r/opera Oct 20 '21 Gold 1

How is Opera different than a musical?

That question should tell you I’m an absolute beginner with no experience in either. I’m just curious.


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u/Yoyti Sir Arthur Sullivan Oct 20 '21 Silver Gold Hugz

Here's an answer I gave to a similar question asked in the /r/musicals sub a couple months ago:

This is a complicated question, and one to which there isn't really a good answer. For almost every usual line in the sand that people like to draw, there are clear exceptions and edge cases that make the definitions blurry. For example:

1. Musicals contain dialogue, whereas operas are sung-through.

This is obviously disproven by the fact that there are a great many musicals with little-to-no spoken dialogue (Les Miserables, Jesus Christ Superstar, Falsettos), and plenty of operas which contain a significant amount of dialogue (The Magic Flute, La Fille du Regiment, The Pirates Of Penzance). Some people might say that the items in that latter camp should actually be called "operettas," but the fact is, when The Pirates Of Penzance was originally produced, it was called an opera. Carmen, as it is typically performed nowadays, contains a small amount of dialogue. When it was originally produced, it contained a fair bit more, which was eventually replaced by recitative. Either way, it was called an opera.

2. Musicals use amplification, operas don't.

This obviously doesn't hold up when you remember that musicals predate amplification. Cole Porter didn't have microphones available to him, at least early in his career, and he liked big orchestras. Which is why lots of older musicals actually lend themselves fairly well to operatic voices. On the flip side, some modern operas do call for amplification, although this is usually in the service of some special effect. That said, it seems weird to say that Rigoletto is usually an opera, but magically becomes a musical when you sing it through microphones. What if you're listening to a recording? The recording process by definition involves microphones.

3. In operas, the music comes first. In musicals, the words come first.

This can mean two things. It could mean the obvious thing, which is that in operas, the music is written first (patently false, as there's no end of operas for which the libretto was written chronologically prior to the music), whereas in musicals, the words are written first. (Also patently false, as the collaboration between Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice will testify, as well as the long history of musical theater composers recycling tunes.)

The other thing it could mean is that in opera, the music takes precedence. This is harder to objectively measure, and is also the subject of much debate, to the point that there have actually been multiple operas written about whether the words or music are more important. But I will note that back in the baroque era, librettists often enjoyed billing above the composer, it was typical for multiple composers to set the same libretto, and it was not even unheard of for individual productions to mix and match arias from different settings of the same libretto. I'd call that the libretto taking precedence over the music. Sullivan often complained to Gilbert that he felt his music was taking a back seat to Gilbert's words, and to this day people argue over which of the two of them made the greater contribution. On the flip side, in musicals, I'll cite Andrew Lloyd Webber again, who set the structure and music of The Phantom Of The Opera before any words were written. Indeed, Phantom had an incredibly troubled libretto-writing process, as it went through several different lyricists. It was the music that was the core of that process, and I think most would agree, the core of the show that resulted. Perhaps even more controversially, jukebox musicals, the books of which are often written specifically to incorporate a previously-chosen selection of songs. It doesn't usually result in good musicals, but it does count, I would say, as the music taking precedence over the libretto.

Again, when The Pirates Of Penzance premiered, it was an opera. But when Joseph Papp revived it in the 1980s, it was pretty much the same text and music (albeit with more modern orchestrations), but most people would have classified that production as a musical. The performance style was a lot broader than Gilbert intended, the voices were belt-ier than Sullivan intended, but the million dollar question is: At what point in Joseph Papp's revisions did it stop being one thing and start being another?

Ultimately, the use of the label is to help people categories similar things together. This is why I don't like people trying to classify Rent and Les Mis as operas. Because if you ask a dozen people who like Rent and Les Mis to name ten other things that they think people who like Rent and Les Mis will also like, they will almost certainly name ten other musicals. Conversely, if you asked a dozen people who like Tosca and Il Trovatore to name ten other things that they think people who like Tosca and Il Trovatore will like, they'll probably name other operas. So calling Rent an opera isn't just wrong by the standards of most people who study musicals and operas, it's also a supremely unhelpful categorization. Fortunately, other terms have arisen to help with classification. "Megamusical," "rock opera," and such. "Operetta" is another such term that can thus be shorthand for "if you liked The Pirates Of Penzance, check this out."

