About calling a “musical” an “opera”…

kasparI 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.

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4 Comments

  1. So how do you feel about Richard Foreman’s “Astronome: A Night at The Opera” at the Ontlogical-Hysteric?

  2. Hey sfmike-

    That’s a good question. I saw “Astronome,” not really knowing what to expect; like whether or not there would even be singing; and there wasn’t any live singing to speak of; although Mike Patton was supposed to have sung live.

    I think defining art has a lot to do with how the art feels, if that isn’t too ambiguous.

    The feeling of “Kaspar Hauser” was that of a musical; or, of musical theater as we know it to be.

    “Astronome” felt like a Foreman play with some music layed over the top of it. In that sense, no, I don’t think it’s much of an opera. However, conceptually, I found “Astronome” to be more like an opera than “Kaspar.”

    Again, there is a lot of music-theater work that falls in ambiguous terrain. On Saturday night, I went to a presentation of a new work by Rachel Mason, “The Disappearance of Grace Bud.” She calls it both “A cycle of songs” and “an opera.” While the reach of the narrative is operatic, the work she’s created definitely felt more like a song-cycle, and it was good; furthermore, the music is of a folk-ish variety, and the voice in which Ms. Mason sang the music was popular/vernacular (a friend of mine has proposed the term “vernacular opera”). So there are a lot of contradictions/ambiguities right off the bat.

    Aside from the sensibility of the music, we also must consider whether or not a given musical work is theatrical, or more specifically, what kind of theater a given musical work could or does embody.

    Ms. Mason’s piece didn’t–to me–feel like it embodied the theatricality of “opera” as I understand opera to be. Which is not to say that the work couldn’t be staged. There have been successful stagings of Schubert song cycles. These could definitely be presented by an opera company, but no one would call even Schubert’s song cycles “operas.” They are masterful works of vocal compositions, but they are not operas.

    This does not take away from the value of Schubert’s cycles, and likewise, Ms. Mason’s new work.

    Maybe we can’t define every music-theater work as an opera or a musical (there are also oratorios, masses, “monodramas”, cantatas, books of madrigals, etc – all of which can be staged, even if they weren’t expressly composed for the theater). But I think we can find cases where a term has been applied that does not necessarily ring true, as with “Kaspar.”

  3. Hi there,

    I just saw the show and got a chance to speak to some of the cast about this specific issue. As you did see the show, and witnessed how experimental and interpretive the piece was as a whole, and how that same fact might have transferred into the actual title? It is called “A Foundling’s Opera” aka, an Opera for foundlings, for all the foundlings etc. And since the show is raised to such a magnitude and the characters are so large, what I was told was that at many points we were seeing the German people through the eyes of Kasper, and since opera has that grand and over the top aesthetic about it (i say that with affection, I am Indiana Opera Graduate) to Kasper, it is an opera. I don’t think you can see a show like that and expect ANYTHING to be just randomly placed or ANYTHING that hasn’t been discussed or intentionally made a bit off. I mean, no opera would put the word Opera in their subtitle, because…..they are obviously operas. I’m pretty sure Swados doesn’t intend for Kasper to end up at the Met, and the word Opera just fits in with the whole off-kilter-ness of the show. She didn’t call it Kasper Hauser: An Opera, she called Kasper Hauser: A Foundling’s Opera…..there is something completely tragic about that, which certainly reads in the show. Its unfortunate that you couldn’t move past this issue while seeing the show. It’s obviously not an opera, and it’s even more obvious that Swados wasn’t trying to make the point that it was.

  4. Hi Jennifer-

    Thanks for writing in. And I appreciate your willingness to share your thoughts.

    First, I don’t know how experimental “Kaspar” is. It certainly is inventive, in many good ways, but I can’t really identify anything aesthetically that I would call “experimental” about the work or the production.

    Second, I see how it could be interpreted that the subtitle means to express the “opera” that Kaspar the character tells through the narrative. That didn’t come across to me.

    I’m obviously sensitive to the issue of what does and does not get called “opera.” Call it a fetish.

    But regardless of Ms. Swados’ intentions, obvious or not, I know at least two people who have gone to this production in search of an opera. Should they have known better? Should I have known better?

    It’s also interesting that you’re so certain that Kaspar is “obviously not an opera.” While I took the time to consider it, weigh it, fret about it, and articulate my ideas, you’ve taken it completely, even dismissively, for granted.

    So I turn the question back on you: How is Kaspar Hauser obviously not an opera?


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