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Opera vs. Musical Theatre - Frederica von Stade

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Hest882
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Some months ago I watched the interview of James Anest, opera singer turned musical theatre guy and it was interesting to hear his take on the differences between opera and musical theatre.

Unbeknownst to me, opera singer Frederica von Stade, whom I think of as the most delightful and animated of opera stars, started out in the opposite direction - wanting to be in musical theatre then ending up in the opera. In an interview with San Francisco Magazine she briefly talks about that, and providers a different take on the differences--no doubt in large part stemming from the feelings of someone whose first love was musical theatre.


Now I understand more about your recordings as Magnolia in Show Boat and Maria in The Sound of Music, and the album of Rodgers and Hart tunes. How does singing “My Funny Valentine” or “My Favorite Things” differ from singing an aria?
You know, Julie Andrews—that’s an operatic voice. Audra McDonald’s is an oper­atic voice. We opera singers don’t know how to belt, really, the way Broadway singers do.

Then what, exactly, makes opera opera?
It’s partly the extremes: the high notes, the low notes, the long, long, long, long phrases. And no opera singer has to do eight shows a week. I mean, they are singing a show that might be four hours long.

Diva for a day - Interview with Frederica von Stade
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The Distinctive Baritone
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Interesting. Although it's all the same thing, if you really want to differentiate between the different forms of, well, the telling of a story through song in a live performance, you basically have:

Opera: Completely sung through (with perhaps a few spoken lines), classical style music/singing

Operetta: Classical style music/singing that is "lighter" in nature, mostly sung through but there are extended dialogue scenes

Musical Theatre: The lightest style of music/singing, can be light classical music/singing or pop or anything in between, may be completely sung through or have long dialogue scenes.

The lines can very blurry, especially between musical theatre and operetta. There are many musicals that have been done on Broadway that really are operettas (i.e. Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, The Most Happy Fella), and you also have things like "chamber musicals" (i.e. Adding Machine) and "poperas" (i.e. Les Mis) that further complicate the distinctions. Really though, it's mostly about music style, and how much focus is on the music. Operas are really pieces of music with a little dash of story and theatricality, while musicals are essentially plays that just happen to be using songs to tell the story. Hence how operagoers will often say that they are going to "hear an opera" and theatregoers say that they are going to "see a play" or "see a musical." And in opera it's "the role of such and such is SUNG by so and so," and in musical theatre it's "the role of such and such is PLAYED by so and so." And operettas...well, they're just the half-way point on the opera-musical spectrum. They're hybrids.

Or if you just want to simplify everything, you can take the approach Sondheim does. When asked whether Sweeney Todd is an opera or a musical, he said simply. "Well, I guess if it's performed in an opera house it's an opera, and if it's performed in a regular theatre it's a musical."
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dayao
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Thanks Hest882 for the link to the Von Stade interview. She and James Anest are two of my favorite singers in both opera and musical theater.

I think the differences between opera and Musical Theater are more important here in the US than in other countries, especially Europe where “West Side Story”, “A Little Night Music” and many operettas are regularly produced and performed in opera houses.

However, as Von Stade said in her very informative interview, the demands are very different for opera singers as opera is still performed acoustically and singers like Von Stade and James Anest are trained for and expected to vocally soar above a 100 piece orchestra with no microphones. I have heard both of these singers and many other opera singers do this in performance. But they don’t do it 8 times a week.

