OpEd: What makes opera “Opera?”


By Eric Sweeney

I’m plagued by a question. I lie awake at night unable to sleep as I debate (sometimes very passionately and loudly) in my head. What makes opera, “Opera?” Or rather, What makes Opera different and distinct from Musical Theater? As soon as I come up with a solution, I immediately find an exception.

  1. Opera is sung-through. Then how do you explain THE MERRY WIDOW at the Met with spoken dialogue (Ok, this is technically an “operetta”), THE MAGIC FLUTE (ok, this might be called a “singspiel” or “zauberoper”), or Britten’s A MIDSUMMER NIGHT’S DREAM (Puck only speaks)? What do we make of LES MISERABLES? THE LAST FIVE YEARS? CATS? AMERICAN IDIOT? RENT?
  2. Opera requires Bel-Canto technique and has extended vocal ranges. This is trickier. Currently most of today’s Broadway Musicals are written in a pop idiom, but there are still shows that require “legit” voices (aka classically trained). BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY is an excellent example. Also, A GENTLEMAN’S GUIDE TO LOVE AND MURDER, LIGHT IN THE PIAZZA, MARY POPPINS, and anything Sondheim.
  3. Operas are long. Yes, some operas are VERY long, but some are short one-acts: BLUEBEARD’S CASTLE and IOLANTA (both at the Met this Season), GIANNI SCHICCHI, ELEKTRA, and more.
  4. Opera is grande and requires at least 30 choristers and an orchestra of 60. Yes, some operas are huge and require a large battery of performing forces, but Mozart operas, for example, don’t require this and chamber operas require only a few singers and instrumentalists.

Then what is it!? What fundamental components make Opera what it is and how is this different than Musical Theater?

As I continue my search for and discovery of new opera, this question has become more and more difficult to answer. I attended several different performances at the PROTOTYPE Festival this January where the boundary between opera and musical theater was increasingly blurred. Then, I saw Kelli O’hara not only hold her own in THE MERRY WIDOW at the Met, but shine like an operatic diva.

I’m not the first to ponder this question. It seems to haunt the musical world as a recurring riddle. I’m sure Mozart and his contemporaries would argue whether a work was an opera giocoso or an opera buffa.

So I began my search like any good academic: looking up the term “opera” in the dictionary.

Op.era noun

1: a drama set to music and made up of vocal pieces with orchestral accompaniment and orchestral overtures and interludes; specifically: grand opera


Italian: work, from Latin: work, pains; akin to Latin oper-, opus

First known use: 1644

Not very helpful. The definition could apply to any number of musicals. True, musicals are often comedic (musical comedy), but I don’ t think this is the answer. There is a lot of Musical Theatre that doesn’t leave you chuckling and with a spring in your step as you leave the theater.

The etymology, on the other hand, is somewhat more enlightening. The term “opera” is excitingly general and really means, “work.” As in, “Come see the work that I created.” In a way, you could claim any theater piece that uses music is an “opera.” It is a dramatic work made up of vocal pieces supported by an orchestra.

But I think “opera” has become a far more nuanced term than its first use in 1644. In fact, throughout the history of opera, composers, audiences, and critics have used qualifying terms to classify the type of “work” being presented. For example, Mozart’s THE MAGIC FLUTE is not just an opera, but a Zauberoper or Singspiel; LE NOZZE DI FIGARO, an opera buffa; Massanet’s WERTHER, a drame lyrique; Bizet’s CARMEN, an opera comique; Lehar’s THE MERRY WIDOW, an operetta; Puccini’s TOSCA, a Verismo opera. And let’s not get started with Wagner’s terminology for his works.

Therefore, it seems that “opera” can actually be seen as a catchall term. But is it? When you tell your friends you saw an opera last weekend, there are certain images and sounds that come to their minds.

I asked the world of Facebook for help. There were several answers as people grappled with the definition. There seems to be a couple recurring themes:

-Story, with beautiful appropriate music
-Anything sung-through
-Heavy in emotions
-The coming together of singers, music, costumes, sets, and a score to tell a story (Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk idea: every art form coming together and participating equally on stage.)

These are all broad brush strokes and, to be fair, these answers came mostly from my Opera-loving friends.

Other themes came up with friends who didn’t seem to appreciate Opera as much:

-Unintelligible (even in English)
-“Best Sleep I had in years!” (aka Boring)
-Long and not dramatically realistic
-Too Poetic, didn’t understand it

Equally as interesting considering these are the stereotypes the Opera community is continually battling.

A former professor encouraged me to find an article where Stephen Sondheim and Ned Rorem (a classical composer who wrote many art songs) discuss this very topic.

I found the article in the archives of the New York Times and it is very revealing. The discussion comes from a panel at the 92nd St. Y that happened in 2000. On the panel were: Sondheim, Rorem, Beverly Sills, Milton Babbit, Audra McDonald, and Jonathan Tunick. Heavy hitters to say the least!

During the discussion, Sondheim says something that hits the nail on the head:

Essentially, the difference, I think, is in the expectation of the audience. Obviously, there are differences in terms of performers and how they approach singing as an art form. But primarily an opera is something done in an opera house in front of an opera audience. And a show, or whatever you want to call it — musical play, musical comedy — is something done in either a Broadway or Off Broadway theater, in front of that kind of audience.

YES! That’s it. It is all about perception. This was a major moment of clarity.

