I had the great pleasure this evening of attending the Mirvish-produced Evening with Stephen Sondheim, featuring the man himself being interviewed by critic Robert Cushman. Because I was raised on American musicals and continue to love them to this day, the works of Rogers & Hammerstein, Lerner & Lowe, Cole Porter, Gershwin and the rest are embedded deep in a primal place in my brain, along with Sondheim, a titan of the genre. His work meant, and continues to mean, so much to me – as much as opera does. Sondheim is probably the most operatic of the major musical theatre composers, and opera is of course an older sister to that genre, so when the question “would you ever write an opera” was posed to him, I perked up my ears.
Throughout the evening he’d acknowledged the debt of modern musical theatre to opera – how the transformation from “number”-based musicals to more integrated ones mirrored how opera had transformed itself a century before; and how opera composers have always known the ways that music can be used to convey subtext.
But when asked if he’d ever compose an opera, his answer was “no”, because he believes that the current institutional structures in place for premiering new works cause the work to suffer.
He explained that he views the audience as a collaborator, and that the process of modifying a work based on audience response is indispensable to him. Without being able to have several performances (several nights in a row, with a consistent cast) in front of a real audience, observe where they’re rapt and when they’re bored and then tweak accordingly, he believes that no new work can truly succeed. “For this reason, most contemporary operas have big problems,” he concluded (I paraphrase).
His complaint put me in mind of this John Terauds blog post, discussing an Opera America article that I (sadly) have not read. “The System is Set Up to Fail New Operas” is its provocative headline, and though the reasons are different, the underlying sentiment – that there’s something strangely clinical, detatched, and unexciting about the way we approach new works – is quite similar.