IU Opera and the Long History of the Middle Ground Between Opera and Musical Theater ● by Chris Lynch
If you’ve been monitoring the national opera scene, you may have noticed a few curious happenings: this season opera-diva Renée Fleming costarred with Broadway leading-lady Kelli O’Hara in a new production of The Merry Widow at the Metropolitan Opera House, Lyric Opera of Chicago is currently preparing Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel for a production this spring, and next year San Francisco Opera will put on Sweeney Todd. What’s with the opera world’s sudden interest in musicals? As it turns out, it’s only new for these big opera companies, which have historically produced traditional operatic repertoire in a conservative manner. There have always been other institutions and artists that didn’t care about the differences between opera and musical theater or that worked to resolve the discrepancies. IU Opera Theater is one such institution, and their upcoming production of South Pacific, which opens on February 27, invites a reconsideration of the relationship between the two genres.
To many, such “crossing over” is disconcerting. In 2011 New York Times music critic Anthony Tommasini wrote that opera and musical theater “are too close for comfort.” He felt that “both genres seek to combine words and music in dynamic, felicitous and, to invoke that all-purpose term, artistic ways. But in opera, music is the driving force; in musical theater, words come first.” This led Tommasini to conclude that “composers who merge traditions into some mushy middle ground are asking for trouble. Traditions, even those supposedly confining categories, have their value.” A close look at the history of the American musical, however, reveals that Tommasini’s distinction of the genres doesn’t withstand scrutiny. Many shows that originated on Broadway — South Pacific among them — use both music and text as the drivers of the drama in a blend of theatrical conventions that many find gratifying, and that is equally at home in the theater and the opera house.
To begin, even the likes of Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, and Richard Rodgers—the jazziest composers of early musical comedy — sought to employ music as an important dramatic device. In 1925, one of their frequent collaborators, a young librettist named Oscar Hammerstein, went as far as to publicly voice “an extravagant theory that little light opera, a healthy youth all alive and ambitious, can be so developed that he can come in at the back door and give his big brother, grand opera, a stiff battle for artistic honors.” Two years later, he fired the warning shots in that battle when he collaborated with Kern on Show Boat. Show Boat infused the jazz of musical comedy with the kind of dramatic significance typical of opera. For example, when the character Julie La Verne sings the famous song “Can’t Help Lovin’ Dat Man Of Mine,” the bluesy syncopations—musical features associated with black music in 1927 — reveal the light-skinned Julie to be of at least partial African American descent, the discovery of which ultimately leads her and her white husband to flee Mississippi where there were strict anti-miscegenation laws.
In the 1930s composers like Gershwin, Virgil Thomson, Kurt Weill, and Marc Blitzstein continued to write shows for Broadway that used music as an important agent in the drama, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that such musicals began to pay off at the box office. Gershwin had died in 1937, but Weill and a new songwriting team — Rodgers and Hammerstein—vied over who would be recognized as the first to fully harness the dramatic potential of American popular music. Responding to a glowing review of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel in 1945, Weill famously wrote to his on-again-off-again lover, Lotte Lenya, “So Rodgers ‘is defining a new directive for musical comedy.’ I had always thought I’ve been doing that—but I must have been mistaken. Rodgers has certainly won the first round in that race between him and me. But I suppose there will be a second and a third round.”
In truth that first round dated back to the opening of Weill’s first commercial success on Broadway, Lady in the Dark, in 1941. The “musical play,” as Weill labeled it, featured what the composer called “three little one-act operas” in which the psychotherapy sessions of Liza Elliott, the main character, were depicted in extended musical sequences adding up to panoplies of different styles and conventions. Two years later Rodgers and Hammerstein began to use music to similarly paint psychological portraits of their characters. In Oklahoma! (1943) Jud’s villainy is captured in the eerie and unstable “Lonely Room,” and the famous “Soliloquy” in Carousel musically traces Billy’s wandering thoughts, culminating in his revelation that he must do whatever it takes—even steal—to support his child. After Carousel, Weill raised the bar with Street Scene, which he called a “Broadway Opera” because of its nearly through-composed musical score and rich orchestrations that betrayed his German musical training. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s response? South Pacific in 1949.
