“Do we fight for the right to a night at the opera now?”
I spent the day on Saturday in delightful anticipation of the second to last performance of Les Misérables at the Orpheum Theatre in downtown Minneapolis. Having performed the show myself during my training at College Light Opera Company in 2014, the musical holds a special place in my heart. At our sitzprobe (literally translating to “seat rehearsal” and referring to the first rehearsal with orchestra), I started to cry as the orchestra wailed on the iconic “Look Down” motive that opened the show. People could tell me Les Misérables was as derivative, corny, or irritating as they wanted– I didn’t care. To me, it was an incredible piece of theatre.
There’s a power in the story and music in the show that captivates me. I remember long drives to auditions from North Carolina to Washington D.C., where I would turn on the 10th-anniversary recording and scream “On My Own” with abandon. I nearly forgot to save my voice for the audition panel the next day. I never was a belter, except when cruising up I-95.
Les Misérables, or as it is more colloquially known, Les Mis, is undoubtedly one of the most successful musicals of the modern era. Continuously performed at London’s West End since 1985, it marks the second longest-running musical in the world after the Off-Broadway run of The Fantasticks. This beloved, iconic musical is doing something right.
The third U.S. Tour is currently playing across the country through June 2023, and on the night I had the pleasure of dancing in my seat and mouthing every word while fist-pumping like a sports fan at every loud applause, the Orpheum Theatre in Minneapolis filled to the brim with patrons. The energy was as electric as any movie premiere or football game I’ve ever attended. The audience buzzed in anticipation of the high B in “Who Am I?” cheered with the Thénardiers in “Master of the House” and held their breath during Valjean’s falsetto passage in “Bring Him Home.”
Standouts in the show included the golden-voiced lead, Jean Valjean, played by Nick Cartell, whose vocals were as powerful as they were touching and delicate. I nearly melted out of my seat when Fantine, played by Haley Dortch, wailed, “You let your foreman SEND ME AWAY!” during her arrest scene. Fantine’s time onstage is so short, and an excellent performer like Dortsch will leave the audience wanting more. Minnesotan patrons especially welcomed the fabulous Christine Heesun Hwang to the stage as the tragic Éponine. A Minnesota native and alumna of the Hennepin Theatre Trust’s Spotlight Education program, she played Éponine with such earnestness and prowess that the nonsensical love triangle plotline almost made sense. Finally, I was a huge fan of Devin Archer’s uniquely powerful voice as the student rebellion leader, Enjorlas. The role is considered “baritenor” but requires the performer to sing the full range and power of a traditional baritone and wail on high notes like a tenor. His distinctive timbre, both incredibly bright yet full, made me want to hear him sing operatic music.
This cast was the most vocally consistent I’ve heard in a long time, so kudos to the entire ensemble for top-notch singing. The score of Les Mis is notoriously tricky, with nearly impossible expectations placed on the performers in terms of range and production–Fantine’s belt on the words “shame” and “be” come to mind– and this cast expertly rose to the occasion.
In my review of Beauty and the Beast at the Ordway Center for the Performing Arts, I argued there were aspects of musical theatre that could help popularize opera in the mainstream. However, if I postulate that Les Mis is actually an opera, then we’ve already done that. In that case, our frilly Mozart productions and dramatic Wagner epics are doomed to play to dwindling audiences until through-composed pop operas, like Hamilton and Les Mis, overtake our antiquated performance art for good. Right?
I’ve already lost a few folks by positing the idea that Les Mis might be an opera, but let’s look at the facts. As previously mentioned, the work is entirely sung-through, like an opera. The orchestra never ceases playing (except during applause and intermission), and there is sung recitativo in place of spoken dialogue.
Well, what about the plot? Opera plots tend to be convoluted, implausible, and overly dramatic.
In Les Mis, a man convicted of stealing a loaf of bread breaks his parole and is followed around France by a vindictive police officer. Meanwhile, a woman with an illegitimate child is fired at a factory run by our ex-con, and she guilts him into adopting her child on her deathbed. The ex-con takes the girl away from two swindling tavern owners, and they live a life of hiding in Paris.
But wait, there’s more!
It’s now 1832, and there are students primed to stage a revolution in the streets of Paris, and one of them spots the adopted girl. She’s hot! Unfortunately, there’s already a girl- the daughter of the swindling tavern owners. She’s in love with a student boy, but he doesn’t care and wants the adopted girl. The ex-con learns of this and decides to stay for revolution day to keep the boy safe for his girl. The daughter of the tavern officers is the first to die in the rebellion.
After every student is killed in the streets, the ex-con drags the boy through the sewers so his daughter can nurse him back to health. He manages not to die of sepsis. Meanwhile, the ex-con helps the policeman out of a tough spot, and the officer can’t handle this, so he commits suicide. The ex-con is old, the boy and girl get married, and he repents of his sins (stealing a loaf of bread and breaking his parole), and the girl’s birth mother welcomes him to heaven.
