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Difference between Opera and Musical Theater

Braniff Forever
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I guess this may be a silly question to some, but I'm wondering, how and why are musicals in Broadway different than an opera you would see performed by the Metropolitan Opera at the Met? Are operas completely sung with no words spoken? Is that the big difference? But modern day musicals seem to be in a different category than an opera. Why? And how? Thanks for educating me! 

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Scoobs2
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I've always thought  that with Opera, the voice comes first and everything else second. And with Musical theatre, voice dance and acting are all interwoven into one. 


But that's a good question. 

Ranger Tom
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I agree with Scoobs.  Opera - emphasis is on voice and orchestra, as well as phenomenal stagecraft.  In fact, dance was banned in several countries in the early days of opera.  Musical Theater combines all aspects of staging.  Line gets really blurred when you start looking at musicals with no/little dialogue (e.g. Sweeney, Joseph...Dreamcoat, JC Superstar, Les Miz, etc).

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HogansHero
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There are, of course, musicals that have been labelled as operas, usually because they are sung through. Usually an opera relies on "classical" music (whether period or contemporary) and usually a musical does not. Usually (as stated above) a musical is more integrated, giving equal or greater emphasis to acting, dancing, etc. And another distinguishing factor is that in opera everything is driven by the music-the action must follow the music and must communicate the story in keeping with the music. In musicals, as an example, a lengthy cross can be accommodated whereas in opera the director is basically stuck with the tempi on the page with relatively minor opportunity for adjustment, and any "business" that is added is constrained by the forward march of the music.

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Wee Thomas2
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and then there are Operettas!

musicaltheatreman2
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I dont know if they are still call it this, but in the 80's and 90's during the British invasion on Broadway musicals such as Evita, Jesus Christ Super star, Joseph, Cats and even Le Miz and Miss Saigon just to name a few  were called "Rock Opera's" because they are fully sung through and were produced on a large grand scale like many operas. 

Stew123
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I think Merrily Roll Along sums it up best.  Give me some melody!

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newintown
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I like Sondheim's differentiation: if it happens in an opera house, it's an opera; if it happens in a theatre, it's musical theatre. (I'm sure everyone can think of objections or exceptions, but as a rule, it makes sense to me).


For instance, I would never call Phantom of the Opera an actual opera; but if an opera company were to try it on, I might make an exception for that production.

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Probably the easiest distinction to make, if you wanted to simplify it, would be that opera puts music first, and musicals put words first. The words in most operas don't really matter - so long as you get the general idea of what's being sung, you'll understand, because the music makes you understand. In musical theater, if you can't get the lyrics, you can't get the song, because musicals expressly tie the epiphany of a monologue to the emotions of a song, and use the familiar song form as a driving rhythm. Obviously, there are overlaps (I can't imagine anyone who doesn't understand English having a very good time at Nixon in China, for example) but I think that's probably the cleanest cut you could make between the two genres.

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newintown
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"The words in most operas don't really matter."


Although that was partly true for a long time, the more recent use of librettos by distinguished and capable writers like JD McClatchy, Craig Lucas, Terrence McNally, etc. have shown that the words are becoming increasingly important in opera.


Lead-footed reviewers like Tony Tommasini have been slow to catch on to this development (or perhaps they just aren't equipped to evaluate text), but it's there all the same.

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Oh, absolutely. I mentioned Nixon in China in particular due to its absolutely phenomenal libretto, which reads like great poetry.

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temms
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For me, an opera is a work of music than incorporates theatre, and a musical is a work of theatre that incorporates music.


(And I absolutely love "Nixon In China" - though I had no idea even after seeing it and listening to it countless times that the libretto was in slant-rhymed couplets of exactly eight syllables:


"(MAO) I can’t talk very well. My throat...
(NIXON) I’m nearly speechless with delight


just to be here. (MAO) We're even then
That is the right way to begin.


Our common old friend Chiang Kai-shek
with all his virtues would not look


Too kindly on all this. We seem
To be beneath the likes of him"


until I read the libretto and my mind was blown. Brilliant piece, even if Act Three gets a little odd.)


 

Updated On: 7/15/15 at 03:53 PM
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Mister Matt
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The style of composition for both music and lyrics are vastly different as well.  For most musicals, the lyrics fell into patterns of rhyme whereas for opera, they may or may not depending on the composer, style or period.  The music for opera is also written for very different vocal ranges by singers who learn a specific technique that is more sharply focused on the intonation and resonance of the music rather than on diction and character.  This is why even operas with English librettos usually have surtitles.  Some operas and musicals blur the lines such as The Tender Land, Porgy and Bess, Candide and Street Scene, but opera really is a different beast in the writing, structure, voices, staging and orchestrations.  There are so few opera performances per week (and throughout the run) because the music and technique are so demanding, you would need multiple casts to perform 8 shows a week (as most recently scene by the Baz Luhrmann production of La Boheme on Broadway in which all three sets of principals received special Tony awards).

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Updated On: 7/15/15 at 04:41 PM
JustBe23
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I certainly agree the music and the voice come first in opera, but I have a few teachers who would flip their **** if they heard it suggested the words don't matter to classical singers. The fact is that great performers are great performers. The basics of objective and physical action and listening and staying present and obeying impulse carry over regardless of the house being played, and to that end practically every great vocal performance school has their kids in regular acting classes. I was an acting major myself during my undergrad before going into vp for my grad studies and that work has helped tremendously.


