The Line Continues to Blur between Opera and Theater
Byline: Bill Gowen
When Mozart composed his operas "The Marriage of Figaro" and "Don Giovanni" in the late 18th century, they were the Broadway musicals of their day.
So when Lyric Opera of Chicago this season mounted a new production of Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," there's really nothing to get excited about. The dividing line between grand opera and musical theater has grown less and less visible over the years, and why not?
Of course, there are the longtime opera fanatics who don't believe "Sweeney Todd" belongs alongside "La traviata," "Pagliacci," "Parsifal," "The Magic Flute" and the like.
But the infusion of other forms of theater into the opera world is not going away. Opera is enjoying a peak of popularity, particularly in the United States, because it is a total theatrical experience, helped along by several factors:
- The use of projected titles, which since their introduction in the early 1980s have made the operatic experience less intimidating, particularly to newcomers.
- The release of complete operas on DVD, an ideal home medium because of state-of-the-art sound and availability of subtitles in several languages. Most complete operas (except Richard Wagner's 4- hour epics) will fit onto a single DVD. This is a huge advantage over videotaped operas with their inferior picture and sound.
For example, two complete Wagner "Ring" cycles are now available in boxed sets containing seven DVDs - the Bayreuth Festival's 1976 centennial production conducted by Pierre Boulez and the more recent Metropolitan Opera production under James Levine.
- A new generation of incredibly talented, American-born and trained singers, who grew up with popular music and jazz, are not hesitant to perform in many different genres of music.
Soprano Renee Fleming and baritone Thomas Hampson, currently starring in the Lyric's new production of Jules Massenet's "Thais," are big fans of so-called "crossover" repertoire, each having made several nonoperatic recordings. In fact, Fleming, whose latest CD is titled "Bel Canto" (Decca No. 467101) featuring 19th-century operatic arias of Bellini, Donizetti and Rossini, has a jazz album about to be released.
- In addition to the Lyric, opera companies in America and overseas are embracing new works as well as pieces originating on the Broadway stage. Lyric Opera has done Leonard Bernstein's "Candide" in addition to "Sweeney Todd," while Bernstein's "West Side Story" has been seen in opera houses all over Europe.
"We feel 'Sweeney Todd' is very appropriate," said Lyric Opera General Director William Mason last fall, just before the 2002-03 season. "First, Stephen Sondheim is one of the leading figures in American music and we felt he should be represented in our ongoing series of American operas. Second, (bass-baritone) Bryn Terfel is one of the world's great artists and he was very interested in doing it.
"Like anything, there are certain traditionalists who will ask us why we're doing 'Sweeney Todd,' but my answer is that we feel it certainly has a place in today's opera house," Mason said. …