Convoluted? Check. Implausible? Oh yes. Overly dramatic? 100% and I love it.
So, Les Mis has an operatic plot and is through-composed. Musically, it features leitmotifs throughout that signify different characters’ themes and emotions. However, the singing style is drastically different than that of opera, which requires mastering a challenging and demanding technique that often takes years to execute.
Operatic music utilizes a classical singing technique and does not require amplification due to the optimization of resonance and the science of sound. It is the original musical theatre. However, in recent years, major opera houses have begun incorporating microphones into their productions. Most of these houses existed before the advent of amplification and featured singers that could produce a sound that didn’t require microphones. So, what’s the difference if opera singers are hooked up to mics now?
One glaring difference is that of language. Although the composition of viable American opera is increasing, traditionally, the most beloved operas are in Italian, French, or German. In Europe, where opera was born and continues to be most popular, most people are multilingual because the country next door often has a different official language. In contrast, most of Europe could fit neatly inside the continental United States of America.
As a classical musician who has traveled internationally to various countries, I see immense value in learning other languages and cultures, but I am afraid I do not belong to the American mainstream in that way. If New Yorkers and Texans spoke different languages, there might be a discernible effort in the American school system to become bilingual. Still, the necessity isn’t there, even if it seems like Texans speak a different language than the rest of us sometimes.
America was built on a disconnection from European ideals. Although many of us have learned to love European languages, art, and music, there is still a certain level of snobbery or elitism associated with anything European. Opera hasn’t done itself any favors by continuing to mount the same tired productions in languages Americans don’t care to understand, with singing that often requires the same amplification that pop and musical theatre do. Some critics of modern opera singing might postulate that this is due to the academization of the once vibrant art form, but that’s a discussion for another day.
I don’t want opera in America to become a genre where we water down great works with musical theatre voices and English translations, even if it sounds like I’m advocating for that. I wonder, however, if genre constraints limit opera’s future here.
For example, Donizetti’s Elixir of Love and Wagner’s Das Rheingold are both beloved operas from the standard repertoire. However, the same singers in Elixir would likely not sing any roles in the entire Ring Cycle. The shows have drastically different vocal production and overall style. It would be like comparing a classic musical theatre piece like Rodgers and Hammerstein’s Carousel with Legally Blonde: The Musical. They’re technically the same genre but are simply not the same.
I think we’re limiting ourselves by putting opera in a neat little box and calling all of it the same when it’s not. I obviously love opera, but I don’t love all operas! For example, my favorite operas tend to be comedies or productions with a strong female lead. You could apply these filters on Netflix or Hulu when selecting a movie, but as soon as music is added, it becomes one genre.
People who love Les Mis would also probably love the intense drama and iconic hits such in Bizet’s Carmen, the visual spectacle of Verdi’s Aida, or an ensemble cast with intertwining storylines like Mozart’s Don Giovanni. Categorizing opera and Broadway musicals together as simply, you guessed it, musical theatre and then distinguishing between comedy, drama, or any other genres from there might encourage audiences to broaden their expectations of what it means to see an opera.
Unfortunately, we live within the confines of genre. So is Les Mis an opera?
Given our current constraints, no, I don’t think it is. Classical and contemporary singing techniques are incredibly unique from each other. Although it overlaps in operatic spectacle, plot, and structure, the musical production is vastly different. Additionally, the instrumentation is consistent with that of a rock musical, complete with a synthesizer and drum set, two instruments that would never find a home in a traditional orchestra pit. Although some operas are beginning to use amplification, this should not be accepted as the norm where it is expected and frequently necessary for musical theatre.
Regardless, if you consider yourself to be a musical theatre lover but have bristled at opera, I encourage you to open your mind to the idea of opera as the original musical theatre. Think about why you enjoy your favorite musicals. Is it the style of the music? The plot? Maybe it’s the dancing, the incredible costumes, or your mom used to listen to the original cast recording in the car. Whatever reason you have, I assure you, there’s an opera you will also enjoy. You can even ask me for recommendations!
If you love Les Mis as much as I do, you’ll find it has much more in common with standard operatic repertoire than you think. Les Mis can be more directly compared to opera than most other musicals. Blast the end of Act 1 of Puccini’s Turandot featuring Luciano Pavarotti and Montserrat Caballé, and see if you get a few shivers down your spine. If you’re anything like me, that recording is as powerful as the dream cast singing “One Day More.”
Les Misérables may not be an opera, but the sold-out Orpheum Theatre on Saturday made me hopeful for our art form. People will always be hungry for entertaining drama and an inspiring message carried by fabulous voices. Opera isn’t dead in America; it’s just waiting for proper appreciation.