Let Op Be Op!

by Barry Drogin

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My wife, son and I survived NewOp7 in Amsterdam, despite four bicycle accidents and one injury apiece. If you cycle through Amsterdam, as we did, you keep encountering, on walls and vehicles, the admonition:

"Let Op!"

Although our Dutch is non-existent, we were pretty sure this wasn't a marvelous advertising campaign by Theater Instituut Nederland about our meeting, which nevertheless had a record turn-out of a hundred participants. But seeing the phrase again and again inspired a completion of the sentence, namely,

"Let Op be Op!"

and, by extension,

"Let Music Theatre be Music Theatre!"

By the end of NewOp, I came to the conclusion that the "and" in this meeting on contemporary opera and music theatre was not due to a blurring of a new genre that could not decide whether to call itself "opera" or "music theatre," but was, in fact, a long-term wall between two different traditions. Many of the attendees and works being presented were separated by differing purposes, histories and audiences. That both were poor cousins of the music business, what I like to call a "niche of a niche market," made open animosity futile. In addition, a cadre of performers, conductors, directors and set designers who were perfectly willing to serve both camps kept hostilities in check.

Nevertheless, the purveyors of "music theatre" found examples of "contemporary opera" to be derivative, out-dated, irrelevant and boring. The purveyors of "contemporary opera" found examples of "music theatre" to be self-indulgent, elitist, not entertaining and boring. But as the meeting's "open-minded reactionary," I could see the split. That the names, "opera" and "music theatre," should probably be switched has served to confuse the Western world for centuries. Another obfuscation of the truth comes from the fact that the music of the "opera" tradition is not really taught or studied by the schools of composition. Also, the fact that Mozart belonged to both camps confuses the issue.

But it is clear to me that the tradition of opera, as preserved by opera houses, is a different beast than a parallel tradition of classical composers creating works for voice, which is now starting to flourish under the rubric of "music theatre." The opera house tradition has spun off several related traditions, such as operetta, the American Musical Theatre, small-scale opera, and what I have recently started calling the New York School of Opera, and these sub-genres, as you will, are slowly feeding new work back into the opera houses. The "music theatre" tradition has lately started to sneak some of its works into opera houses, but their reception has been guarded, and supported mainly by the domination of directors, set designers, singers and musicologists and the flight of "opera" composers into the financially more lucrative sub-genres.

What are these two traditions? "Opera," which I have already identified with opera house standard repertory, as well as several sub-genres, is truly a theatre of music, of singers, of contemporary drama and immediacy. "Music Theatre," on the other hand, is music using elements of opera, such as singers, lighting, sets, as well as newer media like video and electronics, but rooted in formal questions of content, communication and purpose. Creators of "music theatre" are interested in how to use the trappings of theatre to hold their audiences' interest, while reaching for artistic goals which the "opera" audience has no interest in. At the beginning of the century, many of the composers writing "music theatre" had already established reputations in chamber music, symphonic and piano literature, before writing their one so-called "opera." "Music theatre" is now developing to a point where composers fresh from college are experimenting in the field before reaching musical maturity, so that they may even become known as "music theatre" composers, rather than classical music composers dabbling in "music theatre.".

This is not intended as a criticism of either music. It is just as difficult to create a two-hour "opera" as it is a two-hour "music theatre" piece. There is exciting work going on in both genres, talent on both sides. And given the common personnel at the meetings, as well as the limitations of money and organization, I would never advocate splitting NewOp into two separate gatherings. But, at the NewOp meetings, it is getting curiouser and curiouser to see those with a knowledge and respect for one tradition sneering at those involved with the other, and vice versa. Until we acknowledge the existence of this split (which dates back two centuries), even plan sessions accordingly, there will be unnecessary difficulties and disappointments.

Both fields have enormous hurdles to overcome. Except for a handful of workshops in American Musical Theatre, the music of "opera" is not taught to composers, nor is it respected by the academy. "Music theatre," as a subset of contemporary classical music (or "new music"), is still recovering from a split with the public and diminished funding. The term "music theatre" is in itself misleading, and more appropriately applied to contemporary opera, and vice versa, but for historical purposes.

What's more, it will be dangerous to get sucked into the parlor game, "Is it opera or music theatre?" It is clear to me that some people who think they are writing "music theatre" are not, and there is now a long history of composers labeling their works "operas" who, under this new theory, shouldn't. Some may argue strongly with my thesis, some may acknowledge it but claim to be writing both or neither. For those seeking independence and innovation, talk of tradition and influence is irrelevant. For those seeking common ground and connection, I think such talk is useful.

Let Op be Op! Let Music Theatre be Music Theatre!

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Last Updated: August 4, 2007