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The premiere effort of the Renée Fleming Initiative brought Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein’s masterpiece Show Boat to the Lyric Opera stage, demonstrating an annual commitment to producing works of the American musical theatre. As Lyric’s general director Anthony Freud asserted in an open letter to patrons, “great works of musical theatre profit enormously from the resources of a major opera company.” While Francesca Zambello’s lavish production may have affirmed that statement within the context of the opera house, little attention was paid to the elements that make American musical theatre generically different from opera, most notably book scenes with storytelling and narrative expressed through realistic spoken dialogue. Such scenes often require a style of acting that conveys relationship and emotional content through nuance and subtlety, rather than through size and scale. Some elements of Zambello’s production served the scope and scale of the musical very well, while others robbed it of a sense of realism or fluidity. Indeed, the Lyric production conjured ghosts from what one might imagine to be the original Ziegfeld production of 1927, evident in static stage pictures of massive ensembles framed by elaborate scenography. The Lyric production may have revived the work and injected it with fresh color and sound, but it neither reinvented it nor provided any new illumination to the eighty-five-year-old piece. If this is to be an ongoing tradition, the Lyric will need to find a way to adequately address those generic differences between opera and musical theatre, especially if it intends to produce more contemporary works.


Author Posting. © Johns Hopkins University Press, 2012. This article is posted here by permission of the Johns Hopkins University Press for personal use, not for redistribution. The article was published in Theatre Journal, Volume 64, Issue 3, October 2012,

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