems that more and more of them are looking to supplement box office receipts with the more lucrative returns to be made out of opera’s bastard cousin – the Broadway musical.

Down in Melbourne, opera star Teddy Tahu Rhodes is whetting his razor in preparation for Stephen Sondheim’s gory thriller Sweeney Todd for Victorian Opera, while at Opera Queensland David Hobson will be persuading us that all really is for the best in the best of all possible worlds when he stars in Leonard Bernstein’s scintillating Candide. This month sees Opera Australia launching their latest musical vessel, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes, and last month they revealed for the first time that more than half of their 2014 box office had come from a pair of Rodgers and Hammerstein perennial favourites, South Pacific and The King and I. So what’s up? Are opera companies dumbing down, selling out or just wising up to popular taste? Are musicals the new opera? Or is it just possible they always have been?

Vox Populi

The usual argument goes that what we today call musicals developed out of operetta – Viennese, French, English, what you will – when colliding head on with ragtime and jazz in turn-of-the-century America. But why exactly did that happen? There must have been a need or a vacuum that ‘classical’ opera was no long able to fill. To find the answer it’s necessary to go all the way back to the cradle of the art form in 1600 Italy and trace its wayward development over those first three centuries.

The word ‘opera’ actually means ‘work’ or a synthesis of works (the plural of opus). “If you look back at the origins of opera that’s precisely what it was,” explains Victorian Opera’s Richard Mills. “It was a synthesis of the work of the Florentine Camerata who thought they were recreating ancient Greek drama by declaiming everything – and that’s the origin of recitative. It was a fusion of the prima pratica of Baroque music, which was the pure polyphonic style of church music with the seconda pratica, which was instrumental and much more harmonic. Monteverdi’s great achievement was to synthesise all of these elements into one form.”

Mike Leigh’s ENO Pirates of Penzance

All well and good, but in parallel with the hifalutin aims and objectives of the artistic intelligentsia went some more populist forms of public entertainment with something of the smell of the street about them – the masques, intermedi and bawdy frottole designed to thrill the crowds with spectacle and raise a smile. Thus, as the Baroque got going and opera grew more florid there was always a lower common denominator jogging alongside. Ballad operas like The Beggar’s Opera or Lampe’s Pyramus and Thisbe went hand in glove with Handel and his aristocratic patrons, always ready to lampoon, but fundamentally embracing the same kind of music.

It was the same well into the Classical and early- Romantic periods. A populist singspiel like The Magic Flute could embrace a Papageno (a role originally written for an actor), who is allowed to gently mock the pretentions of a musical ‘toff’ like Tamino. The bel canto composers were no different. The likes of Donizetti would happily incorporate popular songs into their works and so mainstream were opera premieres that afterwards a successful composer would be carried through the streets in triumph. And then along came Wagner…

A Separation of Powers

It’s probably no coincidence that the rise of operetta in London, Paris, and the German-speaking world went hand in hand with the ascendancy of Wagner and his dream of opera as Gesamtkunstwerk (or total work of art). From this point forward it’s possible to detect a divide opening up in musical drama between highbrow and lowbrow. Opera set off in one direction, overtly populist operetta in the other. Richard Mills agrees, to an extent: “Although he was nurtured on singspiel, which was an early form of musical comedy, Wagner was a true revolutionary. He wanted to reconstitute the popular German theatre but with very high artistic ideals. So, you’re quite right to say that perhaps the Wagnerian aesthetic alienated some of the opera audience, but to me it’s all part of a stylistic spectrum.”

What Mills means is that Wagnerism didn’t triumph everywhere. In Italy the bel canto tradition was progressed by Verdi who was immensely popular in his own lifetime, followed by Puccini and the verismo composers. In other words, opera stayed popular, which explains perhaps why most people would be hard-pressed to name an Italian musical.

In other countries though, the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan, Offenbach, Suppé and Johann Strauss were giving the masses what they couldn’t get from Wagner – broad-based musical comedy with tunes you could hum and storylines that lambasted the politics or the sexual mores of the day. In Paris, La Belle Hélène sent up bourgeois moralising about adultery, likewise works like Die Fledermaus or Suppé’s racy Boccaccio. Sheet music of songs and arias sold by the thousands, a testament to the popularity of an art form that could see an operetta run for years. In England G&S mocked the peerage, the legal system, artistic pretentions and allsorts, while their works contained important roles that were written to be sung by ‘actors’. Translating successfully across the Atlantic, Sullivan’s tunes and Gilbert’s patter entered the musical vernacular just as a wave of Germanic and Eastern European migrants were about to transform the course of popular music.

