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April 2015
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INFOGRAPHIC: The Great American Musical Moves to the Opera House


Carousel, currently running in a new production at the Lyric Opera of Chicago, is one of many American musicals popping up at opera houses around the globe. Before Lyric, the Glimmerglass Opera revived this classic work by Rodgers and Hammerstein during its 2014 festival season. During the same summer season, Susan Graham starred in a new production of The King and I at the Théâtre du Châtelet in Paris. These are only a few of many recent productions that confirm a growing trend:

The “Great American Musical” is moving into to the opera house.

In the post-recession economy, opera companies of all sizes are searching for ways to sustain their current audience while also developing and diversifying it. Classic American musicals are a natural programming choice for companies hoping to attract consumers who enjoy live spectacle, but may never have seen an opera.

The Chicago Tribune speculates that Lyric’s Carousel is Broadway bound, a move that the Chicago Business Journal notes would be sure to bring in a carnival of cash for the company. Carousel is one of the Rodgers and Hammerstein “Big Five,” which include Oklahoma!, The Sound of Music,  The King and I, and South Pacific, that Lyric is staging over five seasons as part of its American Musical Theater Initiative.

How has producing a single musical affected Lyric’s overall output as a production company in terms of total mainstage performances?

The number of different operas the Lyric produces has remained basically unchanged in the last decade. But, in ten seasons from 2006-07 to 2015-16, the number of opera performances during the regular subscription series has decreased,  while the number of musical performances has dramatically increased.


Lyric Opera of Chicago presents its seasons as integrated entities comprised of 9 mainstage productions and Lyric Unlimited productions, with the recent addition of musical performances as part of the American Musical Theater Initiative. The chart above refers specifically to mainstage productions. Student Matinee performances, Lyric Unlimited productions, and special concerts and events are not included in counts of total number of performances per season. Graphic by Jenny Macchione

During the 2006-07 season, Lyric produced 82 performances of 8 operas. During the 2013-14 season, however, the Lyric only produced 67 performances of 8 operas. Though the company produced a total of 91 performances on the main stage that season, a full 32% of those performances were of a musical, namely, The Sound of Music. Performances of The Sound of Music constituted approximately 1/3 of the company’s total performances on the main stage, and was the top-selling production in Lyric’s history.

There are some obvious financial reasons for producing such a large number of performance of musicals, considering they sell well, if the success of The Sound of Music is any indication.  Anthony Freud, Lyric’s General Director, declined to comment how the company’s American Musical Theater Initiative impacts fiscal goals and financial planning for future seasons.

In an interview last year with the New York Times , Mr. Freud said, “I’m not sure there is a clear definition between operas and musicals. If you distill it down to its basics, it’s about telling stories through music and words…But we’re also giving our audiences the chance to see and hear these musicals at a scale at which they were conceived.”

Carousel Rehearsal

Laura Osnes (Julie Jordan) and Steven Pasquale (Billy Bigelow) in Lyric’s Carousel. Photo: Todd Rosenberg

Indeed, there’s something about these works that simply works in the today’s opera houses, since they can afford to give pieces like Carousel the musical production values they deserve.Today, opera houses employ orchestras larger than ensembles found in the pits of Broadway houses and in touring productions of musicals, which ask players to double up or even treble up on instruments, and in which synthesizers can produce a variety of sounds, too.

Carousel is one of most richly orchestrated scores in the Rogers and Hammerstein oeuvre, with effects that depict everything from the whirl of Billy Bigelow’s carousel to the blossoms falling that also symbolize Julie’s loss of innocence. In Carousel, the orchestra is fully integrated into the drama. The score is replete with such carefully considered underscoring that very few characters actually seem that they’re “bustin’ out all over” to sing. Rather, the characters are surrounded by sound, and become so overwhelmed with emotion that lyrical expression becomes not only natural, but necessary.

After minutes of dialogue over soft orchestral underscoring, characters slowly drop speech in favor of song-like recitative, finally reaching full-blown song. Such is the case in Act I, when Carrie Pipperidge speaks with her friend Julie Jordan after an altercation at the Carousel, then sings a speech-like introduction (“His name is Mr. Snow,”) to a lyrical expression of love about the man she’s going to marry (“When I marry Mr. Snow”).


Opera singer Denyce Graves plays Nettie Fowler in Lyric’s Carousel. Photo: Todd Rosenberg


And speaking of singing, a work like Carousel requires voices of operatic strength. In fact, John Raitt, who originated the role of Billy Bigelow, auditioned with “Largo al factotum” from Rossini’s The Barber of Seville. Billy’s “Soliloquy,” a demanding and dramatic solo scene that usually clocks in at over eight minutes, requires the same amount of control and training to execute as some bel canto arias.

Carousel and other great American musicals have moved to the opera house not only because opera companies are hoping to sell tickets and balance budgets. The opera house has become the natural habitat for what has become an almost endangered species in an era of post-recession Broadway-style production.


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