Experimentation with opera on Broadway was by no means limited to Rodgers and Weill. Gian Carlo Menotti’s double bill of The Telephone and The Medium proved such a success in 1947 that he decided to have his The Consul (1950) and The Saint of Bleecker Street (1954) open in the popular theater as well. Even Frank Loesser, the composer of the musical-comedy classic Guys and Dolls, couldn’t resist the lure of opera, many of the conventions of which he featured in the 1956 Tony Award-nominee The Most Happy Fella. Soon after The Most Happy Fella opened, composer and New York Philharmonic conductor Leonard Bernstein delivered a lecture in his series of Young People’s Concerts in which he inserted himself as the frontrunner in the opera race. Bernstein’s lecture surveyed the “evolution” of the American musical, claiming that it had “moved toward opera” by going beyond diversionary entertainment, engaging “the interest and emotion of the audience,” and using “music to further its plot.” The last point, needless to say, is diametrically opposed to Tommasini’s construction of musical theater. Pronouncing that the Broadway musical was on the cusp of evolving into American opera, he said, “All we need is for our Mozart to come along. And this event can happen any second. It’s almost as though it is our moment in history, as if there is a historical necessity that gives us such a wealth of creative talent at this precise time.” Bernstein wanted his listeners to see him as that American Mozart. His Candide and West Side Story both premiered within a year of the lecture.
This Broadway era came to an end as younger listeners increasingly preferred rock music in the 1960s. Weill died in 1950, Hammerstein in 1960, and Loesser in 1969. Menotti focused his energy on the Festival of the Two Worlds, an annual summer arts festival that he founded in Spoleto, Italy, in 1958, and in the 1960s Bernstein left Broadway behind as he pursued his international conducting career. To be sure, a new generation of Broadway composers continued to explore opera, but these new endeavors were more in the spirit of the rock operas and concept albums that were flying off record store shelves than Rodgers and Hammerstein’s musicals.
Broadway opera faded away in the 1960s, but its impact is still felt today. In fact, IU’s upcoming South Pacific is much more than simply the production of a “Broadway Opera.” It is a production that reflects the values of an institution that was born in the midst of nationwide movement. In 1951, Herbert Graf, a stage director who had worked in the world’s leading opera houses, identified both Broadway and the university as exciting locations of American operatic activity. “Broadway has its own opera,” he wrote. “Not the pretentious grand opera of the European tradition, associated with the Met, but a sort of American folk opera.” Contributing to “the growth of a truly American opera,” he further asserted, “has been the development of music schools throughout the country,” and he singled out IU Opera, which had had its inaugural season in 1948, as among the nation’s leaders in university opera production. IU Opera was certainly not only dedicated to Broadway Opera, but it was linked to it as part of the same movement that fueled the development and expansion of opera in the postwar period. It’s no surprise, then, that IU partnered with Weill for the world premiere of his Down in the Valley in its opening season.
It’s also not surprising that IU Opera continues to turn to works that originated on the Great White Way. According to Vincent Liotta, stage director and producer at IU Opera since 1995, “IU has had a long tradition of doing ‘classic’ Broadway musicals. Over the past 30 years, I myself have done a variety from Of Thee I Sing and The Most Happy Fella to Camelot and She Loves Me, with several more along the way.” As Liotta points out, the production of such musicals at big companies like Lyric Opera of Chicago is a more recent phenomenon, but it has always been part of IU’s identity. “I can assure you we were doing regular musicals long before Lyric, San Francisco, or City Opera tumbled to the fact that musicals are equally a part of musical theater as much as opera.”
South Pacific has always held a special place in the “Broadway Opera” canon. Rodgers and Hammerstein left it to others to compare the musical to opera, but they worked hard to encourage such commentary by casting none other than Ezio Pinza as the leading man Emile de Becque. A bass from the Metropolitan Opera House, at the time Pinza was perhaps most famous for his portrayal of the title character in Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Bernstein was happy to take Rodgers and Hammerstein’s hint, linking South Pacific to opera by praising the “new song style of recitative” in the number “Twin Soliloquys,” which precedes the famous song “Some Enchanted Evening.” To Bernstein it exemplified the use of music—in this case the style of American popular song—as the driving dramatic force, making South Pacific an important step along the way to American opera.
Liotta sees the upcoming production of South Pacific as a way to reach out to audiences that might be leery of going to the opera house. “Opera has gotten a bad rap over the years, so that much of the potential new audience only knows it through parody. By offering works—especially the classic musicals—that require good singing as well as acting talent, I think it encourages people to step into the opera house and have the experience—which is the first step to audience development.”