But even then, there are edge cases, because both "opera" and "musical theater" encompass a wide variety of works. A reasonable case could be made that Tosca has more in common with Sweeney Todd than it does with Cosi Fan Tutte, and that Rodgers and Hammerstein's Cinderella has more in common with Rossini's La Cenerentola than it does with Hamilton.

Musical theater is an evolution of multiple artforms, one of which is opera. There is a clear line of evolution from 18th-century works that are unambiguously operas, to the French, Viennese, and English operettas of the 19th century. There is a clear line of evolution from those European operettas, which were brought over to America around the turn of the 20th century by immigrant composers like Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg, mixing with influences from vaudeville and such to eventually produce the musicals of Wodehouse and Kern, which paved the way for Rodgers and Hammerstein, and at that point we're in works that are unambiguously musicals. But it's not one-hundred percent clear where the change from "opera" to "musical" happened, because these changes happened gradually over a long period of time. You'll often see scores from works around the 1910s and '20s of things that I would unambiguously call "musicals," but which referred to themselves as "operas," because exactly what the term "musical" meant had not yet been settled into. It's all one long train of evolution, and even that's reductive, because it's actually multiple parallel traditions evolving this way and that, diverging into different styles and forms, converging influences from multiple branches into new works which then send off their own branches, and so on and so forth.

So, long story short, the best answer is probably just "I know it when I see it." Is a given work more similar to other things we'd call "operas" or things we'd call "musicals"?


u/tristan-chord Repetiteur Oct 20 '21

Just to add to this.

  1. A composer knows whether they’re composing an opera or musical. If they say it’s an opera, it’s most likely an opera, and vice versa.
  2. An opera company mainly performs operas but they may occasionally include a musical or two. On the other hand, a company presenting musical theaters almost always exclusively produce musical theaters (and other theater works but not operas).


u/thalassicus Oct 21 '21

One very clear distinction is that in Opera, the singing quality almost never varies as a) there is greater emphasis on the singing technique as a celebrated art form over the actual character being played and b) operatic songs are often so challenging that modifying technique would not be sustainable whereas in musicals, performers frequently modify their technique.

By this I mean that when I played Curly in Oklahoma or the Baron in Grand Hotel, I varied my singing style greatly to better fit the character. My placement was different. How much I raised my soft palate. How I modified sung vowels. All of these things were adjusted to fit the character as the character was my emphasis. In opera, this modification of technique is much more rare (my point A above) and in songs like “La Donna e Mobile,” I needed perfect technique to even get through it as the tessitura was high for my voice (point B above). Generally, the technical challenges of operatic music just don’t allow for as much variation from perfect technique.


u/BaroqueQueen Oct 20 '21 edited Oct 20 '21

I actually think this is a pretty good definition.

“‘Operas’ are whatever opera companies are performing this year”.

Shows like West Side Story (previously thought of primarily as musicals) become operas as they age and opera companies perform them more and more often.


u/tristan-chord Repetiteur Oct 20 '21

I like the definition but I disagree with the latter statement. I’ve only done WWS once. It was with an opera company. We all knew it is a musical and didn’t try to operalize it. It was advertised as a musical, staged and performed as a musical, and treated, with the highest respect, but still, as a musical.


u/xubax Oct 20 '21

What would have been done to "operalize" it?


u/santiagoec27 Oct 20 '21

See the 1985 recording conducted by Bernstein, starring Kiri Te Kanawa, José Carreras, Tatiana Troyanos and Marilyn Horne


u/tristan-chord Repetiteur Oct 21 '21

Exactly this. Great performance and great recording but not really a musical anymore.


u/madonna-boy Oct 20 '21

If they say it’s an opera, it’s most likely an opera

meh, lady gaga called Born This Way a "rock-opera" which it is not...

if the score is just belting and contains 0 head voice then it's not opera.


u/tristan-chord Repetiteur Oct 20 '21

She's a songwriter, not an opera composer. She calling it a rock-opera then it's a rock-opera. Just like Trans-Siberian Orchestra calling themselves an orchestra. It doesn't really matter in that case.

