What is music theatre? Since this usage, although known in various European languages, is relatively new in English, the question has been posed in various ways.
Opera is an abbreviated form of a still-current Italian expression, opera lirica, which can be translated as “lyric work” or “works that are sung”… (p.3)
So begins Eric Salzman and Thomas Desi’s 2008 book The New Music Theater, in an introduction entitled ‘What Is Music Theater?’. This is clearly an important question in a book that presumably aims to define, locate and promote not only ‘music theatre’ but ‘the new music theatre’, in relation to other terms like ‘opera’ and ‘musicals’. We might expect them to answer questions such as: how does ‘the new music theatre’ differ from ‘new opera’? Is opera ‘the old music theatre’? What makes the new music theatre different, apart from its newness?
In May of this year, I attended the Music Theatre Now meeting in Rotterdam: the culmination of a triennial competition showcasing the best new music theatre from around the world, as selected by a jury of artists and producers. Amongst the winning productions were several that described themselves as ‘operas’, several that were produced by opera companies, some that were even staged in opera houses. Amongst the audience were representatives from many of the world’s leading opera venues, eager to see the new work.
The reason why I chose to open with the Salzman/Desi quote is because it perfectly captures the slippage that so often occurs between the terms ‘music theatre’ and ‘opera’. This was a constant feature of the talks in and around the MTN meeting, including the various scheduled lectures and debates, whereby the object of discussion would suddenly shift in order to justify some line of argument. There is a definite sense that the two terms aren’t synonymous, but their relationship is clearly very ambiguous. Is opera a subcategory of music theatre, or is music theatre a subcategory of opera? Or are they two distinct fields that occasionally overlap?
While this ambiguity was never resolved at the meeting, this was hardly due to a laissez faire attitude to such questions of taxonomy. On a number of occasions, presenting companies were challenged by members of the audience, claiming that, as far as they were concerned, their piece wasn’t music theatre (in spite of the fact that they had won a competition called Music Theatre Now). This is a strange response that nevertheless recalls all those new opera reviews that basically forfeit any attempt to make a judgement on the basis that ‘it’s not opera’. Continue reading