Friday, October 31, 2014

Opera on Broadway

No. 171 of the ongoing ITYWLTMT series of audio montages can be found in our archives at

pcast171- Playlist

Earlier in this month’s series of podcasts, I spent some time looking at operetta as the light-hearted cousin of what we have come to call “Grand Opera”. At that time, I had hinted to a relationship between operetta and the Musical Comedy, a genre that has taken root on American stages and on the Silver Screen.

The Musical has its fair share of – shall I say – bold and ambitious works, in a scale not unlike operetta or opera. The works that come to mind are Show Boat (Hammerstein and Kern) and West Side Story (Sondheim, Laurents and Bernstein). We could add – for not too dissimilar reasons – Hair (Rado, Ragni and MacDermott), Jesus Christ, Superstar (Rice and Lloyd-Webber) or even Rent (Larson) or Tommy (The Who) all credited as “Rock Operas.

Many of the stated works are indeed ambitious, but they were all designed (at least, originally) as “musicals” and not as operas, though some of these works have been staged by opera companies.
However, there are few stages in New York City available to mount operas. There’s the Met, the New-York City Opera, or even some of the music schools which offer opera training programs. As a result, it should not be surprising that there have been operas staged on theatres that line the Great White Way. Gershwin’s Porgy and Bess had its original 1035 New-York run on Broadway (Alvin Theatre), for example. According to an article, written in 1946, Kurt Weill, expressed rthis opinion:

When I first came to the United States eleven years ago, I became rapidly convinced that the Broadway legitimate stage is to the American public what the opera and concert halls are to the European. With that thought in mind, I have repeatedly aimed my music at the Broadway stage, and today I am convinced that the American public is ready to accept its own form of grand opera on the legitimate stage. […] In Europe, opera houses and legitimate theatres are subsidized by the state. I was able to compose for them and be assured of a hearing for my works. By the time I was twenty-six I had operas in virtually every major companyís repertoire in Germany. But I was playing to a limited public. My adaptation of the Three Penny Opera (on The Beggar's Opera theme) and its world success opened my eyes to the vast possibilities in an audience which did not seek opera as its daily fare.
Another composer who understood this equation was the Italian-American Gian-Carlo Menotti.  According to NPR music commentator Miles Hoffman, "Menotti thought it was crucial to bring opera to a large popular audience. He once wrote, 'If I insist on bringing my operas to Broadway, it is simply because of the letters I receive which begin, "Dear Mr. Menotti, I have never seen an opera until tonight." ' "

Menotti’s The Consul opened at the Ethel Barrymore Theatre on Broadway in 1949, earning him not only a Broadway hit but also a Pulitzer Prize.

A couple of years earlier, between May and November 1947, the Ethel Barrymore Theatre presented 212 performances of an operatic double-feature of The Medium and The Telephone, both short oiperas by Menotti (Internet Broadway Database reference here). Before that, the pair was staged at the Heckscher Theatre by The Ballet Society in February of that year.

Today’s podcast presents this double-bill, featuring the 1947 Broadway cast in a studio recording supervised by Menotti and conducted by Emanuel Balaban. The two works could not be more different in terms of atmosphere. Aptly programmed for our Hallowe’en podcast, The Medium, introduces us to a woman who has posed as a person who can contacts spirits (but is shown to use trickery) starting to hear voices and feel phantom presences she cannot explain. The Telephone is a light-hearted piece where a man comes to his girlfriend's apartment to propose, only to find her preoccupied with talking on the telephone.

Both works have their twist endings – albeit the a propos ending in the tragic Medium is predictable. The works are sung in English, so I can dispense with a detailed synopsis. Here are some links to synopses and libretti for these operas:

I think you will love this music too.

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