Exploring Music's Complexities

Opera and Musical Differences

Operas and Musicals

Given the similarities and differences between an opera and a musical one has to conclude there is a hazy boundary between the two.  Once you think you have a definition for each you find exceptions that make distinctions difficult.  One thing that is clear is that is they come out of the same traditions of singing onstage to convey a story or drama.


In Western culture, there is nothing quite like an opera. By definition, an “opera is an extended dramatic composition in which all parts are sung to instrumental accompaniment that usually includes arias, choruses, and recitations and occasionally ballet (1)” Opera may be comic or grand.  For opera lovers, its extravagance is magical (2). How are they different from musicals?

Operas originated in Italy at the end of the 16th century with Jacopo Peri’s Dafne.  While many composers wrote opera, today, the most renowned is considered to be Mozart for his comic operas such as The Marriage of Figaro, Don Giovanni and for Cosi fan Tutte and The Magic Flute (1).

In the early part of the 19th Century Rossini and Donizetti and Bellini created operas that are still performed today.  Works of Auber and Meyerbeer typify Grand Opera.  With the increased popularity of Central and eastern European composers, the middle to late 19th century grew into the “Golden Age” of opera.  It’s popularity continued into the 20th Century with the introduction of modern styles such as atonality and serialism (1).

Opera’s Characteristics

Traditional opera is made up of two modes of singing:  recitations and the aria referred to as “number opera”.  The recitation mode is sung in a style designed to imitate and emphasize the inflections of speech.  The aria serves as a vehicle for the performers to express their emotion in a structured way.  The words of an opera are called the libretto or “little book” (1).

A harpsichord and a cello or an accompagnato or strumentato accompanied early operas.  As time progressed, the orchestra replaced the earlier accompaniments.   By the 19th Century Richard Wagner had abolished almost all distinctions between the aria and recitations and the orchestra began to take on a more important role.  The switch was intended to create “endless melody” (1).


Musicals, like opera, are a living art form.  Both are large-scale stage works that tell stories through singing and musical accompaniment.  By definition, a “musical is a stage, television or film production utilizing popular style songs – dialogue optional – to tell a story (book musicals) or showcase the talents of the writer and/or the performer” (3).  It is a combination of plot, scores, singing and spoken dialogue.  Most musicals are collaborative efforts with one individual writing the lyrics and the other the music (4).

Early musicals were heavily influenced by popular burlesque shows, circuses and vaudeville acts  (5).   Evolving from comic, the productions can be musical, musical play, musical review, opera, and operetta.   The first musical is thought to be The Black Crook, which premiered in New York in 1866.  In the 1930’s musicals such as The Jazz Singer paved the way for works by George Gershwin, Irving Berlin, Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein (6).

Over time, musicals began to depart from comedy to a dark side that was designed for a mature audience with serious subjects.  Examples include Cabaret, Chicago, Rent and Sweeny Todd.  Filmed musicals also are growing in popularity (5).

Similarities and Differences

As definitions go, “operas and musicals are both large-scale stage works that enact a drama through singing with instrumental accompaniment.” (5).  The principal difference lies in the manner in which text is handled.  In opera, music serves as the vehicle that propels the story.  Musicals use spoken text between song numbers.  The text is what creates the story.  Opera, on the other hand, primarily uses music to move the plot along.

Another difference between musicals and opera is the vocal style.  The style used in musicals is more like popular music.  In operas there is roundness to the voices that also use vibrato (5).

Instrumentation is also different.  In the beginning instrumentation for musicals was much like that used in opera.  It remained that way until the 20th Century when theatre began economizing through the use of microphones and speakers (5).

While there are these differences there are exceptions. Works such as those written by George Gershwin, Leonard Bernstein and Stephen Sondheim have been produced in both genres.  The same was noted for older operettas.  It is Sondheim’s opinion (that) “I really think that when something plays Broadway it’s a musical and when it plays in an opera house its opera.  That’s it.  It’s the terrain, the countryside, and the expectations of the audience that make it one thing or another” (7).

Another type of cross over deals with themes.   The story line for Donizetti’s “Elixir of Love” is similar to that in Meredith Wilson’s The Music Man.” (8).  Then there is  an opera called “A Quiet Place” written by Leonard Bernstein who was known for theatre works. This departure from his earlier theatre work is referred to as a stylistically eclectic yet full-fledged opera (8).

Holland sums it up this way.  He suggests that each works with its special needs.  “Operas work with specialties – with separate compartments that make up a performing whole.”  In musicals, individuals are usually quite versatile.  They may sing, dance, and act.  This allows the producer to cut cast requirements (8).  So, while there are similarities “Please Respect the Differences (9).

  1. “A History of Opera”.  Theatre and Performance.  Victoria and Albert Museum.  Retrieved 1 June 2013.
  2. Bowersock, G. W.  Opera is Not Dead.  The rich history-and rich present-of a unique art form, May 26 2013, http://www.newrepublic.com/article/113095/opera-not-dead.  Retrieved June 1, 2013.
  3. Kenrick, John.  What is a Musical – A History of the Musical, http://www.musicals101.com/musical.htm.  Retrieved June 1, 2013.
  4. Patten, J.Lynn.  Definition of a Broadway Musical.  eHow Contributor, http://www.ehow.com/about_6710664_definition-broadway-musical.html, Retrieved June 1, 2013.
  5. Jakubik, Alex.  Difference Between an Opera & a Musical.   Retrieved June 1, 2013.
  6. What is a Musical?  http://www.wisegook.com/what-is-a-musical.  Retrieved June 1, 2013.
  7. sejinan    http://jinan421.wordpress.com/2013/05/27/comparisons-with-opera/ Retrieved June 1, 2013.
  8. Holland, Bernard.  Music; Opera or Musical?  It Can Be a Close Call.  http://www.nytimes.com/1988/02/21/theater/music-opera-ro-musical-it-can-be-a-close-call.html.  Retrieved June 1, 2013.
  9. http://theater.nytimes.com/2011/07/10/theater/musical-or-opera-the-fine-line-that-divides-them.html?_r=0   Published July 7, 2011.   Retrieved June 1, 2013.

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1 Response

  1. There is defiantly a difference between Opera and Music. True, they both use music in their works. Traditionally a musical has spoken dialogue and song while an opera is sung-through, but musicals can be sung-through as well. It has to do with how different the melodies sound and so many other things

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