Thursday, October 1, 2015

Opera Thursday: The musical that belongs in the opera house

A trend over the past few years has brought increasing numbers of musicals to the opera house.  I'm not talking about a road show performance or anything like that; after all, plenty of non-operatic entertainers perform in opera houses.  What I'm talking about is the inclusion in the regular opera season of musicals that in no way fall under the general category of "opera": Show Boat, Passions, The King and I, and other Broadway standards are among the works that have seen significant stage time at various world opera houses.  “The vast majority of musicals are not appropriate to opera companies, but there are a small number of titles that are enhanced by the skill and scale of an opera house,” said Anthony Freud, general director of Lyric Opera of Chicago. “I see it as an inherent part of our output. I don’t see doing ‘The Sound of Music’ with any less professionalism than in doing ‘La Traviata.”’  The Lyric is one of the major promoters of this trend, staging Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Carousel, The King and I and South Pacific over a five-season period, but lest you think this a strictly American move, European companies are doing it as well: the Volksoper in Vienna has added Guys & Dolls and Kiss Me, Kate, while musicals such as Miss Saigon and Sunday in the Park with George have featured at other European houses.

In the interview with the late Jon Vickers to which I linked a couple of weeks ago, he mentioned how one of the main differences between opera and musical comedy is that "entertainment, for the most part, deals with the superficialities of life, and works usually become extremely dated because they relate to a certain society and a certain framework that has developed in a certain society."  Musical comedy, in Vickers' opinion, qualifies as "entertainment," and "If opera degenerates into entertainment, I would far sooner go and watch a good production of My Fair Lady or Brigadoon because I think it's much better entertainment than opera is."  In other words, you have to be very careful mixing the two genres, and Vickers felt that a true American opera would never develop out of the Broadway musical.

This is all appropriate, because in today's AV Club there's an example of the one musical that I think might be the exception to the rule, the piece that I'd have no trouble staging in the opera houseThe Umbrellas of Cherbourg, written by Michel Legrand and brought to the cinema by Jacques Denny.  I'll let you read A.A. Dowd's article to get the full flavor of Umbrellas, but two things have always stood out in my mind as justifications for staging this as an opera: its true-to-life subject matter recalls the verismo school of opera, and there is no spoken dialog - everything is sung as "a series of recitative song conversations."  To my mind, that alone puts it far ahead of the My Fair Ladys and Guys & Dolls's of the world.*

*You're probably wondering where that leaves something like singspiel; well, to tell you the truth, I think both The Merry Widow and Die Zauberflöte would profit from having their significant amounts of dialog converted to recitative.  As for Carmen, I've always preferred the version in which recitative replaced spoken dialog.  But then, that's just me.

I have seen The Umbrellas of Cherbourg included in the occasional opera season, but not often enough.  You've heard me complain frequently about the habit of commissioning new operas (many of which are never heard from again after their initial productions) when there are plenty of underperformed ones lying around; the same goes here.  If you've got The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, why bother with The Sound of Music?  This is not to criticize the great musicals which the American theater has given us, merely to point out there's a place for everything, and the opera stage is not the place for most of them.  No, the bigger question is this: am I making an exception for The Umbrellas of Cherbourg, or is that where it belonged all along?

You may not think you recognize any of it's music, but I'll bet you do: here's the justifiably famous theme, "I Will Wait for You."

1 comment:

  1. Lovely film. Magical, even - though I do wish they would have found someone better to dub Deneuve - Francoise Hardy, perhaps. I agree this would really be a treat to see on the stage. Can't say the same about Demy's "The Young Girls of Rochefort," however.


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