The Rise and Rise of Broadway

At the dawn of the 20th century, America – or strictly speaking New York – was a musical melting pot thanks to a raft of entrepreneurial émigrés bringing their classical sensibilities to bear on a land just beginning to offer its semi-emancipated African-American population a musical hearing. “Many Germans went to live in America,” explains Mills. “I mean, Frederick Loewe [of My Fair Lady fame] was Friedrich Löwe. In the generation before him Victor Herbert, for example, was from Vienna while Rudolf Friml came from Prague. They brought the particular flavour of Viennese operetta, which is absolutely to do with the musicalisation and tonalisation of speech rhythm and speech inflection, into a rich and productive union with the American vernacular. It’s the sophistication and particularly the song-writing craft that makes for such hugely enjoyable evenings in the theatre. So, I suppose that’s a short answer as to why some musicals interest opera companies!”

“It’s the sophistication and particularly songwriting craft that makes for such hugely enjoyable evenings in the theatre” – Richard Mills

Related: Richard Mills’ Top Three ‘Operatic’ Musicals

It certainly wouldn’t be out of order to say that in the 1920s musicals were the new operetta. Scratch the surface of a Gershwin show like Strike Up the Band and you’ll find chunks of semi-digested Gilbert and Sullivan, from its call and response chorus interjections to its character-led patter songs. Romantic roles, however, still correspond to the old operetta fachs like soubrette and lyric tenor, so when Jerome Kern’s landmark musical Showboat comes along in 1927 there are plenty of operatic demands to be made on the singers playing Magnolia Hawks and Gaylord Ravenal. And it’s easy to forget that the musical theatre singer in the pre-microphone era had to fill a whole theatre auditorium unassisted – and frequently eight times a week – a job with more than operatic demands.

The ground-breaking 1929 film of Show Boat

Opera, meanwhile, was wending its increasingly esoteric path with the growing influence of the Second Viennese school making it less and less of a fun night out for all the family. Now, instead of operetta and parlour songs topping music sales, it was Tin Pan Alley ditties and 78s of the pop stars of the day crooning Broadway standards. When populist attempts at operas – like Porgy and Bess or Scott Joplin’s Treemonisha – did come along, the high-art opera houses didn’t know what to make of them – surely they weren’t what they said on the can?

The Case for Candide

By the 1950s there was something fresh in the wind blowing down Broadway. Smart, theatrically savvy types like Rodgers and Hammerstein, or radical lefties like Marc Blitzstein with a socio-political agenda, began to mix it with the new wave of exiles from Hitler’s Europe – clever men like Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht. Musicals that broke the mould or fiddled with the form began to take their first hesitant steps on the Great White Way. Subjects like corporate greed (The Cradle Will Rock), Freudian psychoanalysis (Lady in the Dark) or the temporal games of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Allegro may not have landed at the box office, but there were clear operatic intentions behind shows like Weill’s Street Scene, and especially Leonard Bernstein’s operetta-cum-musical fable, Candide.

Lindy Hume is directing a new staging for Opera Queensland and sees Candide as a show that ticks the boxes for her both as an artist and as a leader of an opera company. “It’s a great piece that works for lots of different times,” she explains. “I’m interested in ideas and themes, and opera programming doesn’t always let you do that. To genuinely say that you are producing a work that you believe speaks to a contemporary audience is a pretty compelling reason to do it.”

New York City Opera’s 2005 Candide

Voltaire’s 1759 satire addressing his disillusionment with Leibnitzian optimism might seem an oddball choice for a musical, but Lenny and his lengthy roll call of collaborators had other fish to fry. “Bernstein’s swipe at the McCarthy witch-hunts was very pointed, but what interests me more is what crosses the centuries,” says Hume. “Voltaire was having a go at the aristocracy and the injustice of the world – things which don’t go away: the very wealthy and the very poor, war, religious hypocrisy, torture, rape, capital punishment, even the injustice of natural disasters – that’s Voltaire’s Candide.”

In his scaffold sermon in the first half, Dr Pangloss – the arch-mage of optimism – even manages to make a self-inflicted disaster such as venereal disease into a sort of a blessing. “I don’t want to sound flippant, but these kinds of things are timeless,” says Hume, “including the final observation that we must all work in our garden. That is going to have a resonance in an environmentally-aware society.”

