How can opera maintain its vocal tradition while appealing to a broader American audience?
For the first time in what felt like nearly forever, not to reference a different Disney movie, I had the pleasure of attending a live musical, Beauty and the Beast, at the Ordway. The show was the first locally produced musical at the Twin Cities venue since before the pandemic.
I’ve been a little sensitive lately about my level of success in the performing arts, and sometimes seeing musicals or operas makes me sad. My trip to the historic St. Paul theatre on Saturday was part of my birthday present, and at first, I was less than thrilled. These were the people who were able to achieve what I was not.
Put the world’s tiniest violin away, lady. Belting and dancing were never your strengths.
Stepping foot inside The Ordway always feels like a special occasion. Usually, I’m here to enjoy Minnesota Opera productions, but the hall is more suitable for musicals that require amplification. The space’s acoustic is often inconsistent for operas, making it challenging to hear singers over the orchestra.
Beauty and the Beast was one of my favorite movies growing up, mainly because of my love of Belle. She was everything I was not; she was introverted, kind, patient, and beautiful. The one thing the two of us had in common was our shared devotion to reading. However, this was my first time experiencing the Broadway production. I was familiar with “Home” and “A Change in Me” due to a callback situation from years ago, but other than that, the additional songs were entirely new to me.
The set, designed by Adam Koch, transported the audience to a French-inspired fantasy. The village and Gaston’s lodge embodied warm colors and bright lighting, designed by Cory Pattack. In contrast, the castle’s deep blues, purples, and intense shadows provided the atmospheric shift to communicate Belle’s fear and discomfort. She is the bright and warm light tasked with bringing love to the enchanted castle.
Belle, played by Rajané Katurah, was a perfect Disney Princess from the moment she stepped onstage. Her lines dripped with saccharine sincerity, paired with a powerful, contemporary musical theatre sound. Although I would have typically preferred a mix-belt vocal production for the role of Belle, Katurah’s raw instrument was so incredible that her contemporary pop style won me over by the time she belted “A Change in Me” with such emotional breadth that I forgot to breathe for a moment. It was affirming to see a beautiful woman who didn’t fit the exact mold of a stereotypical Disney Princess (super thin and white) perfectly embodying the leading lady– representation matters, and it was refreshing to see a diverse cast onstage.
Other notable performances include the Beast, played by Nathaniel Hackmann, whose vocal production most closely aligned with a classical sound. The Beast can be an awkward character to embody onstage, but he played the role with an earnest vulnerability that won me over from the beginning. Mrs. Potts, played by Jamecia Bennett, performed a rendition of “Beauty and the Beast” that was absolutely breathtaking and resulted in resounding applause from everyone in the house. Her perfectly executed runs and creative ornamentation provided the magic necessary for the iconic ballroom scene. Finally, Gaston, played by Regan Featherstone, was an absolute delight. Like any good Disney villain, he was as awful as he was entertaining. His full, warm voice and top-notch dance skills, as evidenced in the showstopping number “Gaston,” indicate a bright, continued future as a performer.
However, my favorite part of the show is a credit to the fabulous ensemble. In “Gaston,” the chorus of villagers, perfectly choreographed by Robbie Roby and Renee Guittar, engage in a complicated clinking of glasses reminiscent of the “Cups” song popularized by Anna Kendrick. This raucous tavern scene invigorated and entertained the audience to great success.
I attended Beauty and the Beast on a Saturday matinee. The show began promptly at 2 p.m. and concluded at around 4:30 p.m. The audience appeared engaged for the entirety of the production, which included an approximately twenty-minute intermission. It was predominately filled with families and skewed on the younger side.
I say all this because I am keenly interested in live theatre, specifically opera. Why do Americans love musicals more than operas? Opera is musical theatre, after all.
Beauty and the Beast has name recognition, familiar tunes, and an easy to follow plot. Regardless of whether a venue is staging an opera or a musical, those factors increase ticket sales.
Additionally, the singers in this production embodied the vocal style popularized by contemporary pop, R&B, and rock singers today. They’re exhibiting the sound and style of music their audience regularly hears. Americans often mock a stereotypically operatic sound– in fact, the audience giggled at Madame de la Grande Bouche every time she touted her “opera voice.”
Unlike many operas, the show was an appropriate length for a modern audience and featured familiar, hummable music. There are recognizable tunes in many operas, but overall, there is a copious amount of filler music, especially in baroque and classical operas, during which the public’s attention span begins to wane. Additionally, 21st-century opera is often challenging to sing for the performers themselves– I can’t imagine an audience member whistling a melodic line from such difficult music!
Perhaps most importantly, musical theatre is an American creation sung in English. Opera companies make accommodations in the states by showing supertitles above the stage, but this is not without its cons. The public misses action happening onstage because they are busy reading, or a significant plot point is given away on the supertitle screen before the characters reveal the action.
Many opera companies around the country mount one musical theatre production per year, and I think that’s an excellent way to ease Americans into opera. The way we sing is impressive– when we sing well, we fill an entire theatre with sound, cutting through an orchestra without amplification. There’s a reason that many opera companies will produce shows such as Sweeney Todd or Carousel– the style of those musicals can be executed well by a cast of opera singers.
I’m not an arts administrator. I’m just a singer. But when I hear folks in the opera industry lament that live theatre is dying, I want to correct them– opera is dying in America. It appears to be available only to the elite, a culturally rich minority who grew up listening to operatic music or somehow ended up as a classically trained musician who learned about the repertoire and tradition throughout their education. This model is neither an accessible nor sustainable way to produce meaningful art.
The operatic style of singing and production has a place in American society. Suppose companies were more open to cutting the run time of productions, considering an English translation here and there, and expanding to musical theatre. In that case, maybe opera companies could also mount month-long runs of shows, like Beauty and the Beast at The Ordway. However, if we ignore the kind of art that a mainstream audience enjoys, we may not survive. Unamplified singing with a full orchestra is one of the most impressive musical feats on the planet, and people love to be amazed. Opera is live entertainment, not a relic in a museum– it’s a tale as old as time!
The Ordway’s Beauty and the Beast production runs from November 30-December 31. Tickets are available at ordway.org.