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Opera companies find American musicals much to their liking

- - Thursday, March 15, 2012

There's opera, and there are musicals, but whatever happened to "never the twain shall meet"?

These days they do meet — in the Washington National Opera's forthcoming season and elsewhere — and world-class opera singers are happy to appear in them.

The WNO's coming season includes a production of the Jerome Kern-Oscar Hammerstein II musical "Show Boat" with mezzo-soprano Jennifer Holloway and New Zealand-born baritone Teddy Tahu Rhodes, who currently is appearing in the WNO's production of Mozart's "Cosi fan tutte."

The Lyric Opera of Chicago staged "Show Boat" in February. This summer, the program at the Glimmerglass Festival in upstate New York will include "The Music Man." The Meredith Willson musical will include a WNO favorite, soprano Elizabeth Futral, who also is appearing in "Cosi."

Yes, it's a trend — largely, for now, propelled by Francesca Zambello, director of "Show Boat" both in Chicago and the District and of "The Music Man" at Glimmerglass, where she is artistic director. The longtime opera director, whose recent credits include Wagner's "Ring," holds the same post at the Washington National Opera.

The WNO already ventured out of the mainstream opera repertoire with its recent production of "Porgy and Bess," but "Show Boat" is a lot closer to the American musical genre.

"When Francesca Zambello starts something, it's a trend," said Michelle Krisel, general director of the Ash Lawn Opera in Charlottesville, Va., whose summer program also includes "The Music Man." Miss Krisel is the former director of the Domingo-Cafritz Young Artist's Program in the District and a onetime close associate of world tenor Placido Domingo.

There are commercial considerations, of course. Adding a musical production to the program "can bring people into the opera house who wouldn't normally go to the opera," Miss Krisel said.

But not every musical is a "crossover work," as Ms. Zambello puts it. Aside from "Show Boat" and "The Music Man," she has directed "Annie Get Your Gun" as a vehicle for soprano Deborah Voigt.

For Miss Krisel, the time frame is the "classic musicals" of the late 1940s and early 1950s.

"The classic musicals are really operettas, written by European immigrants who came to this country and composed operettas," she said. "At the height of the genre is 'West Side Story,' which is really an opera."

Miss Krisel said she advises young opera singers preparing for auditions to include one song from a musical because "companies these days are looking for that versatility."

Ms. Zambello recently was quoted as saying, "Because ['Show Boat'] is a crossover work, there are both the vestigial influences of Europe — Kern knew his Puccini, Verdi, Mussorgsky and operetta — but also a real sense of American music, from jazz to gospel to vaudeville."

Many leading opera singers have not been slow to spot the trend and run with it. Both Miss Voigt and Renee Fleming frequently include songs from musicals in their recitals — and both have released CDs of musical classics.

Miss Fleming's 2003 CD "Under the Stars," with the Welsh baritone Bryn Terfel, includes songs from "The King and I," "Kiss Me Kate," "The Music Man" and "Phantom of the Opera."

But for opera singers, the transition to performing in a musical requires vocal and acting adjustments. The florid operatic acting style suitable for "Tosca" and "La Traviata" needs to be toned down. As for the voice, Miss Voigt said she tends to adapt the musical style to her voice rather than the other way around.

Mr. Rhodes will play Gaylord Ravenal, the handsome gambler in the WNO's "Show Boat" but said he doesn't think the transition from opera will be much of a gamble.

"The way Mozart wrote is different from the way Bizet wrote," he said, "so you already have to make certain adjustments. I don't sing Escamille [in 'Carmen'] the way I sing Guglielmo [in 'Cosi']. I don't think I'd be employed to sing in 'The Jersey Boys,' but I can handle the old romantic classics."

Mr. Rhodes added that he would hesitate to try a musical role that also involved dancing.

"In this profession, you have to stick to what you're good at. If you know what that is."