The Differences Between Musicals and Operas

Marina McLerran

Editor, McLerran Journal

Assistant Band Director, Center ISD, TX


It is a common misconception that the terms “musical” and “opera” are interchangeable. It’s an easy mistake to make since both art forms include elaborate dance numbers, flashy costumes, and a live orchestra, however there are also some major differences to consider.


What is a musical?

A musical is a theatrical performance that tells a story with songs interjected into the plot.


Musicals originated in the United States in the 1800’s in New York City and are most commonly performed in English. According to the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “the antecedents of the musical can be traced to a number of 19th century forms of entertainment including” comic opera, burlesque, and the minstrel show. Early musical theater was a sort of melting-pot for art that combined elements of French ballet, German melodrama, and American humor. Contemporary musicals are usually made up of two acts, lasting approximately an hour each, with a fifteen-minute intermission in the middle. The average musical includes between fifteen and twenty individual songs.

The first successful musical comedy, The Black Crook, premiered in 1866 in New York City. Scholars agree that the production’s success stemmed from its appeal to fans of both opera and burlesque shows (Britannica). Mark Lubbock, in his book “The Complete Book of Light Opera,” asserts that The Black Crook can also be credited with establishing multiple “key elements of American musical comedies” including a chorus line, elaborate production numbers, and ornate costuming. Scholars believe that, although American theater companies began by simply imitating successful European productions, there was a distinct movement towards the development of a unique American “style, spirit, and format” in the 19th century.  


Initially, Americans were very fond of minstrel or variety shows, with an abundance of humor and the absence of a plot. The Brook in 1979 by Nate Salesbury was the first American musical to employ a cohesive plot in addition to comedy (Lubbock). In the 1940’s, with the rise of writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein, musical plays that focused on witty banter and serious social context gained popularity. Works like Oklahoma, Carousel, The King and I, and South Pacific brought a new level of sophistication to American musical theater.


What is an opera? 

An opera is a theatrical performance that tells a story through the use of only music and singing (without the spoken word).


According to Opera Europa, the professional association of opera houses and festivals in Europe, opera originated in Florence when a group of musicians, La Camerata Fiorintina, attempted to revive the “simplicity of ancient [Greek] tragedy.” Early operas (sponsored by the wealthy Medici family) attempted to create musical versions of famous poetry or myths, with the music being “subservient to the words.” By 1700, opera had spread throughout Europe and was also popular in Vienna, Rome, Paris, and London. Traditional operas contain three or four acts and are performed completely in song. While English operas like Dido and Aeneas (1680) by Henry Purcell do exist, most productions are performed in Italian, French, or German. Special characteristics of an opera include recitative (“dialogue” that advances the plot) and aria (solo singing).

FUN FACT: Monteverdi’s La Favola d’Orfeo (1607) is the oldest opera to still be performed.


By the 18th century, two distinct forms of opera had developed; opera seria and opera buffa. Opera seria (serious opera), also referred to as Neapolitan opera, was the dominant style in 18th century Europe. These traditional productions featured elements of bel canto (“beautiful singing”) style, tragic plotlines, and solos by famous female singers or castrati. Examples of opera seria include Dido Abbandonata (1725) by Nicola Porpora and Handel’s Aridodante (1735).

Opera buffa (comic opera) made light of ordinary people handling everyday situations and hilarious chaos. This genre likely evolved from the light-hearted interludes that were performed between the acts of traditional operas (Britannica). Often, comic operas include two distinct groups of characters (usually separated by gender) and a pair of hopelessly lost lovers. Famous examples of opera buffa include La Serva Padrona (1733) by Giovanni Battista and Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro (1786).




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