But as far as real changes, I'd also call back to Sondheim's definition - operas happen in an opera house, musicals happen in a theater. Thus the differences between Porgy & Bess in 2012, both versions of which I adore.

Updated On: 7/15/15 at 05:21 PM
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There are always exceptions to everything and different people have different ways of expressing the differences. Some would simply say that an opera is a piece in which (virtually) everyone sings "operatically." That may seem reductive but it is not; it describes the medium through which the material is delivered (just as one cannot say that they attended an acoustic concert when it featured an electric guitar). I have a director friend who has directed on both sides of the divide and is fond of saying that the difference between opera and musical theatre is that in the former everyone shows up at the first rehearsal off book. 

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"But as far as real changes, I'd also call back to Sondheim's definition - operas happen in an opera house, musicals happen in a theater."


It's a bit like pornography - you know it when you see it.

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Operas are driven by the music


Musical Theater is driven by the libretto

musicaltheatreman2
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"There are so few opera performances per week (and throughout the run) because the music and technique are so demanding, you would need multiple casts to perform 8 shows a week (as most recently scene by the Baz Luhrmann production of La Boheme on Broadway in which all three sets of principals received special Tony awards)"


 


Audra McDonald spoke on this while doing Porgy and Bess when she got sick and took time off and had to cut back to doing 6 performances instead of 8, because the operatic score is so demanding to sing 8 times a week and was taking a toll on her voice. 

brdway411
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I sleep through Opera, not musical theater. 

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Difference between Opera and Musical Theater#20
Posted: 7/15/15 at 10:45pm

"I sleep through Opera, not musical theater. "


I write for both worlds and I've never had performers take more care with text than opera singers! No extra uhs, wells or hmmms. They sing text exactly as it is written; and the best among them are often fine actors.


But most opera singers are taught to sing every language as if it were Italian, which accounts for a lot of the difficulty in understanding operas written in English.


Basically, however, all the comments above are or were true, yet there are many, many exceptions to each.


After sitting through a 3-hour seminar in college in which we debated whether PORGY AND BESS is an opera or a musical, I could only think "What difference does it make how we label it?"

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Difference between Opera and Musical Theater#21
Posted: 7/15/15 at 11:03pm

I go to both, and I've seen some of the most theatrically effective productions in opera houses and heard some of the most beautiful music in theaters.


It's all about storytelling with music--that's the constant. 


A woman in an emotional situation standing alone, center stage...whether she's singing an aria or belting out a showstopper--it doesn't matter. My heart races either way, and my skin gets hot, my stomach tightens, and my eyes well up. I listen, intently, concentrating as I never do in any other activity in my life, hearing her words as if they were mine, thinking her thoughts as she is thinking them, feeling her feelings, her pain, her anger, her her joy, her exhilaration.


And when she's done, my hands clap, sometimes without my even knowing it, and sometimes I spontaneously yell out loud.

Updated On: 7/15/15 at 11:03 PM
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Difference between Opera and Musical Theater#22
Posted: 7/15/15 at 11:28pm

One is an aria. One is a showstopper. Both have the same spine-tingling thrill.


First, a woman sings that if she lived for art, she lived for love, and she never hurt a soul, why has God abandoned her?



 


Next, a woman sings that if she lived for her children, sacrificed everything for her children, and never thought about anything but her children, why have her children abandoned her?



 

Updated On: 7/15/15 at 11:28 PM
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More than anything, I think what best separates an opera from a musical is the era in which it premiered, the language in which it was written, and the place it debuted.


Turandot premiered at La Scala in 1926, and was sung in Italian. It was one of the last entries in the canonical repertoire of most opera houses.


Show Boat premiered on Broadway in 1927, and was in English. It was one of the first great musicals.


Of course, there have been many great operas written since 1926 and there were musical comedies and revues that debuted long before 1927. But I don't recall many operas that were written in English and debuted in a Broadway house. And I don't know of many musicals that weren't in English and didn't debut in either New York or London.


So to tweak Sondheim's definition, I think if it's new, it's in English, and it's on Broadway or in the West End, it's probably a musical. If it's a century old, is in another language, and is from Milan, Paris, Vienna, etc., it's probably an opera.


Operas have been adapted to Broadway (i.e. Aida, or Porgy and Bess) and opera houses have performed musicals (i.e. Sweeney Todd, or The Most Happy Fella).  But they're the exceptions to the rule.

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Updated On: 7/16/15 at 01:38 AM
mike_ant
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I loved both operas and musicals, and I travel far and away places to see both. One key distinction that hasn't been mentioned before is that in opera houses, the singers are singing unamplified, therefore they have to project their voice so they can be heard all the way to the back and the top of opera house. I believe this is what is often being referred to as "opera voices", and also the reason why the opera singers can't do 8 shows a week. For musicals, the singers are mostly amplified (or miked), so they don't have to project as far, and they can somehow "save" their voices for 8 shows a week. Of course, there are many examples of singers that can do both, Paulo Szot, for example. And there are many exception to that as well (for example, a singer that the voice is way too small for an opera house that he/she has to be (discretely) miked Difference between Opera and Musical Theater )

Updated On: 7/16/15 at 03:33 AM
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Difference between Opera and Musical Theater#25
Posted: 7/16/15 at 10:27am

mike_ant, my problem with that distinction is that the advent of the musical antedates the invention of the amplification technology you are tying it to.