What is the difference between musicals and operas?
January 18, 2013 7:27 PM   Subscribe

I understand that a lot of musicals are basically theatrical performances with lots of music; however, what about musicals like Les Miserables that are told entirely through song? Why don't we call them operas as well?
posted by jamincan to Media & Arts (19 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
The music in opera is classical music; the music in musicals is pop music.

Musicals are also more likely to have talking in between the songs, whereas operas are usually all music, no talking. But that's not necessarily the case. For instance, Beethoven's Fidelio has dialogue. That doesn't make anyone say it's not an opera. It's an opera because the music is Beethoven, which is classical. And as you said, a musical can be all music, no dialogue, and still be called a musical. It's all about the genre of music.
posted by John Cohen at 7:34 PM on January 18, 2013 [2 favorites]

Best answer: From a Q&A with Anthony Tommasini in the New York Times:
Classical music has always wrestled with categories. Look at opera in the 18th and 19th centuries. Serious operas are supposed to be sung through, we are told. Spoken dialog is a telltale sign that a piece is an operetta, right? Yet, there are profound operas, like Cherubini's "Médée," an opéra comique, and Beethoven's "Fidelio," that have lots of spoken dialog. Mozart's "Magic Flute" is another category-blurring work. That show was written for a sort of low-brow theater that mostly presented crowd-pleasing entertainments. Much of "The Magic Flute," which has spoken dialog, dumb comedy and magic, is very silly. Yet it is also one of Mozart's most sublimely spiritual works. So it's unfair to expect contemporary opera audiences, and critics, to figure out what work belongs in which category when this question has always been so elusive.

And yet, categories are not meaningless. I once wrote an essay in which I tried to explain the difference, as I saw it, between a musical and an opera. Both genres mix words and music. But in a musical, words have a slight edge, words drive the music for the most part; whereas in an opera it's music that does the heavy lifting. This seemed a little more useful a distinction to me than musical complexity, which doesn't get you far.
There is more about the topic in the article if that interests you.
posted by bcwinters at 7:51 PM on January 18, 2013 [9 favorites]

Operas are done by opera companies in opera houses, musicals are put on by theater companies in Broadway-style houses. That is to say, the distinction for me is the approach taken. That is to say, I see it is a continuum (on a number of different axes) and where you draw the line depends on why you're labeling it.

Another way of looking at it may be based on what tradition the piece hails from... but there are too many crossovers and exceptions that fall through the cracks.

I am seeing Syracuse Opera's production of Sweeney Todd; I am considering it an opera production. The Sondheim show had a run on Broadway a number of years ago; that was a musical (I would also consider the original production a musical; not just Doyle's musicians on stage version).
posted by mountmccabe at 7:53 PM on January 18, 2013 [3 favorites]

The music in opera is classical music; the music in musicals is pop music.

That's not really a satisfactory distinction. The Italian opera that became the rage in Europe during the 18th century had a score that was distinctly "popular"; there's an echo of that in Brecht's Dreigroschenoper, which itself nods at Gay's Beggar's Opera. Rossini, Verdi and Puccini were often derided as vulgar orchestrators who played to the galleries.

Anyway, it's a long chewed-over question. (Example, suggesting that the medium of drama in opera is the music, while in musicals it's the book; but there are plenty of exceptions.)

While it may not quite be in the vein of "cinema" vs "film" vs "movies", where Bourdieu's model of distinction is very obviously at play, there's definitely an element of it there. Opera and musicals now operate in different social strata, in different venues, and with different audiences. (And different funding models.) And you can pin a fair bit of the blame on Wagner and his Bayreuth monumentalism.

It's an opera if it's in an opera house; it's a musical if it's in a Broadway or West End theatre.
posted by holgate at 7:54 PM on January 18, 2013 [6 favorites]

The music in opera is classical music; the music in musicals is pop music.

