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by Michael Portantiere

What's Opera, Stephen?

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    Not content to rest on the success of Wicked, one of the biggest hits in Broadway history, Stephen Schwartz challenged himself by writing an opera. Séance on a Wet Afternoon, based on the 1964 British psychological thriller that starred Kim Stanley, is about to have a run of performances at New York City Opera in the wake of its well received world premiere production at Opera Santa Barbara last year. NYCO will also salute the composer with Defying Gravity: The Music of Stephen Schwartz, an April 21 concert of his Broadway and film songs that will be headlined by Kristin Chenoweth, Raúl Esparza, Victor Garber, and Ann Hampton Callaway.

    Last week, I spoke with Stephen about the challenges of writing opera and the differences between that art form and musical theater, a fascinating subject which he subsequently discussed with a panel of esteemed colleagues in a City Opera-sponsored public event at the Gershwin Theater on Sunday, April 10. Here's what he had to say.


    BROADWAYSTARS: You must be so busy, Stephen.

    STEPHEN SCHWARTZ: I'm a little bit busy, yes. How are you?

    STARS: I'm well, thanks -- also busy, trying to see all the shows that are opening. But I'm looking forward to the panel discussion "Opera or Musical Theater?" I really want to hear what you, John Kander, Adam Guettel, David Henry Hwang, and Rufus Wainwright have to say on the subject.

    SS: It should be very interesting. As you know, Rufus has written an opera that had its premiere in England, and City Opera is going to do it next season.

    STARS: In composing Séance, was it difficult for you to write in a way that the text could be heard and understood when sung in a large opera house with an opera-size orchestra?

    SS: That aspect of it wasn't a huge challenge, because I was very aware of trying to achieve that. Consequently, as I was writing, I was trying to be careful as to where and how I set things in order to achieve comprehensibility. It's still harder to do that in an opera than in a musical, let's face it. We will have supertitles at City Opera, despite the fact that the opera's in English. But many people [in Santa Barbara] told me that they were able to understand most of the text, and they just needed to check in with the supertitles every now and then.

    STARS: Most musicals today are very heavily amplified, and the performers use body mics, so if the balance is off between the singers and the orchestra, that can be easily corrected by the sound engineer. But it's a different situation in opera.

    SS: Yes, absolutely. Traditional opera is meant to be performed unamplified. Of course, there are some contemporary operas -- by John Adams, for example -- that were written to be performed with amplification. But I was trying to be traditional at least in that sense, and to write a piece that was not going to be amplified -- though we may have to subtly amplify the kids, just because they don't have as big voices. I found I needed to approach the music so that it wasn't a constant bed of sound with the voices sitting on top of it, which is kind of what one does in musical theater or pop. In writing an opera, you have the music swell up, then recede, and then swell up again. You leave troughs, if you will, for the vocals to sit in. Obviously, I listened to what other operas composers had done. It's not as if I invented this technique.

    STARS: When I interviewed you for Opera News last year, we discussed how in opera, sometimes, there can be a very purposeful emotional disconnect between the music and the words that you rarely find in musicals.

    SS: Oh, sure. That's part of what's really fun about composing an opera: The music tells its own story. In musicals, what the characters are saying is generally reflected in the music. If they're joyous, the music is joyous; if they're angry, the music is angry. There's not a lot of attempt to provide subtext in that way. I even scrolled through the Sondheim shows in my mind. He has a lot of subtext in his lyrics, but really, how often does the music tell a different story than the words? Rarely, and that's not in any way meant to slight him. It's what we all do when we're writing musicals.

    STARS: We also talked about the fact that whether or not a piece is through-sung isn't the major determining factor as to whether it's an opera or a musical.

    SS: It's interesting, trying to define these things. So many of the British musicals are through-sung yet they don't really feel like operas, and it's hard to put your finger on why. Even The Phantom of the Opera. It's through-sung, it has repeated motifs, some of it is written for opera-style voices. Yet it's clearly a musical, not an opera.

    STARS: Because the recurring themes are not developed in the same way?

    SS: Right. I would say the same holds true for Wicked. I used a lot of motivic writing there, but not in the same way as in Séance. In a strange way, it seems to me that the closest thing to opera among the British musicals is Chess. Even though it's clearly pop, there's more of an operatic approach to the way music is used there.

    STARS: There are so many hybrids, if that's the correct term. The Light in the Piazza has lots of spoken dialogue, but to me it feels much more operatic than Les Miz or Phantom.

    SS: Yes, because Adam Guettel's song forms are less traditional musical theater and more sort of aria-esque and operatic in their structure. The fact is that the lines are getting blurred. Look at The Light in the Piazza on one hand and something like Dead Man Walking on the other. Dead Man Walking is clearly an opera, but it has a kind of musical-theater storytelling thrust because Terrence McNally wrote the libretto. I was just at a performance of Armida at the Met, and as the audience was leaving at the end, I heard someone say, "Well, with opera, you pay no attention to the story, you just listen to the music." That's the rap on opera, but it doesn't have to be that way. Opera is an extremely useful form for telling a story. I also saw Tosca recently, and now that I've written an opera myself, I admired even more how well that story is told. There's not an ounce of fat in Tosca. Everything in it serves the story.

    STARS: The City Opera premiere of Séance is going to be one of the major musical events of the spring, and it sounds like the Defying Gravity tribute will be as well.

    SS: I can't tell you much about that because they're deliberately keeping the details secret from me, which is fun. I did help them get the four stars, since they're friends of mine. But after that, the City Opera people basically said to me, "Just show up. We would like you to sing a few things at the end, so please be prepared to do that. Otherwise, unless you really need to know, we want to surprise you." I think there will be some opera segments in addition to the songs from the shows, and I've heard rumors about a couple of surprise guests, but I don't actually know what's going to happen.

    STARS: In a recent interview, you were asked if you'd like to write another opera, and you said, "I'm just trying to survive this one." But if you were to face the challenge again, do you think you might write something with a great role for Kristin Chenoweth? After all, she trained to be an opera singer. And she was supposed to do an opera at the Met a few seasons ago, but that fell through.

    SS: Oh! That's an interesting idea.

    STARS: Just a thought. Anyway, thank you for talking. I'll be at the second performance of Séance. Best of luck with the premiere.

    SS: Thanks. This whole experience has been an adventure, as you can imagine, and it continues to be.


    [For more information on the New York City Opera production of Séance on a Wet Afternoon and the tribute concert Defying Gravity: The Music of Stephen Schwartz, click here.]

    Published on Tuesday, April 12, 2011

    Michael Portantiere has more than 30 years' experience as an editor and writer for TheaterMania.com, InTHEATER magazine, and BACK STAGE. He has interviewed theater notables for NPR.org, PLAYBILL, STAGEBILL, and OPERA NEWS, and has written notes for several cast albums. Michael is co-author of FORBIDDEN BROADWAY: BEHIND THE MYLAR CURTAIN, published in 2008 by Hal Leonard/Applause. Additionally, he is a professional photographer whose pictures have been published by THE NEW YORK TIMES, the DAILY NEWS, and several major websites. (Visit www.followspotphoto.com for more information.) He can be reached at [email protected]

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