On Broadway: Is Opera Edging Broadway in Innovative New Choreography?

Article excerpt

Broadway musicals were breaking box-office records this summer, and theater observers were happily comparing the bonanza to the good old days. With "Sold Out" signs frequently posted at the newbies--The Light in the Piazza, Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and The Putnam County Spelling Bee-and older shows like Avenue Q, Mamma Mia! and Wicked still packing them in, tourists were grabbing tickets to old standbys like Phantom of the Opera.

What did these eight shows have in common, apart from their packed houses? Very little interest in dance. I've described in this space a certain kind of show--Light in the Piazza and Phantom are good examples--more akin to opera than to the kind of dance-driven musical theater pioneered by Jerome Robbins. But just as Broadway can sometimes seem to be aspiring to opera, opera is more and more doing Broadway. These days directors routinely shuttle back and forth between musicals and opera productions. Is it any wonder, then, that choreographers with Broadway experience are also now contributing their talents to opera productions in New York and across the country?

In the '30s, Balanchine very' famously threw up his hands in frustration after a short-lived attempt to co-exist with the Metropolitan Opera. But these days, opera houses eagerly hire the likes of postmodern choreographers Mark Dendy, Doug Varone and Scan Curran. While they're all happy to get a call from a Broadway producer--Dendy is working on the new Boubil-Shonberg musical, The Pirate Queen, for next season--they also agree that choreographing operas makes a lot more sense.

"The marriage of art forms is closer," explained Varone, who has worked at the Met and Opera Colorado. "For me, primarily trained as a dance maker, I have a greater simpatico towards the operatic form. It's easier for me to see the opera structurally as a dance, even if it's not being presented that way. Musical theater has a more stop-and-go structure. If it's a really fine musical, the production numbers will keep the story, moving forward; but for most, you've got to find a way and a reason to invest a really different part of your imagination. When I walk into a room and there are more actors than there are dancers, I know that I need to approach the room in a very different way."

Of course, at the opera, there are usually more singers than dancers. But there's a difference, said Dendy, who choreographed last season's big hit at the Met, the Julie Taymor production of Mozart's Magic Flute. Traditionally, dance sequences were added to operas--by sometimes reluctant composers--to provide stage time for an opera house's resident ballet company. "In musical theater," he said, "you have to make sure to cater the movement for people who tell you, 'We can't sing that note with our heads thrown back. …