As I was saying

Don Aitkin, former V-C of Canberra University, also went to Opera Australia’s (or the Lincoln Center’s) production of  South Pacific recently.

As he said in his blog, riffing off the elsewhere-reported comment of a woman patron that “Surely this isn’t opera!”:

I too was a bit puzzled at the Australian Opera’s staging this Lincoln Center production. Did it need some quick coin? Is it trying to attract a new audience? Either would be an acceptable response, because the first rule of opera companies is ‘Survive!’

He judged the show “a great night out.”

And from the moment we emerged, cheerful, humming, holding hands, like so many other opera-going pairs, I’ve been thinking about where ‘opera’ starts and finishes.

What differentiated opera from other musical forms, and did the distinction matter? Professor Aitkin rather thought not. After all, Mozart originally wrote the part of Papageno in The Magic Flute for an actor who could sing a bit, and Rossini’s Barber of Seville and La Cenerentola are light-hearted pieces with little pretence to profundity.

Does anything in particular distinguish them from the best of what appears on Broadway? I can’t think of what it might be. What distinguishes them from the best of Gilbert and Sullivan? What, if anything distinguishes the best of G&S from Jacques Offenbach? Where does The Phantom of the Opera sit? And so on. I think these distinctions are artificial.

“All in all,” he concluded, “I don’t think there is much difference in the works themselves.”

This perturbed me. I have commented there but I will reproduce that comment here, which answers a bit more of the argument of the post but tries to address specifically this question of whether there is any difference between opera and musical theatre. Italics Aitkin; Roman, me.

Rossini’s La Cenenterola, the story of Cinderella, was another immensely popular fairy-story opera. Rossini’s Barber of Seville isn’t a fairy-story opera, but is a comic opera of the highest quality. Does anything in particular distinguish them from the best of what appears on Broadway? I can’t think of what it might be.

I can. La C and B of S require a classical orchestra and singers capable of the singing. Cinderella, moreover, is an archetypal fairy-tale plot. Do not underestimate the music of Rossini – he is a standout composer in this style. In Berlioz’s Les soirées de l’orchestre, set in the 1840s opera pit and ostensibly made up of conversations between the orchestral musicians (only the bass drum player never relaxes into conversation, which is an early equivalent of a viola joke), performances of Rossini pass without any conversation, because of the quality of the work.

The best of what appears on broadway is a commercial venture designed for long runs, aimed generally quite determinedly towards the middle brow (not simply in terms of plot but also the music) for that purpose; nowadays performed by actors/singers/dancers with microphones. It only requires a small orchestra. There is less music than in an opera because of the spoken parts. It does not need the resources of an opera company to put it on: witness that “South Pacific” is being mounted elsewhere than in Sydney by the Gordon Frost organisation.

What distinguishes them from the best of Gilbert and Sullivan?

In Gilbert & Sullivan, the vocal parts are relatively undemanding and the orchestration undemanding; they are not through composed and there is a lot of pretty dated dialogue; the music is tuneful but simple.

What, if anything distinguishes the best of G&S from Jacques Offenbach?

Assume you are not talking about “Tales of Hoffman” which is obviously different. Put broadly: the English Channel and about 20 years; inferior music (that is: even the best of G&S is inferior to Offenbach) and higher vocal accomplishment (in the Offenbach). Otherwise, perhaps not so much as in general the objects of Offenbachian satire are as obscure today as those of WS Gilbert’s, though generally we get less dialogue in Offenbach here.

Where does The Phantom of the Opera sit?

Nine miles from Gundagai. Or rather, on the coat-tails of Opera and on the way to the bank for Lloyd-Webber as copyright owner but obviously part of musical theatre. Actually, I don’t know why you ask that question at all.

I think these distinctions are artificial.

I disagree. They are distinctions principally about the resources which are necessary for a company to perform them. An opera company needs classically trained singers, soloists and chorus, able to sing without microphones. The fact that one singer in Magic Flute need not be (if he is in so small a theatre as that where Mozart initially conducted the work) does not detract from this. Unless they have multiple casts of soloists, they need to do their works in repertoire because the soloists cannot repeat the work every night. That of course is what makes things expensive as then sets need to be struck. The existence of a company helps sustain the art form because of the continuity of work and hence opportunity to develop levels of attainment that this entails.

