“Music Theater is the most ancient and the most modern of the arts, the most esoteric and experimental and yet, at the same time, the most popular. It is full of these contradictions which is what makes it exciting and relevant. In its recent manifestations, it is the off-off-Broadway of opera, the equivalent of modern dance as opposed to ballet. The only trouble is that it’s a still-evolving art form that is now about where modern dance was half a century ago.”From an interview with Eric Salzman at the Maison des Ecrivains (Writers House) in Paris, 1997
What is music theater? Since this usage, although known in various European languages, is relatively new in English, the question has been posed in various ways.
Opera is an abbreviated form of a still-current Italian expression, opera lirica, which can be translated as “lyric work” or “works that are sung” (opera itself being the plural of opus, the Latin word for “work”). The term has been used to represent many “classical” forms of sung theater, even when the connections to European opera are slight (hence “Chinese opera” or “Peking opera”). By extension, popular theatrical forms containing music (some of them older than opera itself) have come to be designated as operetta (or “little opera”), light opera, comic opera, opéra comique, or opéra bouffe, all variable and somewhat awkward expressions that try to marry terms for relatively small-scale popular or comic (i.e., nontragic) art with a word whose historically developed character is closely connected with notions of “big” and “grand.”
In fact, the term opera itself has sometimes inspired doubts among composers and librettists. Reformers and innovators of serious opera as well as the creators of popular forms have often preferred to use other terms such as musical comedy, the musical, Singspiel, dramma per musica, favola in musica, dramma giocosa, pastorale and lyric drama, all terms from which the word opera is missing. Wagner, who associated “opera” with Meyerbeer and the Italians, referred to his work as “music drama.” Bertolt Brecht, who disliked opera and wanted to draw on the popularity of musical theater, invented new terms for his works and essentially broke with Kurt Weill over the operatic dimensions of Mahagonny.
New music theater was created outside these categories. It absorbed the musical and artistic revolutions of the early twentieth century as well as the technological innovations of stagecraft and stage design, machinery and light, audio and video. When we say that the new music theater is distinguished by innovation and revolution, we do not mean to imply that everything was reinvented simultaneously. Some aspects (say, the standard pit orchestra) might be retained but others (for example, singing style, subject matter, or text) might be quite new. Some works might still fit the operatic model because they use operatic voices or because they integrate well into the standardized process of operatic production. But a good deal of music theater (or even small-scale opera) rejects the grandeur of grand opera for many reasons including economics, the preference for nonprojected voices (extended voice, pop, non-European styles or other kinds of singing that need to be amplified), a desire for audience immediacy, or a general esthetic or philosophical preference for small-scale, unpretentious, small-theater work—closer in many ways to contemporary dance, dance theater, new theater and new performance art than to traditional opera. Small voices and small budgets require a small theater concept, a small theater, a small ensemble, and, probably, amplification. These needs combine with esthetic preferences to produce the kind of piece that works well in a small theater but which is difficult, if not impossible, for a large opera house or company to swallow.
Nevertheless, some terminological problems seem unavoidable. In English, “music theater” is essentially a coinage taken from the Germanic form Musiktheater, which can refer to a building but which also came to designate a kind of instrumental or instrumental/vocal avant-garde performance associated with composers like Karlheinz Stockhausen and Mauricio Kagel. In the English-speaking world, it was first applied to small-scale sung theater in the Brecht or Brecht/Weill tradition but it has been widely appropriated for almost any kind of serious musical theater. Hardly anyone on Broadway or in London’s West End uses the term musical comedy anymore, and ambitious modern musicals with a pretense to do more than merely entertain are as likely to be designated “music theater” as anything else.
Introduction from Eric Salzman’s and Thomas Desi’s The New Music Theater: Seeing the Voice, Hearing the Body