It's All Just Singing, Right?

Opera always struck me as a strange, overblown cousin to musical theater. I told people that I had to “turn off my theater filters when I went to see opera.” But then I spent several seasons working for Cincinnati Opera, and my eyes were opened to the re

Since the age of 7, I’ve been enthralled with musical theater. My grandfather took me to see a production of Brigadoon, and I was a goner. In high school I performed (unmemorably) in several classic musicals (The Music Man, The Sound of Music, My Fair Lady and Annie Get Your Gun); the first LP I ever purchased was the soundtrack for the movie of West Side Story. I never missed a chance to see shows that became favorites, including The Fantasticks, Man of La Mancha, A Chorus Line and more. In middle age, I discovered Stephen Sondheim’s musicals and was thoroughly captivated.

Opera always struck me as a strange, overblown cousin to musical theater. I told people that I had to “turn off my theater filters when I went to see opera.” But then I spent several seasons working for Cincinnati Opera, and my eyes were opened to the reasons people react so strongly to that art form. I learned that operas exist in the world of elemental emotion, often the most heightened of feelings — passion, love, envy, anger and vengeance. The stories of operas tend to be simple, sometimes illogical, but they are always about characters who find themselves in a difficult, perhaps inescapable state. Their fates are more often than not tragic.

Musicals more predictably tell stories with happy endings. Of course, there are comic operas (Cincinnati Opera’s double bill in mid-June featured Puccini’s very funny one-act, Gianni Schicchi, and many of Mozart’s opera’s are delightfully amusing), as well as musicals that range from somber (Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel) to tragic (West Side Story and Sweeney Todd). But there are many more operas that conclude with dead bodies onstage or a lover with a broken heart.

The two forms differ in more tangible ways. Operas tend to be full-bodied compositions from start to finish with musical themes that bind them together, while musicals are more often collections of tunes that supplement storytelling. (The financial model of producing each form reflects this too: Operas are typically composed for performance by large orchestras, while musicals — many of which originate in the cost-sensitive world of commercial theater — keep the accompaniment to fewer than 20 musicians to keep a lid on the budget.)

Another difference is vocal style. Musical theater performers sing in a more natural style, while operatic performers’ voices are trained to a refined level as polished as the musicians who accompany them. Musical theater performers’ voices are typically amplified, whereas opera singers fill the hall with their unaugmented vocal instruments.

This is a topic of some local interest at the moment since a Broadway revival of Porgy and Bess recently won a Tony Award as the season’s best “revival of a musical.” It’s also the current production of Cincinnati Opera (with two remaining performances on Friday and Sunday) and, indeed, when George Gershwin composed the piece he called it a “folk opera” and filled it with nearly four hours of music. However, he shaped the work’s 1935 premiere for Broadway by trimming it to roughly two-and-a-half hours of glorious melodies — “Summertime,” “I Got Plenty of Nothin’,” “Bess, You Is My Woman,” “It Ain’t Necessarily So” and “On My Way,” works that have become American songbook standards.

Porgy and Bess is not an easy work to stage, and this is indeed the first time that Cincinnati Opera has produced it. Artistic Director Evans Mirageas engaged stage director Lemuel Wade to give it a solid operatic treatment, hewing to the work as it was presented in 1935. With David Charles Abell conducting, the full force of the Cincinnati Symphony Orchestra is brought to bear on Gershwin’s jazzy, tuneful score. The large chorus creates several heart-thumping moments that utilize sound, motion and visually striking devices.

All of these elements contrast sharply with the Broadway production, which used 22 musicians and a small chorus. Both theater and classical music critics wrote that the New York revival felt “underpowered” and “emotionally tepid” (one said that the show “lacked the rapturous intensity and the grandeur that the score was intended to transmit” and another felt the orchestra “reduced to Broadway pit-band size, sounds thin and tinny”).

So I urge you to check out this rarely produced work in its full glory. We’re seeing a version of Porgy and Bess that New York audiences missed, a performance that creates waves of deeply felt emotion with powerfully performed music — in a way that only opera can. “Theater filters” be damned — this production hits you where you feel it.


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