Last month I read The Guardian’s supplement on ‘How To Enjoy Opera’ [note: the online version has a slightly different, shorter opening paragraph than the print version] containing a rather typical debate about which is best: musicals or opera. In one corner is the novelist Jay Rayner (pro-musicals) and in the other is journalist Tom Service championing opera. In the opening paragraph, Service tries to persuade Rayner that both art forms can be “the perfect amalgam of text, music and drama”. He is there to provide balance, but I can’t help feeling that he is a little biased towards opera singers when he says they are better than “the vibrato-laden mediocrity of the pseudo-singers who prop up much of the West End and nearly every TV show”.

I was outraged for many reasons, one being that Service places us musical theatre singers (I for one have spent 15 years singing) on the same level as TV shows such as X Factor. Most musical theatre performers have trained from a young age to get their voices in top shape, not to mention the dancing and acting skills that are required. With all this training, musical theatre singers are on a much higher level than some of the performers on reality TV shows.

On a more technical note, regarding Service’s claim that musical theatre singers are “vibrato-laden”, vibrato is necessary on some level, otherwise a wall of sound is thrown at the audience. By adding vibrato (creating ‘colour’ by shaking the voice – Whitney Houston is a good exponent of this, just listen to her singing “and I” from ‘I Will Always Love You’) the sound is given ‘flavour’ or ‘colour’, which were key terms used during my training. In some singing lessons at university it got so technical that we would be told how many times to vibrato on a particular note and how long to hold it for, illustrating the importance of the technique. Granted, some singers have a dodgy vibrato that grinds on the ears, but opera singers use it just as much – if not more – so being “vibrato-laden” is in fact a null point.

Really, the whole topic is a null point; you can never get a satisfactory answer over which is the better art form as they do essentially the same thing but with a different sound. It’s like choosing which is best out of early 90s hip hop and modern hip hop songs; they are fundamentally the same but on different time scales. Similarly, opera gave birth to operetta, which in turn spawned musical theatre.

I easily get defensive about the opinion that musicals are the bastard of theatre, so perhaps the following definition of ‘opera’ will help confirm my point: “Opera is a drama set to music. To be sung with instrumental accompaniment by singers usually in costume. Recitative or spoken dialogue may separate the numbers but the essence of opera is that the music is integral and is not incidental.” – Oxford Music Dictionary.

This definition also holds true for musicals, meaning that they are not so different in terms of structure and aim. They differ mainly in the audience perception; opera is seen as the dominion of the upper class and musicals are for the audience of lesser means and simpler pleasures. The Co-Director of Les Miserables, John Caird, said much the same in a recent Radio 4 documentary that reunited original cast and crew to reflect on the past 26 years: “There was then and there still is a great snobbery about musical theatre. Posh people go to opera and the not so posh to musicals.” Yet most through-sung musicals, such as Les Miserables, also use the opera technique of recitative (where the music is made to sound like speech, linking the main songs) so perhaps they are more similar than people think.

Before I become as biased as Service, I do want to point out that I trained in classical singing before studying musical theatre, so I know the pleasure of singing an opera aria and don’t want to knock the genre. I concede that many musicals do feature reality TV stars, but this angers a lot of formally-trained performers as they miss out on jobs. Ultimately, the question of whether opera or musical theatre is best can never be answered – my only wish is for musicals to be accepted as an equal in terms of artistic merit and importance as opera.

Image by nick_blick