I found it interesting that in baritone James Anest’s Youtube interview, he says that the use of body mikes has circumvented the need for today’s musical theater singers to project and make use of their full vocal capabilities, or in many cases pop celebrities with little or no vocal training are regularly being employed on the musical stage. It is gratifying that von Stade and Anest discuss and are aware that the vocal styles for opera and musical theater are very different. There is nothing written for the musical stage that would challenge the vocal capabilities of any opera singer but many opera singers are not up to the unique stylistic challenge and often sing musical theatre like opera which can sound ridiculous. And as Anest said, most of today’s Broadway singers today don’t sing opera because “they can’t.” He goes on to say that “opera is still the Olympics of singing” but at the same time acknowledges that musical theater brings with it a unique set of challenges that singers who have the vocal capabilities to sing in both genres have to address in order to successfully make the transition. From what I have heard from James Anest and Frederica Von Stade in performance, both have succeeded admirably and are among the finest singers we have today in both opera and musical theater.
"I long-ago realized that this country is a nation of morons, when it comes to knowledge of anything outside, or beyond, pop culture." Steve Slezak
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Hest882
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I think the differences between opera and Musical Theater are more important here in the US than in other countries, especially Europe where “West Side Story”, “A Little Night Music” and many operettas are regularly produced and performed in opera houses.

That is a very interesting point. In a country where musical theatrical performances of all sorts are so much less accepted as an essential part of popular culture, the tendency to strictly delineate between categories--and thus what audience is the target for each--becomes greater, especially for those trying to market said performances. Wouldn't it be nice if we as a country cared less about what things were "called" and more about incorporated all such experiences into our lives?
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I agree that often it is more about where it's performed than anything else. That said... Listen to a work like Bernstein's Trouble in Tahitti or A Quiet Place next to his musical theatre work or even Candide. They're written differently and Tahitti, which has many songs that are very musical theatre is *sung* VERY differently than is West Side Story.
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I've loved working with Frica!

She is SO down to earth and sweet.
"TheatreDiva90016 - another good reason to frequent these boards less."<<>> “I hesitate to give this line of discussion the validation it so desperately craves by perpetuating it, but the light from logic is getting further and further away with your every successive post.” <<>> -whatever2
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You make a good point about the different singing style required for certain works. Candide is really an operetta and Bernstein wrote it for singers with operatic voices and West Side Story's Tony and Maria are also written for operatic quality singers but the vocal style is much more contemporary. On her famous 1980's recording of "Show Boat", Frederica von Stade sings in a much more natural style than she would in opera even though Magnolia is as vocally challenging as any role in opera. James Anest puts his super powerful operatic voice to superb use as Gaston in "Beauty in the Beast" but as the Youtube video shows, he adapts this unbelievable power to Musical Theater nicely and comes across as one of the best singers in the Musical Theater genre as well in the kind of roles written for a singer of his caliber, which unfortunately, are few and far between on today's musical stage. But in Opera, Anest's voice is simply astonishing.
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BRAVO!!!! I second what everyone has said so far!!! I am a performer and voice teacher and I teach jazzers, musical theater singers, and classical singers. I teach ALL of them the same breathing technique, I teach ALL of them the low larynx and I teach ALL of them how to sing into the resonance. In my opinion vocal technique 101 is the same regardless of what genre you live in.

I have a student, a soprano, who I'm encouraging to follow the legit Audra McDonald/Lisa Vroman route. I really think she could be very, very successful because singers who can handle the legit musical theater rep are becoming few and far between. The problem these days is that young actresses are coming out of drama school prepared to sing with the poppy, mixy, Elphaba belt but they can't go up for Laurie or Julie or Rosabella or Guenevere because they don't have the chops for the semi-classical legit singing. If we don't change the way we train our singers we won't be able to produce the classics which DESERVE to be seen.

The main differences between Broadway and opera are mostly stylistic. The other difference has more to do with the space on the vocal tract and how you form your vowels. It's all very simple but most people overcomplicate it. If you understand the differences then it's much easier to transition between the two thus making yourself an extremely versatile and marketable performer.
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Opera isn't completely sung through all of the time. Carmen, The Magic Flute, etc. have spoken recit. That's what makes the lines so blurry.

I would say that it's the style of singing, namely vowels. Opera singers are encouraged to shape vowels to facilitate resonance. Also, they are encouraged to sing honest vowels. I've talked a lot about the musical theatre way of singing "too," which drives me nuts because I've learned the classical way of singing "ooh" vowels. But the MT way of singing vowels facilitates belting, I've also found.