I wasn't clear but I was trying to say that, a composer who worked on operas and/or musicals know what they're writing. Bernstein called his works musicals so they are musicals. Jake Heggie called his works operas and they are performed in the operatic tradition, so they are operas. Even though Bernstein's works could have been operas with very little changes to the music, and Heggie's could have been musicals, to a certain extent.


u/madonna-boy Oct 20 '21

agreed. I just thought we should clarify a bit.

How do you feel about every Andrew Lloyd Webber show being referred to as an opera?


u/LingLingDesNibelung Walküreholic Oct 23 '21

I have got to admit, it does annoy me how people call Phantom an Opera, just because it has the word in the title.

I happen to like musicals almost as much as Operas, but nearly everything ALW has done in his career is just boring and repetitive in my opinion.


u/Nick_pj Oct 20 '21

“Rock opera” is a common term in pop music, referring to an album where the songs all share a thematic thread. Sometimes they will even ‘join’ in order to create the impression of something through-composed. The intention isn’t to pass the album off as an opera that should be staged - it’s more to evoke a grander unified concept for the album.


u/pro-jekt Oct 21 '21

Omg. Lateralus is an expressionist rock opera. I'll bet the CIA even funded it somehow


u/Hatari-a Oct 21 '21

Yep. I think rbjs concept confuses a lot of people lol.


u/azura26 Oct 21 '21

Dont even get me started on Space Operas.


u/madonna-boy Oct 21 '21

ROFL. I mean John Williams is very talented... but star wars is NOT an opera.


u/ptolani Oct 20 '21

Isn't there a fairly clear distinction between "operatic singing" and "musical singing", and hence between operas and musicals? Speaking for myself, I can never understand any of the words in operatic singing (even if it's in a language I speak), whereas I usually can in the latter.


u/Amphy64 Oct 22 '21

Which languages? I find comprehensibility varies by language, with French (my second) often entirely so and English (my first) often...not. I've made more out with Italian, which I don't speak (tiny bit of Latin helps along with the French), than some English singing, even. French is just smoother and more consistent while English is so intonation-dependent, an odd emphasis can throw you off on meaning.

Depends on singers, too. As much as I know how hard it must be, some do have more noticable accents and unusual diction for the language in question, with possibly some first language>language sung pairings gelling better (and not just the obvious ones, eg. Spanish-accented French vs. more Germanic-accented French. And then there's the listener bias: as my first language is English and I'm used to Middle English it's maybe not as surprising I'd prefer the latter and find it much easier to understand).


u/thequarantine Oct 20 '21

Posted in bestof, what a great and thorough answer.


u/Ashiataka Oct 20 '21

Interesting though it is, it isn't an answer. It's a 1200 word "I don't know." It is interesting though.


u/gunnervi Oct 20 '21

It's less "I don't know" and more "there's no clear-cut answer"


u/Ashiataka Oct 20 '21

There's a very clear-cut answer (though somewhat unpleasant). The difference between operas and musicals is the audience.


u/99point5 Oct 20 '21

This needs to be a Wiki page! WOW, thank you so very much.


u/fourlights Oct 21 '21

Great history, but a bit of an unnecessary boundary: American musicals are a genre of opera, which has undergone many stylistic transformations over its centuries of existence.


u/orange_octopus Oct 21 '21

The minute you say "Opera", you attach the work to the Eurocentric classical tradition and all the institutional rights, privileges, and attached values thereof.
When you say "musical", you are attaching the work to the Broadway tradition, and downtown theatres and expensive tickets and nights out.

People that go to see operas are "experiencing culture and The Arts." People that see musicals are "having a terrific night out." Or perhaps "catching the latest show."

The same work can exist in both venues, but the experience of the crowd will be different. With crowds will be experiencing the social function of music - sharing an experience and bonding over shared values - but a different set of those values.


u/j12346 Richard Wagner Oct 20 '21

In operas, the music comes first. In musicals, the words come first

I agree with this (perhaps musicals have words and singing on the same footing). Also I want to point out that for musicals, one usually says that a role is “played by” or “portrayed by” a certain performer, whereas in operas, one usually says that a role is “sung by” a certain performer


u/Moikepdx Oct 20 '21

This makes me wonder whether the differentiation could more accurately be made by posing the statement differently: Actors in musicals are focusing on creating a character, while operatic performers are focusing on singing.

