Since Andrew Lloyd Webber asked A R Rahman to compose for Bombay Dreams, everyone's talking about 'Broadway musicals'. What does 'musical' mean and how is it different from 'opera'?
Musical: Light stage entertainment, largely American-influenced, that succeeded musical comedy in the mid-20th century.
Musical comedy: A type of English and American light entertainment, prominent in late 19th and 20th centuries, related to operatta, but often less unified musically and using more than one composer.
Opera: A dramatic work in which the entire or most of the text is sung with instrumental accompaniment. Abbreviation of opera in musica (musical work).
Operatta: Opera of a light type.
All of us at some point have wondered at the meaning of the word opera. We know it has definitely nothing to do with TV soap operas, but it should be a form of art -- a little esoteric perhaps? Something to do with Western classical music?
Opera is a highly stylized form of music drama in the Western tradition. It is actually a play set to music, usually continuous, sometimes interspersed with bits of spoken dialogue. But what distinguishes it from 'musicals' as we know them, is the stylized vocal manner, which originated in Italy. Artists require intense training in vocal technique, similar to our Indian tradition of classical vocal music.
Operas are performed live in theatres with singer-actors accompanied by a live orchestra and conductor. In the good old days, singers could barely act and it was quite common to witness an 80-kg, 50-year-old amazon playing the role of a 20 something consumptive and dying heroine! Productions are quite often grand, larger than life costume dramas with fancy stage sets and dazzling special effects including infernos and Gods and Heavens. You might see animals on stage in Verdi's Aida or horses in Bizet's Carmen or Don Giovanni descending to Hell in Mozart's Don Giovanni. An expensive indulgence for the average person who wants to see it live, but still accessible through studio and live recordings and even films.
Like Indian cinema, opera plots tend to be simplistic and usually involve love and death and sometimes, in light comedies or opera buffa, love and laughs. Like Indian cinema, they are full of masala with every kind of emotion - love, death, revenge, anger, jealousy, rape, murder and even the lost and found formula. Settings include the bohemian life in La Bohème, a high priestess desiring revenge in Norma, a prince in love with his step mother in Don Carlo, a historical plot in Maria Stuarda, and even a sleep walking heroine in La Sonambula!
Operas are charged with primal emotions, intensified by a sensual pleasure in hearing highly unnatural, high-pitched voices, perform unimaginable vocal feats, wringing their guts out -- silky sensuality in Carmen, ominous tones of jealousy in Otello, passion in its innocence in Madame Butterfly, righteous anger in Norma, attempted rape and murder in Tosca, humanity and forgiveness in The Marriage of Figaro, humour and frivolity in The Barber of Seville.
Of course, most operas are in Italian, many in German, and some in French, Spanish, Russian and a few in English. So wouldn't they be boring considering you can't understand a word of what is being sung? Even English, when sung in opera, may sound like Greek! But these days, modern opera houses have English supertitles for each performance. And full price complete opera recordings come with the libretto or the lyrics in at least the original language and in English. And even if you don't follow the words, you can get the synopsis of most major operas in any book on opera, or on the Internet.
But as a first step, forget what the critics say and forget the libretto. Enjoy the sensual timbres, marvel at the vocal gymnastics, learn to hum the tuneful melodies and succumb to the warm tones of the orchestra. If you can do that, opera is a cakewalk as you get into the drama and identify with the characters.
Broadway is a New York street known for its theatres. It has almost become the generic name for the commercial entertainment theatre of America, Andrew Lloyd Webber, maker of musicals like Jesus Christ Superstar, Evita and Cats being one of its leading lights. Webber is a celebrity theatre-music composer, but chose Rahman to compose for Bombay Dreams because the musical is set in Bombay, and he wanted an "Indian flavour".
If you would like to start listening to opera, you can try some accessible ones:
Carmen by George Bizet
Madame Butterfly by Giacomo Puccini
La Bohème by Giacomo Puccini
Don Giovanni by Mozart
La Traviata by Giuseppe Verdi
Il Trovatore by Giuseppe Verdi
If opera appeals to you, it can be the most exciting, the most obsessive form of art you can indulge in. It is nothing but a love affair with the human voice and a liberating force for your soul.
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