Spot the Difference: Opera and Musical

Opera Week was my first experience of opera (apart from one I went to in high school, which may or may not have been Bizet’s ‘Carmen’, and about which I can honestly remember absolutely nothing), but I’ve loved musicals since I was a teenager and have been fortunate enough to attend a number of them over the years. Opera and Musicals are two different things, but I started asking myself ‘where does that difference lie?’

Bizet’s ‘Carmen’. Have I seen it? Dancing gypsys? Rings a faint bell.

Since it’s the 21st century, I turned to Google, and swiftly discovered that different people have come up with a number of different answers to this question. As near as I can tell, the main ones are:

The skill-set required by the performers: in a musical, the characters are played by actors who must also be able to sing, whereas in opera the performers are very, very highly-trained and skilled singers who have to be able to act a bit. Opera music requires a particular style of singing, as well as the ability to sing in multiple languages, and opera singers are specialists who, apart from having a certain raw talent, train for years to do what they do. By contrast, the songs in a musical are usually in English and can be sung passably well by anyone who can carry a tune, particularly if they’ve had a bit of vocal training. So, for example, Anne Hathaway and Hugh Jackman, both talented actors, were able to take on the principal roles in the 2012 movie adaptation of Les Miserables, but probably won’t be appearing in an opera anytime soon.

On the other hand, opera singers can’t necessarily act, and the ‘acting’ required in their roles is often highly stylised (read: melodramatic). Moreover, the most important thing in an opera role is the ability to sing, whereas in a musical the actor must also look the part (I once went to a performance of Les Miserables where the role of the adult Cosette was played by a somewhat stout lady of middle years. She was a fantastic singer, but it didn’t do anything to help me overcome my preference for a Marius/Éponine pairing. This would be unremarkable in an opera).

The amount of singing: in an opera, the whole thing is sung and any ‘speaking’ is done in a sort of chanting style known as recitatitve, while a musical usually alternates between musical numbers and spoken dialogue (although there are exceptions, such as Les Miserables, where the whole thing is sung).
Movie poster for 2012’s ‘Les Miserables’.

The focus: a musical is all about telling a story, and uses music and singing as part of the story-telling medium. This is why it’s important the performers in a musical can act – they have to be able to portray the unfolding plot convincingly, to the point that you don’t really stop to ask yourself why exactly the opposing gangs have decided to burst into song rather than just beat the snot out of one another. In an opera, however, the focus is on making lovely music, and the plot is really just a vehicle for stringing a bunch of lovely pieces of music together. The plot doesn’t have to make sense, and from what I’ve read of them it’s probably often better not to even try to figure out what’s actually going on.

More humourous answers include: the cost of the ticket; the level of snobbery; and how long it takes a character to expire after the death-blow.

death of Ophelie in Hamlet
The death of Ophélie, from the opera ‘Hamlet’ by the French composer Ambroise Thomas. She’s down but she ain’t yet out.

Incidentally, it seems to be fairly widely acknowledged that comic opera/operetta, such as the works of Gilbert and Sullivan, occupy an odd sort of half-way position between musicals and ‘serious’ opera, incorporating elements of both to amusing effect.

How would you define the difference between an opera and a musical? And do you have a preference for one or the other?

2 thoughts on “Spot the Difference: Opera and Musical

  1. I would say that Opera is classical in style – where one’s voice is an instrument, often Romance languages (Italian, Spanish french etc) are kept because they end with vowels so that notes could be extended. Mozart changed that when he wrote them in German – one could argue that some beatbox could be classed as Opera – perhaps we should now use the term High Opera for the traditional old classics; Musicals are dramas that include songs in any language. However there are things in between – Operetta is how I would describe Gilbert & Sullivan and some Stauss. However since the 70s they have being mixed about a bit (think of Queen and people like Nigel Kennedy combining pop and classical). Anna Nicole for instance is a very modern-subject Opera and certainly not a musical. I love them all.


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