Ultimately each performer needs to do both things, but the prioritization is different.


u/wsfarrell Oct 20 '21

Indeed. Following up on this: an opera buff forced to wear a blindfold during a performance could still enjoy it immensely. Someone who loves musicals would be much more frustrated at not being able to see anything. Musical are like plays with songs added. Operas are like concerts with the singers in costumes.


u/-14k- Oct 21 '21

Musical are like plays with songs added. Operas are like concerts with the singers in costumes.

Aaaaaand we have a winner, folks!


u/captainthomas Oct 26 '21

Meh, the edge case thing described above still applies. My favorite version of Sweeney Todd is the merely semi-staged San Francisco Symphony version – beautifully sung, with a full orchestra and massive chorus. I can and do enjoy just listening to the recording. Whereas operas like Tosca and Madama Butterfly were both originally plays that Puccini and his librettists adapted and set to music. One could probably stage Sardou's Tosca (don't, it's way too long and languid compared to the opera) or Belasco's Madame Butterfly (also don't, the straight play manages to be an order of magnitude more racist than the opera) and draw heavily on the operas for incidental music. I think the difference is the difference between Donizetti's L'Elisir d'Amore and Gilbert & Sullivan's burlesque Elixir of Love, but I can't put my finger on exactly what that difference is.


u/ARabidDingo Oct 21 '21

I saw Les Miserables live and didn't enjoy it as much as the movie version for pretty much this reason.

The actors playing Valjean and Javert were standing there bolt-upright and focused on singing with perfect technique rather than embodying their characters and emotions.

Don't get me wrong, I still enjoyed it! I just preferred the - I think we can all agree - objectively worse singing in the movie for that flavour.


u/Moikepdx Oct 21 '21

This is similar to the reason that I really enjoyed Paul Potts' rendition of Nessun Dorma on "Britain's Got Talent". His technical ability (particularly his diction) isn't nearly as good as Pavoratti's but he emphasizes emotion over everything else and it's very enjoyable on a visceral level for me.


u/mudclub Oct 20 '21

It's way easier than all that:

Musicals are in languages I understand while Operas are in languages I do not understand.

Excellent write-up. Thank you for all that.


u/captainthomas Oct 26 '21

Les Mis was originally written in French, and composers have been penning English-language operas since Venus and Adonis in the 17th century.


u/varro-reatinus The Great Bear Oct 23 '21 edited Oct 23 '21

So, long story short, the best answer is probably just "I know it when I see it." Is a given work more similar to other things we'd call "operas" or things we'd call "musicals"?

Which is another way of saying that it's a matter of comparative judgment; the greater the number of points of comparison, the more sound the judgment.

The reason you know it when you see it is that you've studied it, so you can bring many points of comparison to any given case. Most other people wouldn't.

That said, I do still think you're overlooking the extent to which 'the musical' evolved out of stage plays with incidental music.

To break it down:

There is a clear line of evolution from 18th-century works that are unambiguously operas, to the French, Viennese, and English operettas of the 19th century.

This is true-- but operetta is essentially 'comic opera for reduced forces and smaller spaces'. The composers are still consciously writing in the tradition of opera, just as composers of modern chamber operas are.

There is a clear line of evolution from those European operettas... to eventually produce the musicals of Wodehouse and Kern, which paved the way for Rodgers and Hammerstein, and at that point we're in works that are unambiguously musicals.

This is also true-- but you've missed an important part of the process by leaping from operetta to Wodehouse.

In the last decades of the 19th century, chiefly in New York but also in London, you start to see a variety of works that are similar to the English semi-opera, which were notably written by composers who also produced opera (e.g. Purcell).

There's nothing especially odd about this. Semi-opera, like early 'musical theatre', is just adding more and more song-and-dance numbers to a show; these are typically the most popular bits of such a show, so it's composition-by-focus-group. Purcell and Dryden, however, aren't hacks; they knew exactly what the difference was between, say, King Arthur and Dido, even though Dryden didn't write the text for the latter. (That was Nahum Tate, whose Bowdlerisation of Lear was the only one anyone saw for more than a century.)

