Sondheim: “Big Problems” in Contemporary Opera

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.


  1. Gale Martin

    I too am a huge Sondheim devotee. Interestingly, he was critical of modern opera production but didn’t mention he owes a debt to modern opera. I mean, most people would consider Debussy’s operas “modern.” Sondheim must have a learned a trick or two from Debussy’s operas. The style, the qualities are much too coincidental to be otherwise, I’d say.

  2. Cecily

    Actually, he did frequently mention his debt to opera composers – when describing certain techniques he uses, he’d preface the explanation with something like “opera composers have known this for centuries” or some such. And talked about how much he loves music “between Brahms and Stravinsky” – which would include Debussy. My sense is that his criticisms of the process of opera production applied mostly to post-1930′s (“contemporary” rather than modern) opera.

    • Cecily

      What about it do you find Brechtian? Musically I always found it more Victorian/romantic than anything, rather than the “music hall in hell” sense I get from Weill.

  3. Definitely the Opera

    The fact that he uses pop-y tunes to alienating effects. So the tune is catchy and melodic and fake-positive, and you realize he’s singing about cutting people’s throat or even cutting very specific white-collared, silky-cravat throats of certain establishment members.

    And who else is Sweeney Todd if not Mackie Messer.

    Also a lot depend on the angry delivery. I’m sure one could sing ST characters romantically too.