I also like to say that in opera, the music really does a lot of the acting for you. I mean, not that you don't have to act, but you don't have to shout or speak any lines to get the point across.

Not to mention that with opera, the music is just plain heavier. There are really very few MT roles for a legit dramatic bass, for instance. And because of the whole "no mic" and orchestration thing, opera singers have to stay in a rather rigid system because there are only so many roles that they can sing. In MT, you get sopranos performing mezzo roles and vice versa, etc.--that's not as common in opera.

I, frankly, can tell the difference between a trained legit soprano and what I call a "MT soprano." It's kind of a sad trend to me.
Jimmy, what are you doing here in the middle of the night? It's almost 9 PM!
bwaylvsong
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I also agree with what's been said. I'll add, though, that it's much easier for guys to do crossover work than it is for girls, since the sound used is basically the same- it just depends on your vowels, tone, vibrato, etc. I personally plan on making my career as a musical theatre performer, opera singer, and general singer, and general actor, since I love all of those media and would have a better chance of getting work if I have more options to audition for.
bwaylvsong
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I also agree with what's been said. I'll add, though, that it's much easier for guys to do crossover work than it is for girls, since the sound used is basically the same- it just depends on your vowels, tone, vibrato, etc. I personally plan on making my career as a musical theatre performer, opera singer, and general singer, and general actor, since I love all of those media and would have a better chance of getting work if I have more options to audition for.
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I actually saw Von Stade as Desiree in a rather misguided production of A Little Night Music. I think she's very sweet, but...well...she should stick to opera. If you listen to her bits of dialogue in the 1988 EMI studio recording of Anything Goes, it gives you a pretty clear picture of what to expect. The recording itself is actually quite good and a must for those interested in listening to the score in its original form (I love the song Where Are the Men). But her recording of The Sound of Music is absolutely my favorite recording of that score.
"What can you expect from a bunch of seitan worshippers?" - Reginald Tresilian
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nobodyhome
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I heard Thomas Allen was very good in that production of Night Music, but Von Stade wasn't so great. She acts well as opera singers go, but give her dialogue to speak and her limitations become clear. But that's OK. You wouldn't want to hear Glynis Johns sing Cherubino or Melisande. (That's for sure.)

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It's also easier for lighter sopranos, such as lyric coloraturas, to cross over. Compare Sumi Jo's MT stuff to Renee Fleming's.
Jimmy, what are you doing here in the middle of the night? It's almost 9 PM!
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"You wouldn't want to hear Glynis Johns sing Cherubino or Melisande. (That's for sure.)"

I just heard a mental audio of Glynis singing Voi Che Sapete. It wasn't pretty...
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come on guys! for once, don't be nasty. I doubt anyone chatting here has had the kind of career Glynis Johns or Fredericka Von Stade has had. I saw Ms. Von Stade in a recital last year and the whole second half was musical theater. it was all STUNNINGLY performed and made a wonderful case for us "classically trained singer" to sing musical theater. Of course, the students at the University where I teach turned their nose up at it. No matter how hard you try it's very hard to get rid of the opera vs. musical theater stigma.
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Appreciating Glynis Johns and Fredrica von Stade for what they do extremely well is not being nasty. I'm quite sure Glynis Johns would not be upset to read that none of us wants to hear her sing "Voi che sapete" or "Non so piu." Those of us who saw her as Desiree still measure all other Desirees against her. She's the standard. And in so many movies, she's been indelible.

And though Von Stade might not be thrilled to read that a couple of us think she hasn't been great in her musical theatre roles, at least when she's had to perform dialogue, no one's been nasty. She's great in what she does well, and that encompasses a lot of roles in opera and a lot of art song. Her Rodgers and Hart CD is very good. I appreciate all that. I think we all do.

No performer can do everything well.