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Theater 30.2 (2000) 9-23

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Some Notes on the Origins of New Music-Theater

Eric Salzman




Dramma per musica is what Monteverdi called it. Every age seems to have had to reinvent it. Now it's our turn.

Music-theater has two contrary meanings. In one sense, it means any theatrical or performance work in which music plays an extended, primary role. In this definition, opera, operetta, and the musical are just localized forms of a large, general category. But, in English, music-theater is a relatively recent term coined to exclude all those traditional genres in favor of new kinds of music-and-theater mixes: antioperas, nonmusicals, performance art, multimedia, extended-voice extravaganzas, and the like.

As theater has moved towards nonlinear and even nonverbal forms, as performance art has crystallized out of dance theater and merged with music hall and pop concerts, and as new music has absorbed minimalist, Cagean, pop, vaudevillian, and non-Western influences, the old, broken alliance of theater and music has been restitched together in a multitude of new ways. And this impulse has been felt, often without collusion or coordination, in many disciplines and in many parts of the world.

Terminological confusion comes with the territory. When the neologism music-theater was proposed in the 1960s, it sounded like a translation from the German--which it was. Musiktheater was widely used in central Europe in the sixties and seventies to designate experimental forms of interaction between the concert stage and the theater (see the works of Stockhausen, Kagel, Ligeti, Berio, Bussotti, etc.). In translation, it was intended to distinguish those kinds of musico-theatrical performance works that clearly did not belong in the opera house, the Broadway theater, or the traditional concert stage.

Ironically, the term has proved to be only too successful and has been applied to virtually any form of theater that incorporates sung or danced music as a primary component. Instead of being reserved for a musico-theatrical third stream that has gained independence from both opera and musical theater, it has been used to describe almost anything, [End Page 9] up to and including commercial musicals. That leaves what may be the most important and characteristic art form of the turn of the millennium without a proper name. An attempt to sketch the as yet unwritten history of modern music-theater might help to sort out these confusions.

"Theater that sings" (to use a slogan I inadvertently coined for the American Music Theater Festival) is demonstrably older, more "normal," and more widespread than spoken or prose theater. Popular musical entertainment goes back at least to Greco-Roman times and can be found in almost all cultures. Side by side with grand opera and Wagnerian music drama, opere buffe, opéras comiques, comic operas, singspiele and songspiele, operettas, cabarets, and musical comedies have continued to flourish right up to our own time.

Ever since its invention in Italy in 1600, opera has been constantly reinvented as music-theater--dramma per musica--because opera has always threatened to become, well, too operatic: too old, too showy, too devoted to its past, too removed from the concerns of its time. And, above all, too obsessed with voce, voce, voce. It is curious that somehow opera manages to be simultaneously too aristocratic and too popular, as well as too social, too outrageous, too bogged down in the status quo, too expensive, and too starstruck. Hence the long series of reforms by Monteverdi, Pergolesi, Gluck, Wagner, and Weill. [End Page 10]

Opera and the more "serious" forms of music-theater have always perched uneasily at the conjunction of popular and high art. Reform movements alternate between two apparently contradictory aims: first, to introduce "higher" artistic ambitions to a complex and expensive art that always threatens to degenerate into mere popular entertainment; and, second, to simplify and popularize an aristocratic, connoisseur's form that has become too complex and byzantine and too upper-crust (a showcase for castrati and other virtuosi, a form of conspicuous consumption for social climbers, etc.). The twentieth century has tried...


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