Les Miserables: Is It or Isn’t It Opera?
Les Miserables has the history in the theater industry of being called a mega-musical. What that means is that the vocals, chorus, orchestra, sets, lighting, sound, costumes and special effects are as powerful, emotional and over the top as you can possibly get. But, to answer the question, it is actual opera.
The challenge with referring to Les Mis as “opera” is that many audiences are turned off by opera. People often think of Wagner, Verdi, Mozart or Puccini when they hear the word opera. Les Mis is opera because of the way Claude-Michel Schönberg and Alain Boublil wrote the music. In creating the music, they use specific themes to convey specific emotions.
For example, when Valjean - the principal hero, played by John Pohlman – sings “What Have I Done?” in the Prologue, he is singing an emotional epiphany, a realization that his life has been rescued and completely changed by the powerful purchase of his soul for God.
In the auditions and in recruiting singers for Les Mis, the directors--Leah Goodwin and Laura Merz--looked specifically for singers with classical training. There is no pop singing in this show. They wanted singers who had experience, big ranges, and were able to convey the emotions needed for this unusual show.
“We wanted to bring a new experience to Florence theater-goers,” Merz says. “When potential auditioners questioned us about what we were looking for, we simply said, ‘passion.’”
As in opera, this story is sung-through. There are no long scene changes. The audience will not have to sit through the frequent orchestra vamps as they have in the past. There is very little dialogue; Les Mis is 97% sung. The story is told through solos, duets, trios, quartets, quintets, chorus and recitative – all aspects of opera.
“Our orchestra is the best,” Merz believes. “I’m extremely proud of all the players. We have four brass, four woodwinds, two keyboardists, an acoustic bass player and percussionist. All thirteen of us have our work cut out for us, but the music of Les Mis is so incredibly fabulous that it is, without a doubt, a work of joy.”