Opera Goes Broadway Goes Opera

Opera Goes Broadway Goes Opera This season, Puccini's timeless classic La Bohème was packing them in.
A scene from La Boheme.
A scene from La Boheme. (Photo by Sue Adler)

And not just at Lincoln Center's two stately opera houses, where Puccini is standard fare, but also eight times weekly on Broadway, where movie whiz Baz Luhrmann's updated production added sparkle to the season.

Scoffers who thought La Bohème couldn't thrive on Broadway just don't know their Broadway. Not only do two of La Bohème's major box-office rivals, Aida and Rent, display stories borrowed wholesale from operatic masterpieces (the latter from La Bohème, itself), but operatic scores and singers, as well as scenarios, have been welcomed on Broadway for decades — and Broadway shows have returned the favor by moving into the world's opera houses.

Even Puccini's been there before: Vivacious Irene Bordoni warbled his salon song "Mia Luna" (with new English lyrics by her husband, producer E. Ray Goetz) in the 1925 romp Naughty Cinderella, following a tradition of interpolating favorite operatic arias into Broadway shows that goes back at least to The Tycoon (1860). Oscar Hammerstein's Carmen Jones (1943) transported Bizet to wartime black America; in its wake, Charles K. Friedman's My Darlin' Aida (1952) moved Verdi's opera from ancient Memphis to the one in Civil War Tennessee.

Gershwin's Porgy and Bess (1935) inaugurated the heightened-vernacular genre often called "Broadway opera." Works like Weill's Street Scene (1947), Blitzstein's Regina (1949), Menotti's The Consul (1950), Loesser's The Most Happy Fella (1956) and lately Sondheim's Sweeney Todd (1979) have followed it into the operatic repertoire. Today, the opera singer who lacks the panache and flexibility to belt out a Broadway tune is the rarity, while opera-house managers are eyeing the Big Street's sturdier vocal talents.

So when the next great Heldentenor turns up in a midtown show, take Ira Gershwin's advice: Lohengrin and bear it. —Chief theatre critic of The Village Voice, Michael Feingold has translated many plays and operas, including the Broadway versions of Brecht and Weill's Threepenny Opera and Happy End.