Musical theatre/comedy does not require these things. Musicals are not something that only an opera company can put on and indeed opera companies are not necessarily suited to putting musicals on: as with SP, they probably need to hire a different chorus for a start because of the singing and dancing requirements and will generally not be able to draw on their regular roster of principals. which leaves them with the fixed cost of their chorus to deal with when the musical is running – perhaps OA was hoping to slot in 2013’s Brisbane run during SP‘s 2013 return period because the chorus would hardly need all that time to get ready for Götterdämmerung.

Whilst there are some silly operas and some straight-out funny operas (as you have mentioned – though Magic Flute is an exception in the repertoire which probably wouldn’t be there but for Mozart’s music, even such of it which was not cut from the latest OA production-lite), when they get dramatic they dig a very great deal more deeply than you can possibly say South Pacific does. SP is a great night’s entertainment (from which I too emerged in a glowingly good mood) for which you have to make a thousand excuses once you start to think about it. It really is hardly dramatic at all beyond some spectacle and comedy and its tunefulness. Those excuses or exonerations which are offered (oh, it’s so sound about racism for 1949) are pretty lame really.

I realise that’s getting towards a high-culture/middlebrow culture argument, which a comment here is hardly the place to embark upon. That’s why I’ve tried to concentrate on just the logistic and more straightforward aesthetic distinctions.

So I can’t join your enthusiasm in welcoming the prospect of annual two-month seasons of “musical comedy” by Opera Australia into the indefinite future. Maybe it has to be done (though I’d even prefer more wall-to-wall Puccini if that is what it takes or if that were possible on top of what we get already) but it’s a big pity that things must be so, if that is in fact the case.

-This last paragraph was a response to Professor Aitkin’s own final paragraph which was as follows:

So, let us look forward to the Australian Opera’s staging more revivals of the great musical comedies. It has put on, and very successfully too, some great G&S. If it makes a decent profit, even better! The 2012 South Pacific season comes to an end in a few days, but there will be two solid months of it in September and October next year — nothing else will be on offer.

The last sentence suggests the enthusiasm I attribute to him might more accurately be described as “modified rapture.” (That’s a G&S allusion, in case you missed that.)

4 Responses to “As I was saying”

  1. Don Aitkin Says:

    As I said on my website, I appreciate such a long and thoughtful response, and see no great point in making a detailed response, since we would be arguing mostly about taste. I agree with your point about the difficulty of some opera and the need to train for a long time to be excellent in performing some arias. But of course this isn’t true of all operas. Is it true of all of any opera?

    I don’t think I was looking forward to ‘the prospect of annual two-month seasons of “musical comedy” by Opera Australia — only that two months of it next year suggested to me that OA thought it was on to a good thing. We travelled from Canberra to seven operas this year, but plainly we wouldn’t be coming during that period next year.

    • marcellous Says:

      Don, for some reason I couldn’t read anything beyond the incipit of your response on your own website. It didn’t go in effect beyond the second comma in your comment above.

      As for:

      But of course this isn’t true of all operas. Is it true of all of any opera?

      I don’t think that is a very helpful pair of questions. The latter, in particular, sounds like the sort of question you might have asked when presiding under some cut-back or another in your administrative career. It is akin to the classic treasury approach within government which simply asks: can’t we defer that expenditure this year?

      OK, there is a part of an opera which is easy or can be performed by an ingenue: say, the triangle at bar xx (but remember Berlioz’s dig at the bass-drummer’s diligence), or, say, the shepherd boy in the last Act of Tosca. The latter example of course begs the question of the orchestra, the sets, etc, – and are we to have operas made up of excerpts of the easy bits? One point of opera is the combination of all the elements, and in a narrative form the combination of all parts of the narrative, so I don’t think it is useful to try to reverse-cherry-pick the least-demanding parts of operas even for argumentative purposes.

      As to the former question, I think you underestimate the extent to which it is true of all operas which have earned a place in the repertoire (especially in the not-very-obscure Opera Australia repertoire), and especially when you consider the standard of performance (some circularity here, I admit) that people demand/desire for the price they are asked to pay. The slopes of Parnassus are steep.

      As to arguments about taste, I know I have exposed myself to that with the (tangential to the issue in hand) comments I have made about G&S versus Offenbach, but apart from that I think my arguments are about genre rather than taste.

  2. Victor Says:

    The bottom line is a lot of people enjoyed the production and I imagine OA was looking to that (financial?) bottom line.

  3. marcellous Says:

    Victor, I enjoyed it, too.

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