Mak­ing beau­ti­ful mu­sic to­gether

Fans may sniff, but opera and Broad­way are of­ten in tune

The Washington Post Sunday - - ARTS & STYLE - BY ANNE MIDGETTE

When­ever opera turns to Broad­way, many opera fans clutch their pearls in tut-tut­ting hor­ror. That’s a lot of pearl-clutch­ing, be­cause more opera com­pa­nies are do­ing it, from the Glim­mer­glass Fes­ti­val to the Chicago Lyric Opera (which of­fers its an­nual mu­si­cal out­side the pa­ram­e­ters of the reg­u­lar sea­son, to smooth the ruf­fled feath­ers of sub­scribers) to the Wash­ing­ton Na­tional Opera, which of­fered “Show Boat” a cou­ple of sea­sons back.

Then there are the singers who ven­ture onto Broad­way — in­clud­ing Renée Flem­ing, who may or may not have re­tired from opera with her re­cent “Der Rosenkava­some lier” at the Metropoli­tan Opera, but who has an­nounced that she will ap­pear next year in a new pro­duc­tion of “Carousel.” Cue an­other round of dis­ap­proval.

An in­ter­viewer re­cently asked what I thought of a singer tak­ing the high­est of art forms and mak­ing it pop­u­lar. He was re­fer­ring to Lu­ciano Pavarotti, but the ba­sic premise is in­dica­tive of what both­ers opera lovers about Broad­way — as well as demon­strat­ing a pro­foundly flawed set of as­sump­tions about “high” and “pop­u­lar” art. Opera, like cin­ema, has al­ways had a long tra­di­tion of mul­ti­plex-level, pop­u­lar hits off­set­ting its more high­brow, art­house-like prod­ucts. As for Broad­way: Opera and Broad­way have had a long and fruit­ful re­la­tion­ship. It’s just opera fans who need catch­ing up.

Broad­way and opera have a long his­tory to­gether. Broad­way has been a home for a num­ber of op­eras: the Gersh­wins’ “Porgy and Bess” (1935); Thom­son and Stein’s “Four Saints in Three Acts” (1933); Menotti’s “The Medium” and “The Tele­phone” (1947), “The Con­sul” (1950) and “The Saint of Bleecker Street” (1954); Bl­itzstein’s 1949 “Regina” (it­self based on a Broad­way play, Lil­lian Hell­man’s “The Lit­tle Foxes”); and Bern­stein’s “Can­dide” (1956, with sundry re­vi­sions and re­vivals). Broad­way has also of­fered a home to some opera singers: most fa­mously, Ezio Pinza, who got an un­ex­pect­edly tri­umphant last act to an il­lus­tri­ous opera ca­reer

when he and Mary Martin starred in Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein’s “South Pa­cific” (1949). Lawrence Tib­bett, in his day a heart­throb Amer­i­can bari­tone, acted in sev­eral films in the 1930s and turned to Broad­way in the 1950s, af­ter his opera ca­reer had started to wind down. Then there were mid­ca­reer singers who ef­fec­tively be­came Broad­way artists, such as Chris­tine John­son, who orig­i­nated the role in “Carousel” (1945), Net­tie Fowler, that Flem­ing will take in the new re­vival.

Broad­way has also served as an in­cu­ba­tor for op­er­atic tal­ent. Baz Luhrmann’s 2002 Broad­way stag­ing of “La Bo­hème” — which in­tro­duced Puc­cini’s opera to many the­ater­go­ers and sent the opera crowd into parox­ysms be­cause of its use of am­pli­fi­ca­tion — fea­tured three casts of clas­si­cally trained singers; some, such as the bass­bari­tone Daniel Okulitch and the tenor Je­sus Gar­cia, went on to ac­tive opera ca­reers. The 2008 re­vival of “South Pa­cific” on Broad­way gave op­er­atic bari­tone Paulo Szot, who reimag­ined the role of Emile de Becque in a younger, hand­somer vein, an en­tree to a sig­nif­i­cant in­ter­na­tional opera ca­reer. It didn’t hurt David Pittsinger, ei­ther, although the bass-bari­tone was al­ready well es­tab­lished when he joined the pro­duc­tion as Emile later in the run.

“Lower?” “Higher?” Say, rather, sim­ply dif­fer­ent. It seems ar­bi­trary to as­sert that Broad­way mu­si­cals ex­ist in a sep­a­rate cat­e­gory from an art form that hap­pily em­braces pop­u­lar forms such as opera comique, singspiel and op­eretta (all of which in­volve spo­ken di­a­logue in­ter­spersed with sung num­bers). Those opera lovers who pro­fess to look down on mu­si­cals act as though the genre were best rep­re­sented by “Aaron Slick from Punkin Crick,” a 1952 hill­billy film best re­mem­bered for oc­ca­sion­ing a near-rup­ture be­tween the opera star Robert Mer­rill and the Metropoli­tan Opera’s gen­eral man­ager, Ru­dolf Bing. Bing or­dered Mer­rill not to make the movie, and al­most wouldn’t take him back when Mer­rill re­turned, hat in hand, beg­ging for a sec­ond chance af­ter the film flopped. Of course, not all mu­si­cals are this lousy — although to watch Deb­o­rah Voigt sim­per and co­quette her way through “An­nie Get Your Gun” at the Glim­mer­glass Fes­ti­val a few years ago, you could be ex­cused for for­get­ting that.

