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Susan Elkin: Musicals, opera… it’s all the same

Rachelle Ann Go in Miss Saigon is a musical version of Madam Butterfly. Photo: Tristram Kenton

It is time we stopped making artificial, arguably snobbish distinctions between musical theatre and opera, both in training and in the wider industry – because actually there aren’t any. Opera and music dramas, as Wagner called his Tannhauser, Gotterdammerung and the rest, are all forms of musical theatre – as are, for example, revues and pantomimes. Musical theatre is, or should be, an umbrella term.

And before you shoot me down with the usual old arguments, yes, some musical theatre has spoken dialogue. So do Mozart’s The Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fidelio – lots of it. So do operas (once derisively dubbed ‘operettas’) by Gilbert and Sullivan, Offenbach and others. And plenty of so-called musical theatre does not. Think of Cats and West Side Story and many others that are sung through. And Sondheim’s works seem to defy pigeonholing too. They’re all just shows that include acting and singing. The dialogue issue has “nothing to do with the case”, as WS Gilbert would have said.

Then there’s the age-old question of miking up which, it is often asserted, is standard in musical theatre but not in opera so the voices have to be trained differently. I recently saw Princess Ida at Finborough Theatre sung almost entirely by performers who had trained in drama schools rather than conservatoires and there were no head mics. On the other hand, mics creep discreetly into opera houses such as English National Opera and the Royal Opera House, as singer Alfie Boe and others have revealed. And I see quite a lot of small-scale un-miked new musicals which work perfectly well in terms of sound and voice quality.

And, as for the argument that singers are either one or the other, what about Bryn Terfel who’s just done a short season in Sweeney Todd with Emma Thompson at ENO and elsewhere? He seems to be able to move seamlessly between genres (The Flying Dutchman at ROH last year) and adjust his voice accordingly, because he’s a professional. He’s certainly not the only musical theatre chameleon either.

Subject matter doesn’t determine whether a work is opera or ‘mere’ musical theatre either. Many operas are very light and comic – anything by Donizetti, for example – and some musical theatre is pretty dark. Les Miserables and Jesus Christ Superstar, for instance, are hardly comedies with happy endings. And what about operas that inspire frothier spin-offs such as Carmen Jones (derived from Carmen), Miss Saigon (a version of Madam Butterfly) and Hot Mikado (a reworking of The Mikado)?

The differences, then, are so blurred that they become pointless and it’s interesting to note that one of the UK’s most prestigious musical theatre courses is taught in a music conservatoire where, until relatively recently, singing would have meant opera, lieder and not much more. I refer, of course, to the Royal Academy of Music’s MA in musical theatre, launched with Mary Hammond at the helm in 1994. There are now similar conservatoire postgraduate courses at various other establishments, including Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama and Royal Conservatoire of Scotland.

At the same time, back in drama schools, musical theatre courses seem to be ever more eclectic, especially through the shows they stage (Cabaret is popular – opera or musical theatre?), and there’s a growing number of actor-musician courses such as the new one at Guildford School of Acting.

So let’s stop pretending that musical theatre isn’t an all-embracing concept and for goodness sake drop the silly genre snobbery. My favourite musical theatre reference book is by Robert Blumfeld. Blumfeld’s Dictionary of Musical Theater is subtitled ‘Opera, Operetta, Musical Comedy’. Good man.

Student reviews

I’m often invited to drama school shows and most schools are then delighted if I review or feature what I’ve seen. For the record, we don’t usually review student shows in The Stage, apart from showcases, but I have other avenues for shows by students. It is, I contend, a very useful experience for the students to have their work constructively appraised by a professional critic – that is, after all, what they will face as soon as they graduate and most hard-bitten critics will then be much less ‘supportive’ than I am when I’m writing about a student show. I am therefore puzzled by the handful of schools that will not allow the work of their students to be written about.

They make it clear that if I accept an invitation to one of their shows my pen and notebook have to stay firmly in my bag or, better still, be left at home. The thinking seems to be that the students shouldn’t have to face the press in any form while they are still in development. I think they’re wrong. If they’re to be fully prepared for professional work, shouldn’t learning to deal with, and learning from, outside criticism be part of every student’s training?

Read Susan Elkin’s online column [1]