Skylight filling niche with 'Crackers'

A correction was made to this article on Nov. 21.

NEW YORK — They did it with farcical results in a 1930 film, but this week the Marx Brothers will be taking over an actual opera company.

Opening Nov. 25 at Milwaukee’s Skylight Opera Theater, “Animal Crackers,” a comic musical featuring Groucho and company as characters, would clearly fit the crowd-pleasing bill for any legit house. Its place on an opera company’s slate, however, is more of a head-scratcher. Exactly what kind of organization mounts Marx Brothers madness?

Crossover houses like Skylight and New York City Opera (NYCO) fill a small but persistent niche, with long traditions of skedding traditional opera fare next to classic Broadway tuners. Especially popular are those that require old-school legit singing (think Rodgers and Hammerstein) and big, opera-friendly casts (“Animal Crackers,” which bowed on Broadway in 1928, features more than 20 performers).

Yet while they’re certainly closer to opera than current, poppier shows, these chestnuts are still stamped with Broadway’s imprimatur, which means they can bring a different kind of audience through an opera company’s doors.

That attractive economic fact may be why companies keep placing Broadway next to Bizet. “Musicals are a crowd-pleaser that bring in people who are afraid of opera,” says Talent House agent Dave Bennett. “And operas need help bringing in new audiences.”

Not everyone, of course, would agree with the first half of Bennett’s claim. Skylight’s artistic director, Bill Theisen, in fact, chafes at the suggestion that he uses musicals to lure wary crowds, saying his company has always scheduled a diverse season to “celebrate the full spectrum of musical theater.”

But whatever their philosophies on mixing genres, few would disagree that opera companies need to pull in new faces. Age-old concerns — auds see the form as too highbrow, tickets are forbiddingly expensive, etc. — still rankle, and for many, crossing into theater may seem the way to go.

It’s crucial to note, however, that the definition of “crossover” isn’t quite the same as the one used decades ago, when booming opera singers could step onto Broadway stages and wow crowds with their classical voices.

Arguably, crossover now means something akin to “opera that puts on a show.” Companies like Skylight create this hybrid by blending select elements of opera performance — namely, singing without microphones — with a tuner’s energy and accessibility. Therefore, the company’s upcoming “Carmen” will require performers to act and move, while the cast of “Animal Crackers” will include classically trained vocalists.

Legit has also left fingerprints on new operas themselves. Recent hits like Mark Adamo’s “Little Women” and Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking” increasingly require the intimate feel and authentic acting demanded by theater. So even a company that would never produce the Marx Brothers may find itself more indebted to tuner sensibilities than ever before.

And in contrast to the old days, some of the most visible crossover artists are bringing a touch of Broadway to the opera stage. NYCO, for example, has long cast star names like Jeremy Irons and will continue the tradition this spring, when Paul Sorvino headlines “The Most Happy Fella.” (There’s even a rumor Kristin Chenoweth may appear in an upcoming Met staging of Offenbach’s “Tales of Hoffman.” Calls to the company for verification were not returned.)

As for lesser-known artists, those with opera-trained voices who have acting and dancing abilities are in demand. Christine Marie Heath, a rising soprano who has also performed the lead in “Evita,” says her multitasking is becoming a boon.

“Stack me up against the other hundred sopranos out there and I don’t stand out,” she claims, but she’s found that being an opera singer who can belt musical theater has made her an excellent fit for opera houses looking to cast tuners with thesps whose classical training they can rely on.

Of course, no matter how specialized the talent becomes or how much new works begin to resemble theater, there’s no guarantee this middle road will fix opera’s woes. There are plenty of other factors — like how the toughest roles can command up to $50,000 for three perfs — that keep ticket prices up or otherwise keep crowds hesitant.

Still, Diana Carl, Skylight’s company manager, thinks the crossover repertory is at least one viable response to opera’s concerns.

“I think part of the reason people like what we do is that we’re constantly changing,” she says. “And the willingness to change is going to be opera’s future.”

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