||[Jun. 3rd, 2013|04:37 pm]
Something I've seen recently, from both Sassafrass group members and non-members, is Sundown being described as an opera. But, it's not, really.|
According to Wikipedia (obviously the source of all definitive truth in the universe), an opera is "an art form in which singers and musicians perform a dramatic work combining text (called a libretto) and musical score, usually in a theatrical setting." So...that describes the show, right?
I suppose in that very broad definition, the show is an opera. But then by this definition so is any musical theater show, or song cycle, or any of the shows that apparently have been put on by the filk community (which I will note were not called operas in the description of the panel that talked about them at Balticon :P). I think people, even people who aren't super-into any of these genres, would probably balk at describing, say, Rent as an opera.*
So what's the difference? Well, I'll admit I'm no expert, but here's a great NYT article comparing opera to musical theater (and touching on shows that fall somewhere in the middle). The main conclusion is that opera is focused on the music, while musical theater is focused on words. As the article says, this explains why people can enjoy operas even if they don't understand them, while so much of a musical is lost if you don't speak the language. Now think about how this applies to Sundown: it's certainly musically complex (which, as this article says, doesn't distinguish the two genres), but more than that it's incredibly lyrics-driven. Would you really like "My Brother, My Enemy" if you couldn't understand the accusations flung between Odin and Loki? Or "A New World" if you couldn't contrast Frigg's grief and hope for her grandsons?
Another example of this, from the opera side of things, is the Queen of The Night's act II aria from The Magic Flute ("Der holle rache"). If you haven't seen Diana Damrau's performance of this piece, my god stop now and go watch it. Okay, done? Good. I don't know about you, but I speak about five words of German. Plus about a third of the lyrics of that song are "Ah." It doesn't matter, it's still a wonderful piece, and a wonderful performance. Rather than caring about the lyrical content, what I like about the song is the flowing line and the singer's technical finesse, as well as her ability to invest it with emotion.
There are a few other, important, distinctions between opera and musical theater. One in particular is the vocal techniques used in each. Opera singing is typically unamplified, and on top of that singers are expected to be heard over an orchestra. This requires particular training focused on projection and resonance of the voice, which isn't usually required in musical theater. Another distinction is that operas are typically through-composed. This means one song flows into another with little-to-no spoken dialog in between**, and where recitative (sort of speak-singing - singing lyrics to fit normal speech patterns) tends to connect scenes and songs instead. One other potential distinction is the use of musical motifs, more likely to appear in opera than in musical theater.
So what was happening in Sundown? Well, operatic vocal technique was clearly not required in Sundown: we were miked, and obviously there wasn't an orchestra we had to sing over. Most songs in the show are broken up by dialog and spoken scenes, the one exception being "Abandoned" into "If I Could Ask You," which doesn't really pause at all - there's no recitative between them either. Finally, there are without question motifs in Sundown, and this is the only "operatic" element I would argue the show has. But there's plenty of shows that fall firmly into musical theater territory that do this too: Into the Woods, Wicked, and Children of Eden, to name a few.
It's certainly true that there are liminal works that push these definitions. Gilbert & Sullivan shows, for example, are often described as "operettas" or "light opera" because they tend to have elements of both musical theater and opera. There's minimal dialog and lots of recitative, and many of the roles are expected to display the kinds of vocal techniques opera singers have (for example the soprano and tenor leads). On the other hand, you have patter-songs, which are very words-focused. Another example is Sweeney Todd, which I've seen described both as musical theater and operetta: it's through-composed and chock-full of motifs, but it's unquestionably more about the lyrics than the music.
I should perhaps note that I'm not trying to imply a value judgement in distinguishing these genres. Opera is not a higher art form than musical theater, nor vice versa. They're just different. Relatedly, I can't help but think that people are choosing to use the term "opera" to lend a sense of legitimacy to Sundown, since it is not only written by and performed by amateurs, but has strong connections to geek/fan communities (where the group regularly performs). Frankly, I don't think that's quite fair to the show. Allow it to stand on its own, without throwing out false labels to try and justify it.
*Unless, of course, it's La Boheme instead.
**Note that a lack of dialog is NOT a strict requirement for opera, as some operas like The Magic Flute, linked above, do have spoken scenes.