WHEN is a musical an opera? Yes, that's a trick question. And it's especially tricky if you're running an opera company these days.
Musicals, operettas and other lighter or nontraditional works are cropping up on opera stages across America. According to Marc Scorca, president and chief executive of Opera America, a nonprofit service organization, "We are seeing a broader exploration of traditional Broadway crossover musical theater and other forms of vocal music theater that can be staged. That's not to say that opera companies haven't always done 'The Merry Widow' or 'Die Fledermaus' or Gilbert and Sullivan, but I do see opera companies going further in their exploration of an expanded repertory than ever before."
What's more, such programming is part of a larger trend, as opera seeks to reach beyond its traditional image and audience. An infusion of directing talent from stage and screen continues, and opera is also venturing into new media with a sense of urgency -- and a success -- unthinkable just a few years ago.
It all points toward an abruptly expanding view of the mission of the opera house. "We are in the first year of really creative, energetic experimentation, and I am curious to measure the outcome," says Scorca. "We need to be viewing all of it in a measured way to see what works, using traditional and new technologies."
Here in Los Angeles, L.A. Opera has grown in the direction of avant-garde work and music theater alike. And new media ventures are also in the works. While the Metropolitan Opera's live high-definition video transmissions have grabbed the headlines lately, L.A. Opera has also been working on new media ventures for some time.
"There are plans to simulcast productions and to do films," says the company's Eli and Edythe Broad general director, Placido Domingo. "We have four or five films already done. We just have to organize everything contractually with the unions" in order to be able to release or broadcast them.
Already, "L.A. Opera on Air" is new this year. KUSC-FM (91.5) is producing the radio program in partnership with the company and will broadcast the 2006-07 season beginning May 12. And in July, Chicago's WFMT will add L.A. Opera to the Chicago Lyric, Houston Grand and San Francisco operas for a total of 52 weeks of opera radio a year.
L.A. Opera had, but lost, the rights to Stephen Sondheim's "Sweeney Todd," and three years ago it presented a New York City Opera production of the composer's "A Little Night Music," directed by Broadway's Scott Ellis.
This season, however, is especially rife with crossover. In February, the company staged Kurt Weill's "Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny," a genre-defying work perched between opera and musical theater, staged by Broadway director John Doyle and starring Patti LuPone and Audra McDonald. Saturday, Franz Lehar's popular operetta "The Merry Widow" was scheduled to open. It is to run concurrently with "Porgy and Bess," an American opera more often identified with the world of musical theater that is set to begin performances Friday. In June, the company will present "Luisa Fernanda," a zarzuela, which is a form of Spanish musical theater, starring Domingo. And just last week, the company announced that it would offer $20 tickets for all seats remaining at the May 18 "Porgy" and the May 20 "Merry Widow."
Elsewhere, a production of "Sweeney Todd" that began on Broadway moved to Britain's Royal Opera and Chicago's Lyric Opera. New York City Opera, which will be taken over by the iconoclastic Gerard Mortier in 2009, had "Ragtime" planned for 2008. The company recently had to postpone it but plans to replace it with another musical.
Nor is this expansive view limited to large companies. At San Antonio Opera, an up-and-coming regional company, the current season combined "La Traviata" with "The Pirates of Penzance," plus upcoming concerts by Domingo and mezzo-soprano Frederica von Stade.
Although opera companies staging musicals are not a new phenomenon, the pressure to expand the audience is greater than ever. "Opera is an aging art form," says Peter Gelb, now in his first season at the helm of the Metropolitan Opera, speaking by phone from New York. "I think the reason why more companies are doing operetta and musical theater is declining attendance."
Domingo concurs, but not without a hint of ambivalence. "All the theaters, more and more we need to fill every night the houses, so we need to search for more things," says the popular tenor, another pioneer in crossover ventures, who also runs Washington National Opera. "Basically, I'm glad that these works are more and more accepted in an opera house."
The yin and yang in L.A.