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Music Theatre

  ‘Music theatre’ was once the generic name given in the West to theatre shows which were, so to speak, almost operas: musical comedies, musicals, cabarets and the like. The essential difference was that in opera the music was generally predominant, whereas in music theatre spoken words took an equal or greater place. English masques and Molière\'s divertissements (such as the Turkish ceremony which closes Le bourgeois gentilhomme) are characteristically early examples; The Soldier\'s Tale, The Threepenny Opera and Kiss Me Kate show the form at its mid-20th-century peak; The Magic Flute and other operas with spoken dialogue rather than recitative are arguably music-theatre rather than opera (if anyone cares about such categories).

In the second half of the 20th century, Western writers and composers began producing theatre-work of a different kind. Inspired initially by the work of Brecht, it also took in influences from other cultures, such as Noh and Kabuki drama, Balinese dance-drama and ‘Peking opera’ (that heavily propagandist version of folk opera perfected in Maoist China). In this kind of music-theatre, drama leads and music is one part (though one of the most important) of the total structure. New forms were experimented with—Schoenberg\'s Ode to Napoleon Bonaparte and A Survivor from Warsaw are a mixture of declamation and oratorio; Britten\'s ‘church parables’ are Noh plays re-created in the Anglican cathedral tradition; Maxwell Davies\'s Three Songs for a Mad King put the singer and musicians onstage, in costume, and has them leaping in and out of character, as performers and as the people or things they are depicting; Henze\'s Essay on Pigs and El Cimarròn blend expressionist music with harshly political diatribe. Many of these works have and still provoke the uneasiness characteristic of many experimental, hybrid forms of art; even the masterpieces have a feeling of rawness, of succeeding despite rather than because of the means deployed, which argues that music-theatre of this novel kind, as an art form, has still some way to go. KMcL



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