‘Show Boat’s’ Voyage into the Opera House

Show Boat onstage at San Francisco Opera
‘Show Boat,’ photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

When Lyric Opera of Chicago added the musical theater piece Show Boat to its schedule in February of 2012, it seemed like a departure to some, a reconciliation to others. The latter group felt the project was long overdue; that opera companies should produce America’s classic musicals.

Lyric’s production was subsequently staged by the Houston Grand Opera, and then the San Francisco Opera, which is the feature on this week’s Saturday afternoon opera broadcast. American director Francesca Zambello, whose credits include operas such as The Flying Dutchman and companies including Teatro la Fenice in Venice, commented, “I have long believed that musical theater is ‘our’ version of opera.”

Director Francesca Zambello
‘Show Boat’ director Francesca Zambello

Indeed, music schools often marry the two into one program. The show tune anthology Great American Songbook sits on the shelves of many opera singers, which suggests the divide has more to do with the public face of vocal music in the theater than with artistic differences. After all, even stylistic differences get blurry when it comes to shows like Porgy and Bess or Pirates of Penzance.

Shows like The Sound of Music or Show Boat were conceived on a grand scale—like an opera—with large casts, orchestra, chorus and big sets. They aren’t practical for many Broadway theaters, but can readily be staged in an opera house.

Renée Fleming, who orchestrated Lyric Opera’s Rodgers and Hammerstein series, suggests: “it may be time to reexamine the role of an opera house in American communities in the 21st century. … After 100 years in this country, the American musical has achieved ‘classic’ status, and opera companies with extraordinary artistic resources are uniquely positioned to present productions at the highest level.”

Show Boat is as American as it is relevant, and shares with opera the ability to issue biting social commentary. Just this week, opera became a flash point in New York City over the Metropolitan Opera’s staging of John Adams’s The Death of Klinghoffer. For its part, Show Boat puts racial inequality on the Mississippi in plain view nearly 90 years before clashes in Ferguson.

Producers in Chicago and San Francisco admitted having serious discussions over the show’s use of the “n-word” (a term that was commonplace when Oscar Hammerstein II penned the book for composer Jerome Kern in 1927), underscoring the social tensions that simmer beneath the surface of this musical.

Dramatic soprano Angela Renee Simpson as Queenie, bass Morris Robinson as Joe; photo by Cory Weaver/San Francisco Opera

“Show Boat has it all,” Zambello declares. “It gives us a rich musical study in opera, operetta, vaudeville, and musical comedy, but—equally important—a compelling American story of social and political importance. Based on the classic Pulitzer Prize-winning novel, … [Edna] Ferber’s story took a clear-eyed, revolutionary look at the sprawling, messy society of the post-Emancipation years, the Industrial Revolution, and the conflicts between the North and South—issues still with us today. Kern wrapped it in joyous and heart-breaking songs that have become part of the fabric of our lives. The work is compellingly historic and contemporary all at once.”

Soprano Patricia Racette as Julie La Verne in Jerome Kern’s “Show Boat” at the San Francisco Opera
Soprano Patricia Racette as Julie La Verne in Jerome Kern’s ‘“Show Boat’ at the San Francisco Opera

Show Boat necessitates one departure from the typical Saturday afternoon opera broadcast fare: the singers are miked. As a rule, opera singers don’t use microphones; Broadway singers do, and can’t project to the back of the theater without them. (On the other hand, Broadway singers sometimes do nine shows a week. Most opera singers in a lead role are good for two.) This production of Show Boat pulls performers from both worlds. The microphones even out the sound and provide balance when Kern calls for dialogue over orchestral accompaniment.

Hear Francesca Zambello’s production of Show Boat presented by San Francisco Opera, starring Heidi Stover, Michael Todd Simpson, Bill Irwin, Patricia Racette, Angela Renée Simpson, Harriet Harris, Kirsten Wyatt, Morris Robinson, and John Bolton on Saturday, October 25 at 12:00 pm.

Original date of publication: October 24, 2014, WFMT.com

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