The May 25th issue of The Sydney Morning Herald reported that Opera Australia beat box office expectations by 4 percent and finished the fiscal year with a substantial surplus. For a company that featured 225 main stage performances in Sydney and Melbourne, this would ordinarily be great news.
The cloud surrounding this silver lining, however, is that the season's box office smash was The Pirates of Penzance. So great was the success of Gilbert & Sullivan's war horse that Opera Australia, according to The Sydney Morning Herald, plans to present My Fair Lady as part of its main stage season next year.
Although the demarcation line between opera and other staged musical performances has never been a bright one, it still exists. For a financially strapped company looking to swell the bottom line, an occasional venture into operetta may be preferable to, say, a filing under Chapter 11 of the Bankruptcy Code. Attention to the financial bottom line is a necessity, but there is the small matter of artistic integrity that needs to be taken into account as well.
The Broadway musical is an art form that has delighted audiences for roughly eight decades; I take the real start of the genre to be Show Boat, which opened in 1927. The Broadway musical is not, however, opera.
There is a reason why the average opera subscription does not include Parsifal, Camelot, Cosi Fan Tutte, Silk Stockings and Il Trovatore. Tannhauser and My Fair Lady go together like salami and whipped cream.
When the rush to fill opera house seats depends on this level of commercial sensibility and artistic bankruptcy, the day is not far off when an advertisement will appear proclaiming "Rod Stewart IS Gianni Schicchi!" This will likely set off mass cardiac arrest in the opera community. And, may I add, with good reason.