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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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