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Broadway stages hit operatic heights

Recent crop of popular 'operas' has Rialto singing

Broadway calls them sung-through musicals, but in essence they’re operas: “Caroline, or Change,” “Spring Awakening” and now “Next to Normal.”

Regardless of what you call them, these “operas” appear to have better legs than new works commissioned and/or presented by the San Francisco, L.A. and Metropolitan Opera companies — such works as “Grendel,” “The Fly,” “The First Emperor” and “Dr. Atomic,” the last of which has fared the best of the lot, with a handful of stagings in the past four years.

That Broadway has a better rate of success than the opera companies is not a new phenom. “Porgy and Bess,” the great American opera, began on Broadway. “Candide” became a staple of smaller opera companies. “Sweeney Todd” and “A Little Night Music,” despite their long passages of dialogue, have found homes in all but the largest opera houses, and “The Light in the Piazza” seems headed down the same track, with regional opera companies having begun to perform it.

Broadway, with its blatant commercial instincts, has never forgotten that theatergoers, unlike readers of avant-garde novels or visitors to MoMA, are hostage to a show’s running time and vote with the seat of their pants.

As “Caroline, or Change” composer Jeanine Tesori puts it, on Broadway, “the dramatic action propels a piece forward, where with opera you live inside the power and beauty of the score and not always the stakes of the score.”

For modern auds, the book, or libretto, may actually be more important than the music — a notion that would be considered heresy to most opera lovers.

Tellingly, the most produced opera written in the past decade, Jake Heggie’s “Dead Man Walking,” had help from an experienced Broadway hand. “Terrence McNally wrote a great libretto, which is 50% of the battle in musical theater,” says the composer. “He knows the theater stage and the opera stage, which is a different beast, and knew how to set things up for an operatic response.”

Even Philip Glass, that most prolific of modern opera composers, has in recent years turned to book writer-playwrights like Christopher Hampton and David Henry Hwang for his librettos.

That kind of dramaturgical know-how should inform a number of joint commissions made by the Met Opera and Lincoln Center Theater. Four years ago the two orgs assigned 10 teams to write musical works, bringing together opera composers with writers of musicals. The first of those collaborations, by Nico Muhly and Craig Lucas, will be workshopped this October.

“The idea was that (LCT) would bring a knowledge of workshopping and dramaturgical advice and (the Met) would bring a more sophisticated musical savvy,” says LCT’s Andre Bishop. “The gulf between musical comedy and opera is narrowing.”

Tom Kitt and Brian Yorkey have all but paved over that gulf with their “Next to Normal.” And the show’s melodic score and a book that delivers plenty of suspense, surprises, incest and old-fashioned Grand Guignol are only a couple of reasons why it clicks with modern auds. In opera, the ideal for much of the 20th century was to create a seamless musical line that eschewed the old conventions of setpieces such as recitative and song followed by applause. Fortunately, Kitt and Yorkey are throwbacks to an earlier, more audience-friendly time.

“We had discussions on where there should be applause breaks,” says Yorkey. Here and there, “we needed to let them stop to applaud, because they want to, and they become distracted if they don’t. It’s a chapter closing, and then you open a new chapter.”

They also debated whether their musical should be sung-through or not. “We made the conscious decision to have a little dialogue,” says Kitt. “Sometimes clearing the palate (with dialogue) can help your ears, and the next piece of music is a little more fresh.”

Although the six-character “N2N” now plays the intimate Booth Theater, its huge and operatic emotions successfully filled the gargantuan Radio City Music Hall stage at this year’s Tony Awards.

If anything prevents “N2N” from making the transition to the opera stage, it will be the show’s amplified pop-rock score. On whether he’d reorchestrate his music to make it acoustic, Kitt speaks like a practical man of the theater whom any 19th century impresario could love.

“I’m open to anything,” he says.

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