At the same time, there are many fans of more traditional opera that might decide not to show up to see a musical. “In the realm of opera, there will always be an element that considers anything less than nineteenth-century Romantic opera as a let down. In fact, I have known people to disparage Mozart as not being as rich and exciting as, say, Puccini or Bizet. So I think that if one is going to honor the concept of musical theater as a genre, there needs to be room for every style and every taste. There are those who won’t go to see Wagner or Strauss, but that doesn’t eliminate the need to present these works. The same is true for American musical theater.”
Up until the 1960s, theatergoers were used to straining to hear actors’ lines. But since the advent of amplified sound, audiences have grown accustomed to listening with ease. As Liotta puts it, “In the last fifty years our ability as theatergoers to hear has diminished.” IU’s production of South Pacific, therefore, will use microphones to bring out the text. Liotta explains that microphones are not needed in contemporary opera performance because of an important difference between the genres. “One of the great differences between the American musical and Romantic opera,” he says, “is that the musical relies on the audience understanding the nuance of the text rather than the nuance of the melody. The natural solution is to help that understanding by making the words more audible [through amplification].” The mics will also allow the acting to be more realistic, affording the actors the opportunity to face each other rather than the audience when delivering their lines. “As an audience, we find the convention of delivering lines ‘flat front’ as artificial and tending to diminish the believability of the acting. While this does not necessarily apply to the singing, it still helps to have the sound reinforced so that the text becomes clear,” says Liotta.
The cast will feature a mix of students from the School of Music and the Theater Department, and while Liotta will have to work with students with different backgrounds, his overall approach to the production of the musical is the same as his approach to an opera. “As a mentor of mine once said, whatever kind of theater you are doing the challenges are the same. The difference lies in the way you ‘talk’ to the actors. Singers, of necessity, think differently than actors in prose theater do. As a director, one needs to bring depth and meaning to the production and performance. The techniques for achieving it may be adjusted to meet the needs of the individual actor but the approach as a director stays the same: tell the story in the most interesting way, giving life and depth of reality to the characters involved.”
The way that Liotta will provide that life and depth of reality will be influenced by the venue in which it is performed — the Musical Arts Center — which is much larger than the Broadway theater where the work premiered. “Opera houses, out of necessity, are always larger than theaters. The basic challenge is how to make any work intimate in so large a setting. In the case of a musical in which the chorus is always a much smaller group, this is magnified since one cannot just fill up the stage with people. Similarly, the design challenges also require finding ways of expressing the settings and costumes that do not become ‘caricatures’ or parodies of the true atmosphere, which is much easier to achieve when the theater is smaller and the audience closer to the stage.”
South Pacific concerns military life in World War II’s Pacific theater, taking on racism by telling a story about the clashes and cooperative acts of people of different backgrounds whose lives intersected as a result of forces beyond the control of any single person. Liotta thinks that the relevance of a show about race in the wake of the riots in St. Louis and the demonstrations across the country will help bring the characters to life. “South Pacific took on the controversial topic of racism and prejudice in 1949, and judging from some of what we see today, the topic is no less controversial,” he says. “One of the advantages that we have in this production is that all of the cast members are exactly the age that those military personnel would have been. This should lend an atmosphere that feels natural and appropriate to the historical era. If that happens, the production will take on a life that will bring into sharp focus the basic ideas of Rodgers and Hammerstein about race, tolerance, and the true meaning of American values.”
Is South Pacific a “troubled” work, as Tommasini might say, that inhabits the “mushy middle ground” between opera and musical theater? Audiences will surely disagree about whether or not Rodgers and Hammerstein struck a successful and aesthetically rewarding balance between music and text, and whether or not the opera house is the best place for such productions. As Liotta says, “It is impossible to please all of the people all of the time.” But everyone can be certain that South Pacific comes from a rich tradition in which composers and authors relied on both music and text at various times to drive the drama, and that this tradition emerged as part of a movement that saw the expansion of opera both on Broadway and at academic institutions. Like it or not, IU Opera is an appropriate home for South Pacific.
Liotta is confident that most audience members will agree. “I have always thought that South Pacific is Rodgers and Hammerstein’s greatest work,” he says. “More than any other work of modern musical theater that I know, it shows how the power of music and drama can focus ideas that are important and vital while still providing rewarding entertainment.”