Camp at the opera

A look into why so many opera companies put on musicals

Photo by Peter Alexander
Joyce Castle of Central City Opera

You would not expect to meet Aunt Eller and Curly, two of the homespun characters of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s classic American musical Oklahoma!, at the opera house.

But up in Central City this summer, that’s exactly where they are.

In fact, it turns out that the whole cast of Oklahoma!, which opens Central City’s 2012 season Saturday, June 30, has been hanging out at the opera house. Aunt Eller is played by Joyce Castle, who has sung at the Metropolitan Opera, New York City Opera, Santa Fe Opera and other companies around the world. Matthew Worth, who plays Curly, has sung at the Santa Fe Opera, among others.

Looking down the cast list, Maureen McKay (Laurey) has sung at the Metropolitan and the Komische Oper Berlin. Curt Olds (Will Parker) has sung opera at Central City and several regional companies. Paul LaRosa (the sinister Jud Fry) has sung at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

They’ve all made careers singing opera and Broadway shows. And it’s not only singers who embrace both: Opera companies worldwide are adding musicals to their repertory. Central City presented West Side Story in 2008, and the past year has seen Show Boat at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, Sweeney Todd at the Opera Theater of St. Louis, Sound of Music at the Chatelet Theater in Paris and Carousel at the English National Opera.

The trend of opera companies presenting Broadway musicals can be traced back to 1984, when the Houston Grand Opera presented Sweeney Todd. Because the production was a huge financial success in a precarious business, the opera world took notice.

Ken Cazan, director of Central City’s Oklahoma!, thinks there are two reasons that opera companies have embraced musical comedy.

“Initially, I do believe that opera companies started to do musicals to make money,” Cazan says. “They became a cash cow. But I think as time went by, opera companies realized that musicals had amazing value as art, also.”

Art it may be, but the Broadway musical is certainly a popular medium. Which raises the question: Should opera houses, the bastions of high art, present a popular genre like musical comedies at all?

There are several problems with that question.

First, opera has always been a popular medium, too. As just one example, La Bohème, featured alongside Oklahoma! on Central City’s current season, became an international sensation in the first two years after it premiered in 1896, a hit performed across Italy as well as in the United States, Argentina and Russia. Without popular support outside the confines of privileged society, the operas of Verdi, Puccini and other pillars of “high art” would not have persevered.

What’s more, opera and Broadway are not opposite poles; they are overlapping regions of the musical theater spectrum. One definition of musicals is that they mix separate songs with spoken dialogue; so do Carmen and The Magic Flute. Another is that they originate on Broadway; so did notable operas Porgy and Bess and The Saint of Bleecker Street.

Overlapping both musicals and opera is operetta, which is comfortably in the repertory of opera companies. From Johann Strauss in Vienna to Offenbach in Paris and Sigmund Romberg in America, operetta typically mixes musical-comedy plots and spoken dialogue with a more classical musical style.

So any definitional distinction between musicals and operas is bound to fail. Nor do the singers look down on the popular style of musicals.

“What kind of music do I like? I like good music,” Castle says, quoting Leonard Bernstein. “When I was young I had the Gershwin songbook, I had the Rodgers and Hammerstein songbook, I had the Cole Porter songbook — those were songs that I sang a lot.

“In the University of Kansas I did Brigadoon; I did Anna in The King and I. I’ve never been in Oklahoma!, but when we heard it the first time, reading it through, it’s just a fabulous piece. It’s great because the quality is so high.”

To Castle, her job is the same in either medium: “I’m in the business of entertaining.”

Pat Pearce, general manager of the Central City Opera, agrees.

“We are basically storytellers. We sing stories,” he says. “Period. That is what we do, and that is what we’ve done, as people that produce opera. And people in music theater sing stories, too.

“I don’t think a definition is necessary. If you really do look at yourself as in the business of singing stories, then you don’t have to fight all those battles.”

Pearce emphatically counters another objection to opera companies presenting Broadway:

“What people are always worried about when opera singers do music theater is that things become too precious, but most of the singers these days have been trained in both of those ponds. The days when people stood and sang and didn’t act are long gone. People that come along now have to be able to act.”

This is the biggest change the opera world has seen recently: the acting ability of the younger singers. They far transcend the outmoded stereotype of the fat singer who stands in place and belts out an aria without moving an inch. Anyone who has attended opera regularly over the past 20 or 30 years has seen this.

“I’ve done a number of musicals in opera houses, and I love doing musicals with opera singers,” Cazan says. “It’s not good enough any more just to have a gorgeous voice. I say that as an educator who runs a major program [at the University of Southern California]. You have to be able to move, you have to be in some kind of shape.”

Cazan, like Castle, doesn’t approach musicals any differently than operas or operettas. “I always approach things from a character and relationship point of view,” he stresses.

“My first reaction [to any show] is, what is my gut instinct to what the story is about? And my second reaction is, what are these characters, what are the relationships? That is universal, that is timeless. That’s the basis of all theater.”