Both opera and musical theater:
-Tell a Story
-Use the voice and an orchestra
-Have costumes, sets, direction, and sometimes choreography
-Can be sung-through or have dialogue

Perhaps, as Sondheim suggests, though, the approach to singing might be different. Beverly Sills agrees, “operas and musicals are interchangeable only up to a point. While an opera singer can appear in SWEENEY TODD, it is another thing for a singer in SWEENEY TODD to appear in LA BOHEME. In terms of vocal needs, they are not interchangeable.”

Whenever the idea of a singer’s “approach to singing” comes up, I think of my voice teacher in college, Milagro Vargas. Her axiom was: Musical Theater does not require a different technique from singing Opera, just a different style. There is a lot of truth in what she is saying, especially as it pertains to more “legit” shows, but it is not completely true when we think of pop singing.

So we can agree with Sills. But the opposite must be equally true. Today’s Pop and Rock musicals require extreme singing referred to as “belting” or among my performer friends, “screlting”—a mix of screaming and belting…ouch. So while Sills believes an actor in SWEENEY TODD couldn’t appear in LA BOHEME, I would assert that a singer in LA BOHEME could never appear in KINKY BOOTS. At least, I pray they never do.

Audra McDonald might not jump to agree:

In terms of what is being written today, the line is becoming more and more blurred between the two forms. In the last couple of years, musical theater pieces have been written that require more from singers than before, while new operas are requiring more in terms of acting. […] I think lately there has been more of a meeting of the minds between the two forms.

She refers to a difference some of my less-enthusiastic friends might have mentioned. Opera singers are notoriously less than award-winning actors. While this has often been the case in the past, I’ve seen a lot of improvement in young singers who are much more familiar in the ways of stagecraft and acting. They might have actually heard of Uta Hagen or Meisner Technique.

But let’s put aside our vocal differences for a moment and return to the idea of the audience’s perception. According to Sondheim, an Opera is an Opera because it is in an Opera House, and a Musical is a Musical because it is being seen in a Broadway or Off-Broadway theater. So the fundamental make-up, the essence of the piece, does not factor into whether or not a work is Musical Theater or Opera.

I immediately thought of the most recent and most notable exception: Baz Luhrmann’s LA BOHEME that played Broadway from December 2002 to June 2003. While it was performed in a Broadway house, would the audience really have considered it anything other than an Opera? I doubt it.

But this doesn’t prove Sondheim wrong.

Sondheim and Rorem discuss another Broadway event, Gian Carlo Menotti’s Operas (or are they Musicals?) THE TELEPHONE and THE MEDIUM playing as a double bill on Broadway. Apparently, the same cast appeared equally successfully on both a Broadway stage and in an Opera House. Granted, this was in the late 1940s when the musical language of Broadway would never have used a technique referred to as “screlting.”

What I think Sondheim implies, however, is that wherever a piece premieres determines what label it receives. Imagine if Jonathan Larson’s RENT had premiered at Lincoln Center as a new modern opera that New York City Opera produced as the 20th century’s answer to LA BOHEME. It is the exact same show we know and love that uses Rock music and discusses the topics of homosexuality, AIDS, and death, but rather than being labeled a Musical, it is an Opera. I think our perception of the piece would be dramatically different. (And I, for one, would be insanely impressed by such a forward-thinking opera company!) What a thrilling new semantic interpretation of Rock Opera.

On the other hand, what if Mark-Anthony Turnage and Richard Thomas’ opus, ANNA NICOLE, premiered in a West End Theater rather than Royal Opera House? Would we consider it more of a Musical than an Opera?

As I participated in the PROTOTYPE Festival, I kept finding myself struggling to put a label on what I was watching. Was this an Opera, a Musical, or something altogether different?

At a talkback after the concert reading of WINTER’S CHILD, I posed a question to the librettists: What is the difference in writing a play, a libretto for a Musical, and a libretto for an Opera? Both librettists on the panel struggled and stumbled over their words for a moment as they tried to find solid ground.

Finally, they both came to agree on something. Opera libretti are more poetic. You have to take off your playwright hat for a little bit and put on your poet hat.  There are also fewer words in an Opera libretto, so you can’t afford to be verbose. I found these to be interesting distinctions.

I understand what they were trying to say, but to imply that Musicals don’t have poetic lyrics would be completely untrue. There are some shows that have stunningly witty and poetic lyrics. The internal rhythm and rhymes of their lyrics are not only impressive, but at times paint sumptuous and beautiful images. I can also think of several Musicals and Operas that have cheesy, uninspired lyrics.

One distinct difference I could point to is the heavier use of the vernacular in Musical Theater, while Operas tend to use “elevated” language. But, again, this is becoming less and less of a distinction. Opera librettists are feeling more comfortable writing arias that are led by the speech of their characters rather than what might be considered “elevated operatic language.” Audra is dead on in saying that the difference between two are more and more indiscernible.

So, here we are at the end of my post and you are expecting me to give you the answer. I’ve done my research, polled my friends, and laid out both arguments. This is when I tell you exactly what makes opera, “Opera.”

My answer is this: The only difference between Opera and Musical Theater is the difference you give it.

Opera is a type of musical theater, and Musical Theater is a type of opera.

At least for now…

ROREM: I never know what terms to use: pop music or show biz or rock or this or that.

SONDHEIM: Why are you categorizing anyway?


Image Note: This was the first image in my google image search when I typed “opera”…


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