This is a little bit reductive. Gilbert & Sullivan wrote operas, which don't have "classical" music in them. Porgy & Bess is an opera, with its music influenced by jazz. And there are other modern operas, whose style is influenced by classic opera's structure and its sung-through nature, but isn't filled with "classical music".

I feel like it's at the whim of the composer or artist to define whether they are writing a musical or an opera. Sometimes it's just a matter of nomenclature - G&S operas are often called operettas or light operas, to separate them from "classical" operas. Stephen Sondheim's A Little Night Music and Sweeney Todd and Sunday in the Park with George are all called musicals and operettas in different contexts. (Perhaps they become operas when opera societys/companies produce them?)

The music in modern musicals is just as difficult to define - it's not all "pop music". Some of it is, especially in jukebox musicals. But many modern musicals have musical influences across many music genres - often in a single show.

I've heard some people define the difference as "operas are more concerned with the sound of the voice/music; musicals are more concerned with sound of their music/lyrics". But even that seems narrow to me.
posted by crossoverman at 7:54 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Don't we? I've heard Les Mis and RENT be referred to as operas before, for this reason.
posted by capricorn at 7:55 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

Not to pile on about classical/popular, but if you step back and listen to a canonical aria like "La donna è mobile" with its oom-pa-pas and wobbly sing-song theme (which comes over especially well in the Caruso snippet on Wikipedia), it's pretty much designed to have the audience la-la-lahing it on the way home. It's an earworm, it's a terrace chant. No wonder they got the tenors on stage for the World Cup.
posted by holgate at 8:25 PM on January 18, 2013

As long as we're at it: Kismet is billed as an opera, and to my ears it's less opera-like than West Side Story, FFS.

After chewing on this problem for a few months after seeing Kismet, I decided the words meant fuck-all; composers (or marketing people) called them whichever they pleased.
posted by IAmBroom at 9:09 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

The music in opera is classical music; the music in musicals is pop music.

I'm going to amend that slightly and say that in opera the music is art music, that is, the type of music you (might) learn to write in a conservatory. In musical theater or musical comedy, the music tends to be derived from pop forms even if the music isn't strictly "pop."

For example, Rufus Wainwright, who is undoubtedly a pop musician, wrote a theater piece called Prima Donna, but it is not a musical because he at least attempted the scale and complexity of "art" music. I don't think the piece was successful, but I do definitely say it should be called an opera.

if you step back and listen to a canonical aria like "La donna è mobile"

The difference here is that even though Verdi wrote Rigoletto very explicitly as a commercial work, the piece doesn't consist of one "La donna è mobile" after another. In fact, the rest of the opera is mostly rather complicated music, not the sort of thing that could be sung as written by a guy with a guitar on a street corner in other words. The last act of this opera is extremely dark both dramatically and musically, so it's a plausible argument that Verdi included this one piece to relieve what would otherwise be a forbiddingly gloomy stretch for the audience.

Now, it is true that in the 19th century in Italy and at other periods in other locations (e.g., New York City in the first half of the 20th century) opera had a broad middle class and working class audience with little formal education in music. But even though the music was popular, in the sense that it appealed to "the people," it still wasn't pop music. Nobody would confuse Il trovatore or Carmen with "Alexander's Ragtime Band" or "Sweet Georgia Brown."

The "all-music" or "some dialogue" definitions are not very useful. Die Zauberflöte has a ton of dialogue, and so does Carmen, and they are both operas. Falsettos and Next to Normal have very little dialogue, but they are both musicals.
posted by La Cieca at 9:13 PM on January 18, 2013

My own classificatory criterion is that operas make me cry, sing, and clap, while musicals make me roll my eyes and seek to cause the sound to stop as soon as possible. The larger point being that as others have rightly pointed out, there's a continuum here and I suspect subjective definitions of low and high culture do play into it as well.
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 11:11 PM on January 18, 2013 [1 favorite]

You might find this somewhat simliar previous question to be of use - it asks if rock operas are actually operas and there are some well reasoned answers within.
posted by firei at 5:04 AM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

