|Songs and Stories: A Look at Three Genres of Musical Theater|| |
Students will enjoy starting the class with an open discussion of the Met performance. What did they like? What didn’t they? Did anything surprise them? What would they like to see or hear again? What would they have done differently? This discussion will offer students an opportunity to review the notes on their My Highs & Lows sheet, as well as their thoughts about the Met production—in short, to see themselves as La Rondine experts.
As discussed in the pre-transmission activities, La Rondine was initially commissioned as an operetta—but Puccini found himself uncomfortable working in that genre. What is it about an operetta that Puccini might have found constricting, uncomfortable, or ill-suited to his talents? Begin by eliciting students’ own understanding of the differences between operetta and opera. (Some of this will be ground that your class has covered in preparing to see La Rondine.) While there are no hard and fast rules, in general:
An operetta is a spoken theater piece studded with songs
Operettas are rarely tragic; more often, they mix romance with comedy
They often take place in exotic, fantastic settings
Their characters tend to include royals, nobles or high officials—sometimes admired, frequently the subjects of farce or the objects of ridicule
Other characters in operettas are often identified by social class
Comedy in operettas frequently derives from contrasts of class conventions
Stylistic hallmarks include wit, elegance, and catchy tunes
They’re shorter in length than operas
A genre of light opera
If those are the characteristics of operetta, how would your students say they differ from those of opera? More concretely, you might ask, “Why was La Rondine originally conceived as an operetta, but ultimately classified as an opera? How does La Rondine straddle both genres? (In general, an opera is longer in length and “heavier” in terms of both music and subject matter. The inseparability of singing, whether solo, duet, or larger ensembles, from plot and the development of character relationships is a hallmark trait of opera.)
Your class has some familiarity with opera, perhaps less acquaintance with operetta—but probably considerable experience with Broadway-style musicals, whether classic high-school productions like Grease and Fiddler on the Roof, movie musicals like Mamma Mia, or TV films like High School Musical. Having discussed some of the differences between operetta and opera, students should now apply their own knowledge of musicals to identify characteristics which differentiate that genre. What do they think makes a musical different from an opera? What might make it different from an operetta? What kinds of stories do musicals tell? Are there stories that would not work as musicals? Do opera, operetta and the musical tell different kinds of stories?
As follow-up, students can pick a favorite (or at least familiar) musical. By way of consolidating their thinking about formal characteristics, they might write essays on the topic “How I would turn [title of show] into an opera.”