I often found myself asking this question in school as I grew up and honed my skills in performing arts and musical environments. I loved the idea of both types of performances, but where was the line drawn?
Is it about the different styles of singing? Is it about the different ways of telling a story? Does the composer take vastly different approaches when writing them? And which one actually came first?
I want to discuss five key differences between musicals and operas that I've found in order to help with some of the confusion in the music world, although some performances are literally a mix of both.
One thing I'm not here to discuss is which one is better than the other. I think musicals and operas both have an equal chance of being stellar productions, and they both express musical ideas just a bit differently.
For the most part, musicals feature performers that are skilled as actors first and then musical performance second. In operas, the performers are trained in singing first and can learn a few basics about acting as well.
In musicals, the performers are often singing, dancing, and even speaking parts in order to tell the story in the overall production. While operas do feature spoken types of performances here and there in between songs, the main focus is on those lovely vocals.
For this same reason, the depth of the storyline can be more intense in musicals when compared to operas, where the focus is much more on the musical abilities of the singers, instrumentalists, and composers.
The majority of operas are sung in a classical style of singing, while musicals tend to be sung in a musical theatre or pop approach of vocal style. In modern musicals like Hamlet, rap is a pop approach used along with melodic singing.
I used to get confused when I would watch "The Phantom Of The Opera" and consider it a legitimate opera while it was being labeled as a musical. But it's better to think of this popular production as a musical that is about opera singers.
Many of the performers who involve themselves with lead roles in that production are not trained opera singers. As an example, Emmy Rossum, who plays the lead in the movie adaptation from 2004, is a singer who sounds lovely but is not classically trained.
Musical lead singers can sing in the styles of jazz, rock, pop, soul, and even country when it comes to their productions. Operas stick to the classical music genre.
Musicals give their vocal performers a mic to sing into throughout their performances, for the most part, while opera singers are trained to have enough resonance in their voices to fill a room.
Operas are also performed in settings where the acoustics are perfectly set up to be pleasing to the ears of audience members all across a large room.
Musicals rely on audio engineers and even sound effects and digital instrumentation for background music, while operas usually feature a live orchestra with little to no mics needed to be heard due to their resonance as well.
While operas are written in a variety of different languages, from Italian to French, musicals are usually written to be performed in the same language that the audience speaks.
Operas don't need to be written in a foreign language; many are written in English and performed in English-speaking countries. But musicals are very rarely performed in a foreign language and in need of translation in the program.
Opera productions were first popping up around the 1600s and really made a big impact by the 1700s with the baroque era in music.
Musical theatre productions first came into play around the 1800s and really took off in the 1900s and remain more popular than opera with their ability to pull listeners in who appreciate many genres and not just classical music.
The Greek theatre inspired both of these types of theatre productions, where comedies and tragedies that included music and dance were being performed as early as the 5th century BC!
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