Genre-crossing tenor David Hobson is Hume’s choice as Candide, and he certainly sees no difference between the Bernstein and a more classical work. “I’d approach it the same way as I’d approach a G&S role, or even a Mozart,” he says, though he draws a clear distinction between musical theatre and opera singing. “Because the architecture of the music in some musicals is not as complex and as defined as it is in opera, you have to infuse a lot more of your personality as a performer into it. In opera the composer does a lot more of that work for you.”

Candide was always a hybrid work. Robert Rounseville who sang the original lead was the first Tom Rakewell in Stravinsky’s The Rake’s Progress, while conversely Barbara Cook would go on to be a Broadway legend. Max Adrian, the larger-than-life Irish actor who was the first Pangloss, had a voice like an embittered corncrake. But up the road that year, Rudolf Bing’s tenure at the Met was offering nothing more up to date than Madama Butterfly. In other words opera seemed to have fossilised while Broadway appeared to have its finger on a certain pulse. But was Candide consciously trying to challenge that order?

“You can’t sing Glitter and be Gay unless you’ve got a serious opera technique” – Lindy Hume

Related: Lindy Humes’ Top Three ‘Operatic’ Musicals

“Some parts are quite operatic and other parts are very boulevardy,” says Hume. “It’s a freewheeling work – but you can’t sing Glitter and Be Gay unless you’ve got a serious opera technique”. Hobson agrees: “It’s quirky, it’s oddball – but I feel Bernstein’s genius in it everywhere.” To encapsulate all of that, Hume aims to cut her cloth to accommodate lots of different musical personalities. “We’re casting actors like Bryan Probets as Pangloss and Christine Johnson from The Kransky Sisters as the old lady [a character with only one buttock],” she says, “but then we’ve got Amelia Farrugia and David Hobson – and a really serious opera chorus who will also need to be able to move!”

Sondheim Closes the Gap

In tandem with the rise of the thinking man’s musical, the 1960s and 70s witnessed another phenomenon – the emergence of the rock opera. Those who saw musicals as the preserve of popular music attempted to reconnect with modern youth culture, happy to let the smart alecs head off down the same kind of cul-de-sac into which opera had disappeared. And leading the smart alec charge was Stephen Sondheim.

A protégé of Oscar Hammerstein, a collaborator with Bernstein as lyricist on West Side Story, and a contributor of additional lyrics for one of the endless rewrites of Candide, Sondheim’s Broadway pedigree was impeccable. A man who could spin a lowbrow hit like Comedy Tonight alongside a sophisticated highbrow chanson such as Send In The Clowns, he was – and remains – a man capable of having a foot in both camps.

“One of the things we’re concerned about as opera practitioners is the relation between text and music, it’s our daily bread,” says Richard Mills. “Sondheim has a unique viewpoint as both lyricist and composer. That fusion of text and music with an enormous personality and great individuality, means that his works lend themselves to the medium of opera.”

His 1973 thriller Sweeney Todd typifies Sondheim’s complex musical method. Its epic emotional sweep and through-composed structure means that Victorian Opera is only the next in a growing line of opera companies enthusiastic to take it on. Following Bryn Terfel’s recent London success in the title role, Teddy Tahu Rhodes is the latest bass-baritone to sharpen up the razor. “Sweeney transcends issues of opera and musicals,” he believes. “It’s more about a particular voice and character than whether you’re a musicals or an opera singer.” For Teddy, the bigger worry is audience preconceptions. “If they come expecting to see the film on stage it can add a certain pressure,” he says. “Hopefully, you can create a character they find equally wonderful.”

Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson in Sweeney Todd

Operatic voices in musicals have had a somewhat contentious history since Carreras and Te Kanawa trilled their way through West Side Story, but as a man with two musicals under his belt in recent years, Tahu Rhodes knows a bit about them. “When I first walked into the rehearsal room on a musical I was working with people who were highly skilled in a different genre,” he admits. “I was a beginner again – an apprentice. You have to be prepared to learn, listen and take advice.” A microphone can be a friend, though not one to lean on too heavily. “You’ve got more scope to play with your voice, but the general rule is that you just sing the way you sing and let the experts deal with the sound from their end. If you start modifying your voice or technique then you lose the whole reason why you as a performer were approached to sing it in the first place”.

