David Arnsperger in WNO's <i>Sweeney Todd</i> © Johan Persson (2015)
David Arnsperger in WNO's Sweeney Todd
© Johan Persson (2015)
Scouring our annual statistics for trends in classical music back in January, I heaved a sigh at seeing just how many performances of musicals are staged by opera companies. Sweeney Todd was the most performed musical (by an opera company), with 57 performances listed, most of them in the UK which featured a Welsh National Opera tour and English National Opera’s semi-staging with Bryn Terfel and Emma Thompson, the latter previously been seen in New York.

West Side Story and Carousel were followed by the likes of Crazy For You, My Fair Lady and Kiss Me Kate. All classic musicals of great quality, no question. The question is though, why are opera companies increasingly turning to musical theatre? Are they actually any good at it?

"Only a company like ENO could actually afford to stage Kismet and do it properly," purred Michael Ball in the run-up to opening night back in 2007. Oh my, there’s “Fate” for you. Those of us who saw it – and possibly those involved in it too – will be haunted by just how woefully misconceived the whole affair was. The pseudo-operatic score based on recycled Borodin was presented in spectacularly lacklustre fashion, suffering poor amplification. “The stuff of provincial panto not a national opera company” was Rupert Christiansen's verdict for The Daily Telegraph. The score cried out for a lavish production, yet no opera company was going to splash out the required money on something that received fewer than 20 performances.

Michael Ball in ENO's <i>Kismet</i> © Tristram Kenton | ENO (2007)
Michael Ball in ENO's Kismet
© Tristram Kenton | ENO (2007)

Kismet may be an extreme example, but what business do opera companies have in muscling in on musical theatre? My heart sinks when I see them crop up in shiny new season announcements. Invariably, casts are an uncomfortable mixture of musical theatre actors and opera singers in an attempt to justify the work’s presence in the opera house. How well opera singers can adapt their style is a moot point. Some do it better than others and my hunch is that it’s a lot harder than they realise. Whether they should they be miked or not is another issue. Opera companies and their half-way house productions rarely do justice to the material. The exuberant 2014 production of Candide at the Menier Chocolate Factory had more spark than ENO’s lavish Robert Carsen staging, although that can be counted one of their more successful ventures into genre-crossing. Candide itself is an odd – but lovable – hybrid anyway.

Opera North's <i>Carousel</i> © Alastair Muir (2015)
Opera North's Carousel
© Alastair Muir (2015)

ENO is soon to embark on another crossover venture. A run of 43 performances of Sunset Boulevard (starring Glenn Close) is short by West End theatre standards – the excellent production of Gypsy at the Savoy Theatre, for example, ran for 35 weeks last year – but in opera-land, five weeks is an age. Perhaps it will be the cash cow the company so badly needs. ENO is not alone. Other companies regularly stage musicals and admit that sales from them – and operatic ‘bankers’ like La traviata and La bohème – help finance the rest of their season. Even the Royal Opera regularly rolls out the classics, triple cast, year after year. But Traviata is still opera. Five weeks of no opera mid-season at the Coliseum is no laughing matter.   

Bryn Terfel in Grange Park Opera's <i>Fiddler on the Roof</i> © Robert Workman
Bryn Terfel in Grange Park Opera's Fiddler on the Roof
© Robert Workman
It’s as bad with festival opera. For the second year in a row, Grange Park Opera is presenting a musical in its short season. Last year, Bryn Terfel was the operatic sweetener to encourage the Hampshire country set to hoof it along to Fiddler on the Roof. This year, Simon Keenlyside is cast as Fagin to pick those wealthy pockets (an eye-watering £170 top price) in Lionel Bart’s Oliver! When there are just three staged productions this summer, to lose one to a non-operatic work is ridiculous. There have even been rumours that Glyndebourne is planning to stage West Side Story. Doubtless it will sell, but isn’t it a sell-out when opera companies desert their core repertoire? English National Opera. Grange Park Opera. Isn’t the clue in the name?