It’s a classic conundrum that every human being has encountered at least once in their lives. There you are, writing music for an over-the-top production of some sort, and you suddenly realize that you have no idea if you are writing an opera or a musical. We’ve all been there, right? Luckily for you, I am here to give you some general guidelines that should point you in the right direction!
Words or Music?
One way of telling the difference between an opera and a musical is to take note of which is more important: the words or the music. I have been told that in an opera, the music is the most important thing, and that one ought to be able to enjoy the performance even when one does not speak the language. Musicals, on the other hand, place a greater importance on the words that are being sung, so that you could have a good time just reading them in the program without ever hearing them sung at all, if for some reason all of the performers went on strike during the intermission, or you suddenly found yourself in the restroom clutching your Playbill for most of the show.
Of course, this isn’t really true at all. The people who have said this to me have been, I think, slightly confused. They have have been talking about the difference between comedy and emotionally changed drama with irrelevant plot. You see, comedies quite often rely on the words to get their jokes across, which is why so many comedic operas are so often done in English here in America, or are, at the very least, translated. Sure, you could go see Tosca and have a great time without knowing Italian, but let’s face it, nobody cares about the plot of Tosca. We get the picture. You are all sad and horny. You are all dead. The end. No translation needed. But I could say the same thing about some musicals. Cats comes to mind. Even with all of the words printed in front of you in your native language, you will still be confused. You came to see people dressed as cats, and you got it. And it’s okay that you don’t speak Meowngolian.
Is There Talking?
Another tried and true way to tell if you are composing an opera or a musical is to check and see whether or not there are any parts you have forgotten to set to music. People always say that an opera is just a musical with no talking, right? They sing everything! Well, I mean, not all operas. Some of them do have some talking. And some musicals have no talking. Like Jesus Christ Superstar. They don’t really talk much in that, right? Although, that is a rock opera, so maybe there is some truth to that. Leonard Bernstein once famously said that West Side Story was a musical instead of an opera, because he couldn’t figure out how to set the emotional climax to music. So if Lenny said it, it must be true. Even though it isn’t.
What’s the Style?
Of course, you could just check the style of the piece. It is well known that operas are written in a stuffy and classical style, so if you are including things like country music, gospel showstoppers, and Elvis Presley-inspired do-wop, then you are probably writing a…wait, hold on a second, I am being told that modern opera composers totally use those things, and more. So actually, the overall style of the thing can’t really be used to determine whether or not it is an opera or not. How frustrating…
What Do You Usually Write?
Look, I don’t know what you’re trying to compose over there! I’m just trying to be helpful! What do you normally write?! Is your name Mozart? Then you are probably writing an opera! Is your name Stephen Schwartz, award-winning composer of Godspell, Pippin, and Wicked? Then you are probably…what!? What the heck is Séance on a Wet Afternoon?! Okay, so apparently he’s an opera composer now. Nevermind.
Who is it For?
Okay, since there are apparently no longer any observational differences between operas and musicals, then you just have to ask yourself who it’s for. Were you planning on having The Met perform this thing, or the Gershwin Theater? Who is singing it? Do you want them to have microphones? Opera singers do not use microphones, so if you are orchestrating a lot of electric guitars into the score, you might want to think of it as a musical. Or not. What do I know? There are no rules anymore!
The important thing is that you write it, and that it is awesome. Once you have that done, somebody will come along who wants to perform it, I’m sure. And let history decide what kind of a show it is. You don’t have time for that! You should already be starting on the next one.