Does Opera San Jose have a few selected
Broadway musicals in its future?
And why would that be so bad?
By Mort Levine
Prior to the curtain raising on Tosca at
Opera San Jose in September, General Director
Larry Hancock was explaining the opera.
With a few minutes remaining, he began ruminating
on the gloomy financial future of
the company. That didn’t surprise the operagoers.
They’ve heard that from virtually every
American opera company ad infinitum.
But then he said something that just
might happen, suggesting that it would cause
everyone to gasp in shock.
“We might think seriously about including
a Broadway musical in our season!”
Despite the Hancock trepidation, there
didn’t seem to be a quick intake of breath, a
jaw drop or an anguished moan.
He went on to explain that he had recently
listened again to South Pacific, one of the great
works of popular musical theater. It and other
masterpieces by Rogers and Hammerstein are
now rather hoary with age—almost as ancient
as the Tosca that would go forth following the
lecture. Thus there are many potential ticket
buyers who weren’t even born when the “great
age” of the Broadway musical lit up New York
and made its way throughout the world on
stage and screen.
Many of the great opera houses of Europe
perform each season one of the top ten American
musicals like Fiddler on the Roof, West
Side Story, Carousel and Oklahoma. They do
it because it sells tickets.
About the same week of the Hancock “bombshell,” San Francisco Opera was doing
Sweeney Todd, the gruesome but witty Sondheim
satire about baking people into meat
pies. Clearly not a “real” opera. But not only
did it sell well, but it attracted younger audiences
who mostly steer clear of opera houses.
Presumably there are still purists who
don’t want opera as we know it defiled by this
lesser art form that panders to popular tastes.
The same opposition occurred years ago in Europe
with the disdain for operetta. Yet over the
past hundred years, works like Merry Widow,
Die Fledermaus and assorted Offenbach bon
bons have inserted themselves into the world’s
top opera houses to the great satisfaction of
audiences and company bean counters.
In fact, it was the operetta genre that stimulated
the growth of the Broadway musical,
partially by the influx of composers, singers
and musicians who left Europe and partially
because audiences in the US liked what they
heard. The works of Lehar, Friml and Victor
Herbert, not to mention Gilbert and Sullivan,
were just too good to pass up.
Worry not, the unique aspects of grand
opera or smaller scale verismo works will always
keep a tight hold on audiences. The marvel
of the un-amplified voice filling a huge hall
or scaling several octaves with sureness and
the intellectual heft of serious musical drama
is worth perpetuating.
But opera companies obviously must
respond to changing demographics. It is evident
that Opera San Jose must pay attention
to those changes if it is to survive long term.
(SJOG Newsletter November, 2015)
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