The aesthetic apartheid which once separated opera from musicals is crumbling in Britain. A good thing too, says Herb Greer-the US should follow suitby Herb Greer / May 20, 1996 / Leave a comment
Once upon a time, in what now seems a distant past, opera companies offered their audiences an exclusive diet of melodrama, sumptuous arias and somewhat demanding cultural uplift. The brassier genre of musical comedy was confined to West End commercial theatres, where punters could enjoy a relaxing evening of undemanding fun, with tunes you could whistle.
Providers of material for the opera were called composers and librettists, and were (still are, in fact) regarded with a certain respect. They were artists. The other lot were just writers of words and music. They were artistes: generally they used the tradesman’s entrance to the cultural world, where their works were regarded by audience and critics alike as a sort of aesthetic Kleenex: pleasant for the nonce, but disposable, and certainly nothing to place in a serious venue.
On the whole, this is still true in the US. Jerome Kern, George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, Richard Rodgers and Frank Loesser produced what are called, not classics, but “standards”-songs which have not faded, but persisted stubbornly in the public ear well after the shows they came from sank out of sight and mind. This persistence was not a consequence of hype, but of a kind of aural sympathy which catches a good song in the mind’s ear and keeps it there.
Curiously, it was the prima facie popularity of these songs and their shows which told against any idea of their cultural excellence. Anything so easy to absorb, so instantly accessible, might be amusing, or tickle certain facile sentiments, but as for being good, well, at best they were good “of a kind.” In the US that kind is not culture. It still has too much of a smoky tinge of Broadway and easy, unbuttoned applause. True, it pleases, but in the way that a charming, very lively (if expensive) chorus girl might please. It does not belong in the same house, and certainly not in the same critical ambiance as, say, Carmen or The Magic Flute.
There are rare exceptions: Porgy and Bess, which was looked down upon for years for being too much like a musical-all those popular tunes! Even today, who will refer to Summertime as an aria? Leonard Bernstein, like George Gershwin, worked in the opera genre, but his West Side Story and Candide (both of which borrowed their mildly “serious” cachet from antiquarian sources) have remained shows,…