Acting for the Singer: Opera vs. Musical Theatre Part 2

Crossover artists must balance the expectations and requirements for acting in both opera and musical theatre. In this continuation from the September/October issue article, learn more about the rehearsal process and performance expectations.


The first installment of this series explored the acting preparations for the start of rehearsals for a role in opera and musical theater. Let’s take a look at the similarities and differences for the actor once rehearsals and then performances begin. 


The Artistic Team

One of the differences you may notice is the relationship of the artistic team. Katy Early, a New York-based performer and director, observed, “In every opera rehearsal room I’ve been in, there has been a different dynamic between the conductor and director. In virtually every musical that I’ve been in, the director has more of a prominent role and the final say in decision making.”  

The role or dynamic of the music director in opera may be different than in musical theatre. Generally, in musical theatre, the music director leads music rehearsals and conducts for performances. They may or may not be involved in the other rehearsals, whereas the music director of an opera’s involvement in the artistic decisions and rehearsal process may be much greater. Also, in musical theatre the involvement of the choreographer may vary, and sometimes the director is also the choreographer.


Relationship of Voice Function with Acting

Clearly one of the most obvious differences between musical theatre and opera is the different voice function associated with each genre. This article is not about the function or physiology of the different styles of singing, yet we cannot discuss the acting without also discussing how singer-actors use their voices in their storytelling. 

CJ Greer, Assistant Professor of Voice/Music Theatre at University of Nevada–Reno, gives this insight: “In musical theatre, our dramatic impulses can be vocalized—we’re able to hear the story. Singers can express various emotions vocally with sounds that by some might be considered ‘ugly’: grunts, rasps, more chest dominant sounds (in women), falsetto sounds (in men), screams, squeaks, spoken lines in the music, etc. 

“In contrast, the acting in opera must take a back seat to the beauty of the tone. The same kinds of emotions can be thought and felt during classical singing, and that might color the tone a bit, but ultimately the goal is to sing beautifully and cut through the orchestra. Everything else takes a back seat. Learn the rep. Listen to the singers—hear how we sing it differently in order to hear more of the story in the vocal delivery.”

 One anonymous artist writes, “In opera as I prepare my character work, I find it helpful to consider not only the text but the music as well. For example, asking myself questions like ‘Why did Mozart write a line that suddenly jumps to this high note? Is that a change of emotion? Or a sudden surge of emotion? If so, why?’ It becomes really fun and exciting to answer those questions and makes the aria or duet/scene so much more interesting to perform. 

“In musical theatre, the songs are generally strophic, and so the questions are not so much about the actual melody [but more like] ‘How can I use my voice to build the energy and intensity of the character’s emotions with each new verse so that there is some arc in the storytelling?’”

Katy Early shares, “I think one needs a healthy sense of reality in terms of what a shift into musical theatre really means. Theaters are no longer programming Rodgers and Hammerstein as often as they used to. So, if you want to sing in the new shows, musical theatre sopranos must learn how sing in a chest dominant mix. Reckoning with how to sing in your chest voice is a fun, sometimes very vulnerable, but ultimately rewarding journey! And that shift in singing style allows for you to tap into an earthier energy that you might not be used to in opera, yet that shift in energy can help your acting in both genres.”


Action vs. Emotion

Several crossover artists mentioned that the first foray into the less familiar genre can bring unexpected acting challenges. One artist shares, “It feels like the acting tempo varies in opera and musical theatre. In opera, the action happens slowly. You have to wait to respond until your scene partner is done singing their three pages of repeated text. Whereas in musical theatre, your responses are more immediate and feel more reactionary—even impulsive—compared to opera.” 

CJ Greer explains, “Opera directors I have worked with generally give direction referring to expressing the emotion of the moment, and that single moment can last a long time. In musical theatre, the moments move forward more quickly, and so the direction is focused on the action and how the story needs to evolve in the scene, song, and character’s developing journey.” And Boston-based artist Lauren Cook mentions, “Acting for opera feels more like ‘what not to do,’ and for music theatre it’s more action driven—what to do.”

 Katy Early says, “One of my favorite acting adages is ‘Hold on tightly to let go lightly,’ meaning that you prepare your role well so that you can then relax, let go, and throw your whole self into playing each scene in performance. I think the biggest difference between opera and musical theatre is that there’s often a lot more to prepare in opera before you can move on to the ‘letting go stage.’ If you can get really skilled at preparing a role for opera so all of those technical concerns start to feel second nature, then both styles of acting start to feel more similar.”



One would think that once the show is open, there wouldn’t be many differences. But according to Early, “Opera performance energy feels focused. There’s not a lot of talking in dressing rooms—it’s important that they stay peaceful. But in musical theatre, the energy around performances is bubblier and more frenetic. Not in a bad way! Backstage, opening night musical theatre energy is one of my favorite things in the world.”

But Greer warns, “In musical theatre you have to remember not to overblow. Pace yourself and gradually build your stamina. You have seven more shows [that week] after the first one, and only one day off.”

 Another artist adds, “There is that performance excitement in both genres. The opera singers are very mindful about their vocal warm-ups but musical theatre singers seem to be less fussy about their vocal warm-ups, maybe because there is also a dance warm-up and sometimes a fight call. But ultimately once you have done the work there is great joy, fulfillment, and satisfaction in completely diving into any role for a performance.”

Early explains, “There’s something that feels spiritually the same whether you’re singing a power ballad in a musical or a fierce aria in an opera, or performing a soliloquy in a Shakespeare play. A big, cathartic solo performance in which you end up downstage center is a uniquely special thing because you’re so exposed—maybe you’re even breaking the fourth wall—and you invite the audience to go on whatever rollercoaster ride that your character is on. When I have done that—be it in The Marriage of Figaro, Macbeth, or Cabaret—I could feel no difference in how I was acting.” 

 The preparation and process of a singer-actor preparing to do an opera role may look different than the process and preparation for a musical theatre role. But ultimately the directors and audiences of both genres want truthful storytelling and believable emotions. 

Christy Turnbow

  Christy Turnbow is currently teaching at the Boston Conservatory at Berklee and has taught at Montclair State University, Penn State University, and Brigham Young University. She earned an MFA in musical theater voice teaching from Penn State University and a BM from Brigham Young University in vocal performance and pedagogy. She has been seen in leading roles in regional music theatre productions and national tours.