By Ricky O’Bannon

A well-worn joke in musical circles asks, “What’s the difference between an opera and a musical?” The answer? “About 50 bucks a ticket.”

Opera and musical theater share certain conventions, elements and at times performers and composers. Leonard Bernstein wrote Trouble in Tahiti for the opera hall, but he also wrote On the Town for Broadway. There are operas written with popular appeal in mind, and there are musicals that aspire to fine art.

For every rule that defines their boundaries, there is seemingly a counter-example ready. So in the end, where is the line between opera and musical theater? And does it matter?

“The definition is always hard to wrestle,” said Garnett Bruce.

Garnett Bruce
Garnett Bruce

Bruce is the director of the upcoming Baltimore Symphony Orchestra’s production of Bernstein’s Candide, and he has even written a thesis on the operetta.

Candide holds an interesting place in the opera-or-musical debate because of its history. Bernstein’s work opened on Broadway in 1956 as a musical, but the composer retooled and re-orchestrated multiple productions of Candide and later versions have become a regular staple for opera companies.

“I see this as Mr. Bernstein stretching the boundaries of musical theater,” Bruce said. “You hear the lush orchestrations in Rodgers and Hammerstein in the middle ’50s, and so this is Bernstein sort of one-bettering them by adding sophisticated percussion and rhythm to basically a standard Romantic sound package.

“He meant for it to be popular theater. He meant for it to be accessible and make its point, but he also meant for it to be sung by great voices.”

When it comes to musical theater and opera, we are often drawn into binary category distinctions. In reality, there is a wide spectrum linking opera and musical theater. Placing some of those works on either side of that spectrum is obvious, but in other cases, the distinctions become blurry.

“The Germans are at fault here because they tried to put a category to everything,” Bruce said in jest. “And I think Mr. Bernstein was trying to knock those down. I think most American composers are trying to knock those down.”

Two-such American composers asked about the distinction by the New York Times in 2000 showed far more comfort with the blurriness than the commentators, fans and critics who might be looking for a definite answer.

“Essentially, the difference, I think, is in the expectation of the audience,” composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim said. “Obviously, there are differences in terms of performers and how they approach singing as an art form, [but] I truly believe that when 'The Medium' and 'The Telephone' were done on Broadway, they were shows … and when they were done in opera houses, they were operas.”

When composer Milton Babbitt was posed the same question, he described it as a continuum where drawing a line is both difficult and pointless. Ultimately he summed up his opinion by saying “I don't regard it as a matter of any great significance.”

Classical critic Anthony Tommasini might have found the most satisfying hard-and-fast rule to tell the difference when he suggested that in the musical theater tradition, the words have the upper hand while in opera they play second fiddle to the music. But even then, there are cases where the winner in the battle for prominence between music and words is easier to pick out than others.

The difficulty for “either/or” labels is that while both opera and musicals have conventions they usually follow, there are always exceptions. Bruce pointed out that while opera is usually through-composed and musical theater has breaks between songs for spoken word, Bizet's opera Carmen has dialogue breaks while Broadway musicals like “Sweeney Todd” or “Les Misérables” are mostly through-composed.

Similarly, Bruce said labeling one as highbrow and the other as popular doesn’t always hold up.

“Composers don’t set out to write the pop ballad, but ‘La donna è mobile’ was a pop ballad that made Verdi famous all over Italy, and he knew it,” Bruce said. “The ‘Toreador Song’ was a pop ballad all over Paris, so these composers knew how to write hits for their audience.”

Bernstein, Bruce said, was a musical chameleon who tried to understand his times and was perfectly comfortable drawing on ideas from both in and outside the classical concert hall. In Candide that means bringing together accessible entertainment from Broadway with a symphonic vocabulary out of the opera hall.

“We might wish to be entertained, but when we’re made to think and appreciate beauty, music, humanity and a story with a point of view, that is the greatest reward of theater,” he said.