Who would have guessed that opera companies would become the gatekeepers of the Broadway musical? That's the trend, however.
From New York to San Francisco, the most melodious Broadway fare is being programmed into opera seasons. On Broadway, meanwhile, the timeless art of song has been eclipsed by trendy veneers of high-tech spectacle and amplification. Even revivals fall prey to electronic "enhancement."
Happily, the acoustic music that Broadway is throwing away is being gathered in by opera companies.
In retrospect, it seems a natural evolution. After all, Tin Pan Alley composers have always held operatic ambitions.
Historians often cite Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein II's Showboat as the first great Broadway book musical. And it was. But Showboat's dramatic breadth, as well as its themes of love and redemption, also places it comfortably in the realm of dramatic opera. So do the beautiful long-lined melodies of songs like "Only Make Believe," "Old Man River," and "You Are Love."
George Gershwin's 1934 Porgy and Bess, which originally was rejected by Metropolitan Opera because of its black cast, is today equally at home in Lincoln Center and on Broadway. Stephen Sondheim-our era's most innovative, and perhaps greatest, dramatic composer-comfortably straddles both worlds with works like A Little Night Music, Sweeney Todd, and Into the Woods. Ann Arbor-based composer William Bolcom's A Wedding, which premiered in December at Chicago's Lyric Opera and is based on the 1978 Robert Altman film of the same name, draws heavily from the popular songs of Tin Pan Alley.
Recent seasons at Toledo Opera and Cleveland Opera have seen productions by both Sondheim and Gilbert & Sullivan.
Wooster-based Ohio Light Opera now programs into its summer season at least one show originally conceived for Broadway. There, the fit between Kurt Weill and Johann Strauss, or Rodgers & Hammerstein and Franz Lehar, has proven surprisingly snug.
Toledo Opera pays tribute to the love songs of musical theater with a program titled "From Broadway to the Met!" in its annual Opera Gala Saturday evening at the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle.
The program will allow the audience to hear this music as its composers originally intended, said Toledo Opera general director Renay Conlin.
"This music requires real singers and instruments. You rarely hear that on Broadway today," she said, referring to Broadway's nearly ubiquitous use of vocal amplification and synthesized music.
Conlin doesn't think so highly of what Broadway productions have become, but respects its past. She wants to break down the barriers between opera and the Broadway of old.
"Opera and musical theater use the same type of subject matter, even borrow from the same kinds of literature. In terms of craftsmanship and subtlety, there's not much difference between Sondheim and Puccini.
"The simplest and most concise distinction is that in opera the drama is generated by the music. In a musical, the drama is defined by the text. Music takes an illustrative and expressive supporting role," she said.
Both genres have wonderful music. And on Saturday night, the focus is all on the songs. Selections were chosen for their melodiousness and showstopper qualities. Virtuosic songs like "Glitter and Be Gay" from Leonard Bernstein's Candide are designed to titillate the senses; others, like "Some Enchanted Evening," from South Pacific, to make the heart beat faster.
Selections are also drawn from Rodgers & Hammerstein's Oklahoma! and Carousel, Cole Porter's Kiss Me Kate, Lerner & Loewe's My Fair Lady, and others.
Conlin laments Broadway's turn towards technology, but celebrates the opportunities it presents for Toledo Opera and opera companies in general. Great music should not be pigeonholed, but more widely shared and celebrated, she believes.
"Until the 1920s in Europe and American there was a wide variety of expressive art forms-drama, painting, sculpture, and music-that enjoyed both high cultural status and mass popularity. Back then, people shared a culture that was much less hierarchical, less fragmented than ours is. Opera was a music of the people.
"After the Depression, that changed in all the arts. People started making distinctions between high, middle, and lowbrow," said Conlin.
Now the pendulum seems ready to swing in the opposite direction. That's a good thing for everyone, she said.
"My job, the job of every cultural institution, is to give people adequate exposure to a wide variety of classical and popular forms so that people can sort out the various styles, and their own likes and dislikes, for themselves."
Opera companies suddenly have the opportunity to fill a new niche by presenting American musical theater acoustically, as it was originally intended, she said.
The evening features four young American singers, all developing broad careers.
Soprano Jan Grissom, mezzo-soprano Jessie Raven, tenor George Dyer, and baritone Weston Hurt join conductor Thomas Conlin and the Toledo Symphony in the Toledo Opera Gala 2005 at 7:30 p.m. Saturday in the Toledo Museum of Art Peristyle. Tickets range from $18 to $50. Information: 419-255-7464.
Contact Steven Cornelius at: firstname.lastname@example.org