I’ve blogged about this before, I’m sure (I’m too lazy to check right now). But what does make an opera? What makes a musical? I would never call Oklahoma! an opera, and I would never call Turandot a musical. But what about A Little Night Music or Street Scene? Do tell!

One blogger is quite clear that Porgy and Bess is not an opera. Period. Another writer calls Carmina Burana a pop opera.

Years ago I heard a rather snooty sounding man say opera doesn’t use amplification and musical theatre does. (This was back when Luhrmann’s La Boheme was being done, and he was clearly aiming his shots at that.) Others say it has to do with the moving of the story line … something about how the song or aria stops time or causes the story line to progress … something like that, anyway. Some might say it just has to do with the quality of the writing, but of course that gets mighty subjective.

One thing I have noticed is that musical theatre is much more likely to alter instrumentation … somehow instrumentation doesn’t matter to MT folks nearly as much as it does to the opera people. (It matters to me!)

And then there’s “what ruins an opera?” I think the following, which I just read about here, would do it for me:

Five years ago in Berlin, San Diego Opera’s Ian Campbell attended a controversial new version of Puccini’s “Turandot” that had French soprano Sylvie Valayre emerging from the stomach of an enormous teddy bear and the tenor using a giant cell phone to punch in the answers to the opera’s riddles.

Well. Okay then.


I’m not the only one who asks things like this. I just read this:

Is Street Scene a Broadway musical? Or is it an opera? Or is it a synthesis of the two?
“It’s definitely an interesting question when it comes to Weill and his place in the musical world,” Shell said. “As far as the production is concerned, we just stay true to what he intended.”
That varies from scene to scene.
“Weill purposely did things within the first act to hook the people who were interested in opera to come to see a Broadway musical,” Shell said.
“And he gave the Broadway crowd something they could understand and appreciate in the first act.
“It moves more toward real opera in the second act. The second act is much shorter, but it’s much more operatic in construct as well as in the music. He was purposely trying to ease everybody into what he thinks musical drama would ultimately be.”
By “opera,” Shell meant music that “furthers the drama” or music in which “the musical themes take precedence and they start to make comments on the story, as opposed it just being some arbitrary accompaniment of singing.”


  1. I’ve had this conversation so many times in the past few weeks, and I’ve yet to come up with an answer that satisfies anyone. The closest I’ve found was a suggestion that in opera, the conductor is king and everything else must be sacrificed to the importance of the music. In musical theater, the stage director is king, and everything else must be sacrificed to the importance of telling the story.

    I’m not sure if I’m really crazy about that distinction yet, but it’s something I’ve been noodling over. Since I perform in both, I get the question a lot and I really ought to have a good answer!

    But I think we all just have to agree that there are works (Street Scene being a good example) that have feet planted in both worlds and we’re never going to come up with a definition that can cleanly categorize every theatrical endeavor that involves singing and acting.

    I believe Sondheim once said (in reference to Sweeney Todd) “when it’s performed in a theater, it’s musical theater. When it’s performed in an opera house, it’s opera.” I don’t know if he was intending to be flippant or not, or if the anecdote is even true. But sometimes I think the best answer is “I know an opera when I see one. Mostly.”

  2. Heh … I love it, Mike! (That last sentence.) 🙂

    Yeah, I’ve heard that quote from Sondheim too. But I also heard that he insisted what he does is NOT opera. So I dunno what he really thinks!

    It’s a hugely touchy issue with certain people. Especially those that hate one or the other. Since I love both, it doesn’t seem all that important to me most of the time, but then I read someone scolding San Francisco Opera for putting on Porgy and Bess (considered by MANY to be opera, actually), and I start pondering again.

    Btw, I hope you are feeling better now …?? I missed the final show, so I didn’t know you were ill. I’m so sorry! 🙁

  3. Thanks. I’m eating solid food for lunch today (first time since Saturday), so that’s a very positive step. I feel mostly normal.

    I must’ve looked awful backstage on Sunday. Poor Sue Stein kept looking at me like I might die any minute. 🙂 But I survived.

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