I wasn’t going to write about this, but, after seeing “Kaspar Hauser: A Foundling’s Opera,” the new MUSICAL now playing at The Flea, the subject of what exactly the difference is between “a musical” and “an opera” really began to bug me. (Get ready, there are going to be lots of “quotes” in this review…)
Obviously I am someone who has a vested interest in opera; in going to it; thinking about it; writing about it; making it; advocating for it.
I’ve also professed to be a fan of boundaries and definitions, so far as they are useful to understanding. I’m not a fan of defining something to death, since much art resists definition (a great example: no two Bach fugues are identical, and yet they are all recognizably “fugues”). But there are practical definitions that situate works within their traditions, and more importantly-and the point at which “Kaspar Hauser” decidedly falls into the bracket of “musical theater”-within their industry.
To be blunt: “Kaspar Hauser” looks like a musical, sounds like a musical, walks like a musical: It is a musical.
I make the point because it’s billed as-and marketed as-“a foundling’s opera.”
I can get over my fussy paranoia that redefining non-classical music-theater works as “opera” will (and probably does) erode popular culture’s awareness of what classical opera is. The fear is that a young’n will attend something like “Kaspar Hauser,” thinking “this is opera!”, and then eventually go see “La Boheme” or some such, and be put off because this “new” opera where the people sing weird isn’t as cool as “Kaspar.”
The fact that the work has no spoken dialogue does not make it, de facto, Opera. That is an amateur assumption about what opera is. A lot of classical opera has spoken dialogue, and has had for as long as opera has been around. And a work like “Les Miserables” has no spoken dialogue, but I don’t think anyone on the planet considers it “an opera.” (For more, and perhaps less crass ideas about how to define opera, wade through Anthony Tommasini’s Q&A session at The Times. There are a lot of questions that deal with opera, and T-Bone offers some fabulous insights.)
Elizabeth Swados, the show’s composer, director and co-writer (partnered with Erin Courtney), is quoted on The Flea’s website as saying “Kaspar Hauser is a musical theater piece, you might call it an opera, somewhere between Beethoven and Queen…”
Ok, except that, with all due respect: YOU DID CALL IT AN OPERA, Ms. Swados. There is no “might” about your subtitle.
I suppose one could argue that “opera” could refer to the saga of our hero, and not the form of the work. But I don’t think it’s meant that way. Slapping the word “opera” onto works that are not operas is an unfortunate trend that probably dates back to the 1940s with the advent of “space opera” (according to a brief scan of the Wikipedia entry). We have also added to the imposter opera genre, “rock opera,” “pop opera,” and “hip-hopera,” the last of which at least has some sassy alliteration (and “Trapped In The Closet” is pretty amazing).
Now, my position has nothing to do with a kind of tired classical/popular snobbishness. “Kaspar Hauser” is a fine musical.
Special kudos to the young and energetic cast. The show is non-stop, and the performers are totally committed, even to the weaker elements of the writing. Also, the production makes the most of the cramped theater. A stellar example of how much theater can do with little means.
But by calling itself an “opera,” I found myself judging it negatively, when I really wanted to enjoy some of the good stuff that the work possesses.
Maybe I’m overreacting. Maybe I should just be mildly annoyed, and get on with it.
But I couldn’t help but imagine what future “Kaspar Hauser” could have, and what future Ms. Swados would like “Kaspar Hauser” to have.
That is, if this show gets picked up by a more cash-heavy producer, what will be it’s next step? Toward Broadway? Or toward Lincoln Center? That is, to which direction does it aim? (Sorry if that’s a cliche, but in this case, it fits.)
I would be shocked if the answer from Ms. Swados pointed toward 65th St. on the West side.
“Kaspar Hauser” could very well find a home on Broadway; at the very least, Off-Broadway. The music is generally peppy and vivacious (a little bit Les Miz, a little bit Sweeny). There are also moments of pretty lyricism. And the story provides enough compelling material to keep you interested. But at no point could I imagine the work being performed by a professional opera company.
That’s why it’s particularly annoying that they included this fussy word–opera–in the title at all. It could be looked at as cynical, in that the creators of this work did not trust enough in the value of “the musical,” and that by tagging on the moniker of “opera,” they might imbue the piece with more arty gravity.
I would suggest, simply, not to define it as anything at all. Just call it “Kaspar Hauser” and let people come to their own ideas about it. Or even call it “a musical,” and trust that the work is solid enough to generate interest. Just don’t call it “opera.”
The work’s titular Kaspar was an aristocratic baby that was kidnapped and raised as a derelict pauper. And the mystery and crisis about his identity was largely responsible for his massive popularity. However, with this work of music theater, the identity crisis is self-generated and unnecessary, and frankly, is more likely to garner groans than overtures of adoration.
KASPAR HAUSER: a foundling’s opera runs February 13 – March 28. Performances are Wednesday – Saturday at 7pm, and Saturday matinees at 3pm.