Cinderella Meets Cendrillon: Music Theater and Opera Living under the Same Roof

By McQuade, Mark; McQuade, Jennifer et al. | Journal of Singing, November/December 2018 | Go to article overview

Cinderella Meets Cendrillon: Music Theater and Opera Living under the Same Roof


McQuade, Mark, McQuade, Jennifer, Henderson, Allen, Sisco, David, Journal of Singing


For nearly half a century the genres of music theater and opera ostensibly have lived in two separate worlds, playing to very different audiences. In the United States, music theater has tended to have more mainstream and popular appeal, where opera has tended to find favor with a much narrower and seemingly isolated section of the population. However, in the modern world of staged music dramas, there is a growing trend for opera companies to include Broadway musicals in their production seasons. This confluence of opera and music theater may indeed signal the start of a new era in and for opera companies in the U.S. and abroad.

In a New York Times article from March 26,2014, journalist David Belcher wrote,

As opera houses search for new works and new audiences-and, ultimately, new sources of income and guaranteed ticket sales-musicals may be a salvation and, most likely, a staple of future repertoires. Musicals are drawing in audiences who have never attended a traditional opera-50 percent of the audience at the 2013 [Chicago] Lyric Opera production of Oklahoma! were seeing their first production at the opera house ...'

For Lyric Opera of Chicago, one of the premier opera companies in the United States, tackling five major pieces of the music theater repertoire {Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music, Carousel, The King and I, and South Pacific) was a seemingly huge philosophic shift. It also raised many questions, such as: What were the motivating factors for this change? Were they artistic, social, financial, or something else? How will this change be received by regular opera goers? What does this mean for the artistic staffboth on stage and behind the scenes? What does this mean for young artists who are interested in a performance career? What does this mean for teachers who have the opportunity to prepare students to enter the world of a performance career? This research provides answers and opens discussion for many of these questions.

It is not just large companies like Lyric Opera of Chicago and San Francisco Opera that are bringing in music theater. Opera companies of all sizes are seeing the cross-pollination of these two genres. One clear example of the impact that music theater can have on the bottom line comes from the Western Plains Opera Company (WPO), a small regional opera company that has been producing professional opera in Minot, North Dakota for nearly 50 years. Since its inception, the company has annually mounted one opera that played to audiences averaging 200-250 patrons for each of the two performances. During the 2015-16 season, Mark McQuade was brought in as the new WPO General Director to help secure the company's long-term viability by starting an endowment, building public interest, and expanding the company's offerings (both performing and educational). If the company was going to grow and thrive, it needed to drastically expand its audience and support base. One of the quickest ways to do this was to diversify the staged offerings to include Broadway musicals and make opera productions relevant and relatable to the audience. There was already strong support throughout the community for other organizations that produced music theater on a much smaller and nonprofessional scale. So, by offering a high quality product and tapping into the interest that was already there, it could easily provide WPO with a bump in audience numbers and financial support.

During the 2015-16 season, Western Plains Opera expanded its season from one to two productions. It started with a modern staging of Mozart's Die Zauberflöte. The audience numbers were about the same (a 250 average), but because of its updated concept, sets, and costumes, the production created a great deal of buzz within the community and piqued interest for the company's second production of the season, Andrew Lloyd Webber's biblical classic, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. For this musical, WPO extended its performance run to four (two more than were given for the opera). …

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