Now that the dis­tinc­tion be­tween opera and Broad­way has been re­in­forced by the am­pli­fi­ca­tion ques­tion — Broad­way singers are heav­ily miked these days, and thus fo­cus on dif­fer­ent as­pects of vo­cal pro­duc­tion — it’s all too easy to for­get that back in the pre-mi­cro­phone days, Broad­way singers could teach some opera singers a thing or two.

The mu­si­cal “Carousel” is an ob­ject illustration. It’s widely ac­knowl­edged to be the most op­er­atic of Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein’s works: richly scored and vo­cally de­mand­ing. Yet the first few times I saw it on­stage, even with op­er­atic voices, I found it flat and dated, ham­pered by the hardto-credit fi­nal act, in which the pro­tag­o­nist, Billy Bigelow, re­turns from the dead (a de­vice that Verdi also used in “I Lom­bardi”). Not un­til I re­cently found videos of John Raitt, the orig­i­nal Billy, singing the piece did I fi­nally un­der­stand. Raitt was a for­mi­da­ble tech­ni­cian with a big, easy voice; you can find video of him singing Fi­garo’s aria from “The Bar­ber of Seville,” in English, but per­fectly re­spectably. When he launches into “Carousel’s” fa­mous “So­lil­o­quy,” day­dream­ing about his un­born child, the piece loses the sense of ar­ti­fi­cial­ity, of a self­con­scious Big Mo­ment, that had al­ways seemed to sur­round it when­ever I’d seen it on­stage. Most singers Per­form it; Raitt sim­ply de­liv­ered it as though it were a piece of act­ing that just hap­pened to be sung, and topped with an ef­fort­less high B-flat at the end. Szot and Pittsinger have both said that “South Pa­cific” taught them about act­ing; Raitt bears out the idea that some opera singers have much to learn in this re­gard. And he was able to do it with­out a mic, eight times a week.

The most im­por­tant dis­tinc­tion be­tween opera and Broad­way is one of ap­proach. Ev­ery form of the­ater, mu­si­cal and oth­er­wise, has to be pro­duced with a mea­sure of what one might call stylis­tic tact. You don’t sing Mozart like grand opera — it sounds silly to belt out his grace­ful lines as though you wanted to reach the top bal­cony — and you don’t stage “The Merry Widow” as though it were “Aida,” a pas­sion­ate his­tor­i­cal melo­drama. Yet some who have em­braced the idea that Broad­way is pop­u­lar and has much to teach opera have taken it as a corol­lary that Broad­way di­rec­tors must be the best peo­ple to stage opera — as though this were an en­tirely new idea. His­tor­i­cally, some Broad­way di­rec­tors have be­come sig­nif­i­cant forces in opera: think John Dex­ter, think Frank Cor­saro and oth­ers who were bit­ten by the opera bug. How­ever, many who are hired to­day as though they rep­re­sent the prom­ise of opera’s fu­ture seem in­tim­i­dated by the genre, such as Bartlett Sher, who has staged sev­eral unin­spired Met pro­duc­tions (“Elisir d’Amore”) that con­trast hugely with his suc­cess­ful work on the Broad­way stage, in­clud­ing “South Pa­cific.”

I don’t see this as proof that opera, a “higher” art form, eludes them. Rather, I sus­pect that the mech­a­nisms of a canon­i­cal art form — try­ing to break some­thing free of many lay­ers of tra­di­tion, in an in­sti­tu­tion, the opera house, not adept at rapid re­sponse — are more stul­ti­fy­ing than the fast­paced at­mos­phere of a liv­ing one, a Broad­way the­ater. It will be in­ter­est­ing to see whether Flem­ing can bring some kind of new life or spirit to Broad­way — or whether, as seems more likely, and sup­ported by his­tor­i­cal prece­dent, it will be the other way round, and Broad­way will bring new life to her.


TOP: Op­er­atic so­prano Deb­o­rah Voight giv­ing it the old show­biz try in Irv­ing Ber­lin’s “An­nie Get Your Gun,” at the 2011 Glim­mer­glass Fes­ti­val.


ABOVE: Opera star Paulo Szot and Broad­way lead­ing lady Kelli O’Hara in the 2008 Lin­coln Cen­ter The­ater re­vival of Rodgers and Ham­mer­stein’s “South Pa­cific.”

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