I've always held that if there is no dialogue it is an Opera. If there is, than it is a musical.
Trying to use "classical music" as a distinction always sounds very pretentious.
posted by 2manyusernames at 6:11 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Dialogue or no, my litmus test has almost always been "Drum kit==musical, otherwise opera."
posted by Emperor SnooKloze at 6:52 AM on January 19, 2013

It's an opera if it's in an opera house;

But that depends, in Boston the Opera House presents just about anything but opera.
posted by sammyo at 6:52 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

Hilariously the quote I was thinking of (and tried unsuccessfully to source) was from Sondheim: "I really think that when something plays Broadway it's a musical, and when it plays in an opera house it's opera. That's it. It's the terrain, the countryside, the expectations of the audience that make it one thing or another."

The whole article is an interesting discussion of the question from when Sweeney Todd opened at the Royal Opera House.

"And [Sondheim] can just about be placed in the honourable tradition of composers who have spent the past 70 years trying to establish a vernacular American opera that straddles the divide between high art and low: composers such as Aaron Copland, Leonard Bernstein, George Gershwin, Kurt Weill - and not forgetting Gian Carlo Menotti who, although largely forgotten these days, made a big name for himself in the 1940s with operas that not only premiered on Broadway but were designed to play Broadway-style, night after night in long runs."
posted by mountmccabe at 8:03 AM on January 19, 2013 [3 favorites]

Perhaps it's a given, but for English-speaking cultures in which musicals have a distinct separate identity, opera is (mostly) in Foreign.

(And here's Bourdieu, writing about French culture, describing "the opera" as "the occasion or pretext for social ceremonies enabling a select audience to demonstrate and experience its membership of high society".)
posted by holgate at 8:31 AM on January 19, 2013

I like what everyone is saying, and agree that it's hard to discuss this without being reductive (but good to discuss it, too).

For me the distinction is a matter of priorities: in opera, the music is the #1 priority. The story has to be simple (so it can be understood in music) and actually it doesn't matter if you understand the words in that aria, because it's all about hearing the beautiful music and impressive vocal production. My quintessential operatic memory is watching the clandestine lovers hear someone approaching their meeting spot. They sing, "You must go!"..."I must go!"... for ten minutes.

In musicals, the characters and dramatic story are the priority (at least in the musicals that I care about. There are others, which I think of as "dance musicals" a la Mamma Mia that are more about pure entertainment.) If you write a beautiful vocal line that makes the lyric unclear or the story confusing, it's gotta go. Also, in shows that have non-musicalized dialogue, as many do, that allows for a different kind of deep character development.

[Disclaimer: I am biased; I write musicals.]
posted by Zephyrial at 9:12 AM on January 19, 2013 [1 favorite]

actually it doesn't matter if you understand the words in that aria, because it's all about hearing the beautiful music and impressive vocal production

Boy could I not disagree with you more.

And so would Maria Callas (and a hell of a lot of other singers), except she can't because she's dead.

I have nothing to add to the general discussion, however. I agree that musicals veer more toward the pop and operas more toward what my music composition teacher* referred to as "so-called classical music" (because, obviously, "classical" refers to the, uh, serious, or academic, music of just one particular period -- the Classical).

*here's the prologue to his latest very-much-not-a-musical:

posted by DMelanogaster at 5:11 PM on January 19, 2013

It's really a marketing term. Schoenberg and Boublil wanted to appeal to the musical theater audience primarily, rather than to the opera audience primarily.

People ex post facto come up with distinctions, but they don't hold up on examination. Anthony Davis's operas, for example, are tremendously influenced by popular music forms (his current work in progress includes a [fantastic] reggae aria, for instance); West Side Story has extraordinarily complex music and harmonics that were considered relatively avant-garde in the concert music of the time.

Ultimately, it's more about how the creators of the work envision it as part of a tradition, and how they (and the work's producers) want to position it in the marketplace.
posted by Sidhedevil at 6:38 PM on January 19, 2013 [2 favorites]

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