Opera? Musical theatre? Sweeney Todd pushes the boundary
One way to make opera-lovers cringe is to tell them that The Phantom of the Opera is their favorite opera. The show features a classical singing style, a dramatic plot and even has “opera” in its name. But Andrew Lloyd Weber’s long-running favorite is, in fact, considered a musical.
Sweeney Todd is also considered a musical but one that is often performed by opera companies. The same is true for works like West Side Story, Show Boat, A Little Night Music and Candide, which Michigan Opera Theatre (MOT) produced in March. So what exactly is the difference?
Some will say that operas are completely sung through while musicals feature spoken dialogue in-between songs. However, productions on both sides don’t follow that rule: Les Misérables, Rent and Hamilton are completely sung through while operas like Carmen, The Magic Flute and The Daughter of the Regiment have spoken dialogue.
The reality is, the answer is not always clear. While the line is blurry, these are some primary distinctions between the two:
As a general rule, operas prioritize music over acting, and musicals prioritize acting and the overall story over singing.
“Both contain characters telling stories through music, whether singing, dancing, or playing an instrument,” said Karen Ziemba, a Tony-nominated Broadway performer who portrays Mrs. Lovett in MOT’s Sweeney Todd. “However, a performer must have a large, well-trained voice with nuance to play on an opera stage. There are well-trained vocalists in musical theater too, but acting takes precedence.”
Broadway and opera performer Nathaniel Hackmann, who plays Anthony Hope in Sweeney Todd, said the difference between opera and musical theater even applies to the approach for auditioning.
“An opera singer knows that his/her musical pitch, tone, musicality and facility are top priorities to the ones writing the checks. If a vowel or emotion must be modified or underplayed in order to serve the music, that sacrifice is made,” he said. “Likewise, a Broadway hopeful knows when walking into a musical theater audition that the producers want subtlety, contrast of emotion and truthfulness, so if a pitch or beat or vocal timbre is less than pristine, but it serves the character and story, that sacrifice is made.”
While acting may reign supreme for musical theater, MOT Director of External Affairs Arthur White said the opera tends to be much more melodramatic than those of Broadway shows.
“Musicals don’t typically have the drama, death and great suffering which is often the cornerstone of Grand Opera,” he said. “Musicals are generally stories which have some conflict, but mostly end happily. Grand Operas fall typically into serious dramas which are not considered comic or in the Opera Buffa (comic opera) category.”
The singing styles of opera and musical theater are arguably the most notable differences between the two. Opera singers are classically-trained, which often requires undergraduate and graduate degrees, private vocal coaching and apprenticeships with opera companies. In fact, the voice isn’t considered to be fully matured until a singer reaches his or her later 20s or early 30s.
In modern Broadway shows, most songs are sung with the “chest voice,” the powerful “belting” also found in pop music. Chest voice is closer to the speaking register with the vibrations felt in the chest. In classical style, female singers also sing in “head voice,” the higher registers where the sound vibrations are felt in the head. The difference between the two was not always as distinct with older musicals, like The Sound of Music, Carousel and The Music Man, which use head voice more than contemporary Broadway shows do.
Vibrato, the pulsating change of a pitch, is used almost continuously in opera, while musical theater singers often save vibrato for the end of a sustained note or may remove it altogether. Enunciation is also a priority for musical theater as opposed to opera, with musical quality sometimes sacrificed in order to be understood.
“The vocal range in an operatic score, whether for grand opera or intimate chamber opera, is different than the type of singing needed to perform a pop score for a contemporary musical,” Ziemba said. “Traditional musicals, however, like Rodgers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, Kurt Weill and some Sondheim, are classically-based, musically, and require some voices of operatic proportion and quality.”
While music is generally champion in opera, MOT Assistant Music Director and Chorus Master Suzanne said things are changing.
“Opera singers are being cast not only vocally but how they fit the character, and musicals have actors who are trained as legit singers too,” she said. “The two are so closely related--it’s hard to define, but easier to understand when you hear it.”
Opera singers train for years to hone and perfect the quality of their voices, which includes learning to sing to be heard throughout an entire opera house without the assistance of a microphone. This level of projection requires full-body exertion, so much so that opera singers rarely sing more than three performances a week and almost never back-to-back.
Musical theater performers are assisted through microphone amplification, requiring less effort to project their voices throughout an entire theater. As a result, musical theater singers are typically expected to perform up to eight shows a week, including back-to-back matinee and evening performances.
Ziemba said the modern instrumentation in many musical theater shows also requires the use of amplification.
“The theatre-going public has become used to hearing voices through microphones,” she said. “The instrumentation in many musical theater orchestras is created by electronic synthesizers which a vocalist’s sound must be ‘mixed’ with instead of competing to be heard.”
While not a requirement, operas are typically performed in foreign languages while musicals are performed in English. Opera originated in Europe, which is why the classics tend to be sung in Italian, French or German. Musical theater, rather, is an American art form.
However, as opera has become popular worldwide, more and more are composed in other languages, including English. Additionally, both musicals and operas are often translated and sung in different languages than their original.
What about Sweeney Todd?
“Sweeney is one of those works that is certainly a crossover,” said Acton. “It has demands for specific singers that are more operatic, yet need the acting skills necessary in traditional musicals.”
White said he considers Sweeney Todd an opera, because it possesses a lot of death and great suffering and is quite dramatic in its writing. However, he said the in-between nature of the work is found within the music itself, especially in the difference in the characters’ social classes.
While the role of Joanna sings in a high register, Mrs. Lovett belts in a cockney accent. Others, like Sweeney Todd himself or Adolfo Pirelli can float somewhere in-between.
“You don’t have to be an opera singer to play Pirelli,” he said, “but you have to be a damn good singer.”
For Hackmann, Sweeney Todd offers opera and musical theater the best of both worlds.
“Sweeney is an unequaled work of genius in many facets,” he said. “But the marriage of the epic and sophisticated score, the gripping and macabre examination of human emotion and, most prominently, vengeance in the story, make it a worthwhile venture. It has endless challenges and delights for the performers and audiences in equal measure.”
Check out Michigan Opera Theatre’s upcoming schedule for Sweeney Todd this fall season.
Members of the editorial and news staff of The Detroit News were not involved in the creation of this content.