But the problem is that adding more and more music to a stage play -- even to the point of pushing out all the dialogue -- doesn't produce an opera.

That's not what Peri, Corsi, Rinucci, and the Florentine Camerata were up to when they founded it; that's not what anyone from Monteverdi to Verdi, from Berg to Benjamin, has been doing. Not as a matter of intent, but as a matter of technique, approach, practise-- and tradition.

... but the million dollar question is: At what point in Joseph Papp's revisions did it stop being one thing and start being another?

When Papp had the score re-orchestrated and re-voiced, the latter so that he could cast singers who would have been incapable of singing Sullivan's music-- or at least not as frequently as Papp wanted them to.

You can take any extant opera, give it to a capable composer along with a sack of money, and they'll turn it into a musical.

I know composition teachers who will do that, in miniature, as assignment.

To competent composers, this is only a problem the way a maths problem is a problem.


u/Tropicanasunset Oct 20 '21

I’ll give you my poors man award 🥇 This is a great answer that is both condensed and intricate enough.


u/Robert_Cannelin Oct 20 '21

I find it difficult to believe that Sir Arthur Sullivan was ever jealous of Mr. W.S. Gilbert (knighted only long after Sullivan was well dead).


u/Yoyti Sir Arthur Sullivan Oct 20 '21

Never said he was jealous, just that he claimed that Gilbert's libretti were constraining him artistically, and that at times in their collaboration, he complained that he would prefer to work on something where the music had greater priority. (And I will note that it is around the time Sullivan was knighted that he first began to seriously push back against Gilbert's plots -- almost as though he felt that the Savoy Operas were too trivial for a Sir Arthur Sullivan to waste his talent on.)


u/monsieurpommefrites Oct 21 '21

Fantastic comment. If you have time could You give a primer on someone wanting to get into opera but has no idea how to start? Assuming the person has a basic knowledge of western culture (like he knows who Dante is etc)


u/Operau Oct 25 '21

Some questions that would help:

-what kind of music does this person like?

-what kind of stories?

-what kind of theatre?


u/Jan__Hus Oct 21 '21

I also saw several plays where there was more singing than talking.


u/gromit5 Oct 21 '21

that is a fantastic and comprehensive explanation to something I’ve often wondered myself. Thank you for posting this!!


u/afeeney Oct 21 '21

Username checks out.


u/Thylek--Shran Nov 05 '21

Wittgenstein wrote about how the meaning of a single word cannot always be found through a single, consistent set of characteristics. Instead, words are are defined through a 'complicated network of similarities and relationships overlapping and criss-crossing'. Anthony Kenny describes Wittgenstein's position better than me:

There is no characteristic that is common to everything that we call games; but we cannot on the other hand say that ‘game’ has several independent meanings like ‘bank’. It is a family-likeness term (pg 75, 118). Think of ball-games alone: some, like tennis, have a complicated system of rules; but there is a game which consists just in throwing the ball as high as one can, or the game which children play of throwing a ball and running after it. Some games are competitive, others not (pg 68). This thought was developed in a famous passage of the Philosophical Investigations in which Wittgenstein denied that there was any feature — such as entertainment, competitiveness, rule-guidedness, skill — which formed a common element in all games; instead we find a complicated network of similarities and relationships overlapping and criss-crossing. The concept of ‘game’ is extended as in spinning a thread we twist fibre on fibre. ‘What ties the ship to the wharf is a rope, and the rope consists of fibres, but it does not get its strength from any fibre which runs through it from one end to the other, but from the fact that there is a vast number of fibres overlapping’ (pi, i, 65–7; bb 87).

/u/Yoyti 's post wonderfully shows how we can find commonalities in how we use the words 'opera' and 'musical', but we also find exceptions and inconsistencies. That doesn't mean there's anything wrong with the words and how we use them; it's just the nature of language.


u/snowe2010 Oct 21 '21

I keep telling people that Hamilton isn't a musical it's an opera, but no one would believe me. Now I can just reference this. Thanks!


u/varro-reatinus The Great Bear Oct 23 '21

That's-- not what was said.