I talk about opera a lot.
Too much probably, but I can’t help myself, I enjoy it.
Good friends listen, try to meet me half way like the good people they are and will bring up a musical theatre work they’ve seen, like Wicked. I want to jump up and down and scream, “it’s not the same thing!” And for goodness sake, do not mention Rent when La Boheme is in town! It’s nothing like that, nothing! The difference between opera and musical theatre is the difference between a rose’ and cabernet, both are good, both have overlapping characteristics, but they are two entirely different experiences.
Porgy and Bess has this question of what is opera on my mind because it can be found on both the opera and musical theatre stage.
So which is it?
According to the dictionary, Porgy is an Opera. It defines Opera as “A dramatic work in one or more acts, set to music for singers and instrumentalists.” Unfortunately, according to this definition an enthusiastic group of kindergarteners at recess could also pull off a successful opera.
The definition is way too simplistic and leaves out not only important signifiers, but also the history of the art form, and the mastery of its practitioners. We could similarly define a painting as “a surface to which paint is applied.” By this definition a painting done by an elephant could share museum space with a Vermeer. That would actually be awesome! Stick to your argument Joe.
The big ‘O’ in opera comes from these important ingredients:
- The human voice is not eloctronically amplified
- All dialogue is sung
- The orchestration is subtle, nuanced, and complex
- The libretto uses a minimal amount of language to maximum effect. It’s poetry, not prose.
- You can trace its roots to Greek philosophy
My definition of opera would be:
Opera is a densely layered cake for the senses, a poetic tour de force, the only art form that fully expresses the human experience; not what it is to be human, but what it feels like to be human. Opera tries to fulfill the German word gesamtkunstwerk, championed by Wagner and rooted in Greek philodophy, being a total work of art that combines all the other art forms. The works are so expertly constructed by the most gifted musicians and designers that each element separately could stand on its own as a high representative of its form; but together, hold on to your socks, the opera experience can be surprisingly overwhelming. Without hyperbole, opera is performed by many of the most talented singers and musicians in the world who are interpreting music created by the most gifted composers in history who’s works and reputations have endured over centuries for good reason.
To answer my earlier question, Porgy and Bess is an opera! A great Opera at that!! I saw it at the Metropolitan Opera and it satisfied my criteria and personal definition of Opera. I suppose if I saw it with amplification in another setting I might feel different, but that would apply to any opera. The Porgy and Bess I saw, was glorious!
To deny yourself the experience of opera would be like denying yourself Shakespeare, the grand tour of Europe, oceans, and jungles. Opera is big! It shouldn’t be dismissed or ignored.
I think it is important to split hairs between what is opera and similar artistic forms. Especially now when a lot of contemporary music pieces are being advertised as ‘Opera.’ Sorry Kanye, but for me that puts them in conversation with the likes of Beethoven and Puccini and I think it needs to be called out. A rose’ is wonderful, but no one could mistake it for a Bordeaux.
*All that being said, I do hate musical theatre, except for those 40 that I absolutely love and listen to over and over again.