As his partner in crime Mrs Lovett, Antoinette Halloran might care to know that although her Sweeney has no problem with blood, he appreciates a good old-fashioned cottage pie, “or just a standard meat pie with a dollop of potato and gravy on top.” Yummm…

A Bridge Too Far?

So far so good it would seem – at least as far as Candide and Sweeney are concerned. And in these times of arts funding woes who can blame the opera companies if they cast covetous eyes on the lucrative musicals market? But are such decisions being driven by issues of art or of finance? “In Australia the form isn’t subsidised like it is in Europe,” says Richard Mills. “We depend on our box office far more. It’s part of our reporting to government and reporting to the community, so we have to sell seats to things that people would like to come and see. It’s natural to turn to that repertoire and especially material written in English.”

Lindy Hume thinks the problem runs deeper that that. “I hate definitions but I do observe that when you call something an opera it problematises it. I say that for Bohème as much as Candide as much as Magic Flute. So let’s just say it’s a piece. It’s Candide. We have evidence that if you don’t use the word opera, people are more open to the possibility of seeing it.”

What’s the limit then? Is there a line that an opera company isn’t (or shouldn’t) be prepared to cross? Opera Australia set off down the musicals path a few years ago with South Pacific, a show with a lead role originally written for Ezio Pinza, an opera singer. The King and I followed, and this year it’s Anything Goes – a light, musical comedy and traditionally a hoofers’ show. Next season they are offering Frank Wildhorn’s schlock melodrama Jekyll and Hyde – a piece that frequently crops up on lists of the worst musicals of all time! “There are lots we wouldn’t do,” says Mills. “We wouldn’t trespass on Opera Australia territory. They’re geared up financially to do the more elaborate musicals. Our interest is the chamber musical, and also in commissioning some Australian ones. You’ll need to watch this space in the next few years!”

Sutton Foster in the last Broadway revival of Anything Goes

“I’m not sure I’d do Anything Goes,” admits Hume. “Hand on heart, I just don’t know that an opera company are the best people to do it. Apart from it being a commercial decision, I don’t understand the logic. Maybe I’m really wrong. Lyndon is pretty brilliant. He could be seeing something in the piece that I don’t know is there yet.”

The Way Ahead Seems Clear

So what musical theatre classics do opera companies see as ripe for the picking? What shows would Mills and Hume like to see? “Some ideas look good until you dust them off and read them,” says Mills. “I think that about Oklahoma – it’s a great idea until you read it. I’m quite interested in the Kurt Weill musicals, pieces like Happy End and Lady in the Dark. Or you could take some of the Busby Berkeley films and make a musical out of them.”

Weill’s Street Scene at London’s Young Vic, 2011

Hume on the other hand feels more inclined to focus on developing her current art form. “What worries me about the future of opera is the deficit of ideas,” she complains. “Everything is so fragile when you’re talking about large-scale works – it’s all about costumes, scenery, the production and the marketing. The discourse can get lost. I do love looking at what pieces can say about the human condition. Call me old-fashioned! Meanwhile, contemporary artists like Damon Albarn or Kate Miller-Heidke – even crazy old Rufus Wainwright – are making music theatre that works. And that’s the issue really – whether artists who hit the mark for a younger demographic also have the capacity to sustain a long-form narrative.”

This article began by looking at the divide that opened up over a hundred years ago between ‘elitist’ opera and ‘populist’ musicals. In conclusion, here are some salient thoughts. The last time a musical hit was a pop hit would be Memory from Cats way back in 1981. Pop stars no longer cover show tunes. For good or ill, the musical might just be off up that operatic cul-de-sac after all – no longer the vox populi. Meanwhile, arts leaders seem just as keen for things to develop in one direction as in the other. In which case, musicals might just turn out to be the new opera after all.

Perhaps the last word should go to Teddy Tahu Rhodes – along with the likes of Renée Fleming, one of a host of opera stars happy to straddle the divide. “When I was in school I played one of the small roles in Oklahoma,” he says. “I always wanted to play Curly but I think I’ve missed the boat on that one – I would be a very old Curly and would need a very good wig!” Watch this space…?

Opera Queensland
Brisbane, July 23-August 1

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Victorian Opera
Sweeney Todd
Arts Centre Melbourne, July 16-25

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This article comes from the June 2015 issue of Limelight