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Friday, July 15, 2005 | “Palm Beach, the Screwball Musical,” a new work created by the La Jolla Playhouse, recently played to large and enthusiastic audiences. I enjoyed the production so much I actually attended twice. Throughout each performance I could not avoid musing upon the differences between opera and the new American musical, marveling at the extraordinary talents required to bring each of them to life.

The American musical clearly has its roots in European musical theatre because that is where stories were first told in song for public performance. For many centuries, religious stories, local history and moral lessons have been passed on in song, chant and rhythm, because the accompaniment of music makes the story more easily remembered. But a musical story being delivered for entertainment was a clear departure from the didactic nature of vocal performance.

Singing was paramount in the early history of opera, and vocal flexibility, ornamentation, and beauty of sound dominated the need for dramatic reality. Acting was not expected, nor desired, as anything which took attention away from vocalism was anathema. Frequently, the stories were of a high moral tone, concerned well-known Greek and Roman legends, spoke of gods and goddesses, and were unrelated to real life.

Over several centuries, vocal styles changed, acting and stage design evolved, gods and goddesses were no longer essential and political and social issues came to the opera stage. The verismo style of Leoncavallo’s “Pagiacci,” in which an itinerant actor murders his unfaithful wife in front of an onstage audience, helped bring opera into the modern era, far removed from Greek and Roman legend.

But another trend was already underway – the growth of the operetta. Whereas opera singers were somewhat specialized artists, with a carefully developed vocal style which met certain criteria, subjective though they were, the singer of operetta was more flexible vocally, and certainly dramatically. Most operas have no dialogue, but all operettas do, requiring singers who can speak text. Operetta demanded a better and more naturalistic actor/singer than did traditional opera, and a new genre of performer developed. Operetta developed broad appeal because it was more “natural.” People sang, certainly, but they also spoke and acted in a realistic though stylized way. They used the language of the audience and involvement between stage and audience was more intimate. There was also less perceived snobbishness.

Operetta boomed in Europe especially through the works of Strauss and Lehár. “Die Fledermaus” and “The Merry Widow” were hot, and inspired many other composers who had not yet ventured into the waters of operetta to start swimming with the tide.

The new world of America embraced this music in its own way. We all have some knowledge of the early musicals on Broadway which seemed to be a loose story with songs simply dropped in from time to time. The music rarely advanced the story the way an aria in opera gave insights into the mind of the character. These entertainments were adaptive, and new songs added as the occasion demanded, or the performers changed. They were more flexible than opera.

Over time, the story became more structured, the songs actually advanced the story line, and greater unity was achieved between song, acting and dance. Dance, a vital part of the American musical, just as the waltz, the polka and the mazurka had been such a part of the European operetta.

Clearly a new performer was demanded for the American musical. An all-singing, all-talking, all-dancing artist with vocal and physical flexibility and no predetermined vocal expectations, just a voice which was capable of telling the story. There was no intellectual “vocal standard” set by so-called experts, which led to Ethel Merman, Julie Andrews, Barbra Streisand and Sarah Brightman each becoming true stars, with distinctly different voices, styles and personalities, but able to perform much of the same music. Opera, on the other hand, focuses on vocal color and technique in a more academic way, and the stylistic distinctions, rhythmic changes, and interpretive differences of the Broadway artist are less easily accommodated.

Which brings me back to “Palm Beach, the Screwball Musical.” Here on a local stage, I enjoyed some of the most talented performers any theatre-goer could ever wish to see. There may be bigger names somewhere, there may be higher-paid artists, there may be bigger stars, whatever that means. But I doubt there would be any who could communicate with an audience better than these fine young people, who could convey the joy and spirit of the piece with such enthusiasm, or who could make an audience go away with bigger smiles. Each was a singer-actor-dancer of a kind opera cannot develop because opera uses unamplified voices in large theatres with large and noisy orchestras, and very different vocal and physical demands. “Palm Beach” was performed in a small, intimate theatre, had an orchestra of only four excellent musicians, and was amplified. Clearly, opera and the new American musical are very different.

Nevertheless, each is a specialized art form requiring remarkable talent and skill. The best Broadway performers have no less talent than an opera performer. They are just different animals, each with its own set of specialized tricks. At the La Jolla Playhouse I gained an even deeper respect for performers whose skill with song, dance, acting, timing, comedy and drama are second-to-none, and make some opera singers of today look so dull on stage, regardless of vocal talent.

Obviously, we will never see an all-singing, all-dancing production of Bizet’s “Carmen,” but the obvious talent of young Americans in contemporary musical theatre should encourage every opera performer to set higher theatrical standards for himself.

Ian Campbell is general director of San Diego Opera.

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