Classical Opera and Musical Theater Conventions: “Carmen” vs. “Sweeney Todd”

The world of music is rich and fabulous, provoking the most unpredictable emotions and giving important lessons for human development. Among the existing variety of genres, it is hard to find the one that can be called the best because the choice depends on many personal and outside factors. Carmen by Georges Bizet remains the most scandalous and sexiest classical operas of all ages. Sweeney Todd is a terrifying story that shows another perspective of how art could look in the late 20th-century. Someone calls musicals modern operas, but the differences between Carmen and Sweeney Todd cannot be ignored regarding their plots, languages, and driving forces.

During the last several centuries, an opera has been interpreted as one of the most powerful forms of art. It makes people reveal different feelings and discover aspirations that fulfill their lives. Carmen is one of such classical operas, and although being composed by Bizet at the end of the 19th century, it excites millions of modern individuals. This work consists of four acts and focuses on the relationships between a gypsy girl and a soldier to prove love to be a rebellious bird (Davis). In addition to a perfectly chosen musical representation, the harmony and atmosphere are supported by the libretto written by Henri Meihac and Ludovic Halévy. Carmen is actually known to everyone by its key arias, “The Habanera” and “Seguidilla.”

Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street is another art form, a musical. It was presented by Stephen Sondheim on Broadway in 1979. Hugh Wheeler was the author of the libretto that won several awards. People recognize this work as a dark masterpiece, a musical thriller of “so many different colours” (Billington). Compared to a classical opera of the 19th century, this late 20th-century musical theater terrifies viewers with its story of a crazy barber and his companion, Mrs. Lovett. The characters brightly perform many songs, like “Pretty Women,” “My Friends,” or “The Worst Pies in London.” Despite the chosen dark tones and compositions, Sweeney Todd attracts much attention around the globe.

Each theatrical art form has its specific conventions that signify the uniqueness of the work and causes particular influences. For example, the main elements of opera are language, the speed of words’ delivery, and the orchestra’s role. In a musical theater, songs, dialogues, and even dances matter. In other words, opera may be associated with the quality of the content and performance, while musicals focus on a show, but never at the expense of quality.

Many people, regardless of their nationality and the level of knowledge, enjoy watching operas and musicals in original because it helps reveal the essence of the story and experience true feelings. Carmen, as the representative of a classical opera, was originally performed in French. Most operas are written in the language of their composers, namely Italian, French, or German. With time, professional translators offer their versions and make the stories available in different languages. Still, it is not always easy for a performer to give a high-quality performance of an aria in another language, except the original one. Thus, there is a preference to listen to original operas using subtitles. Sweeney Todd is the work of an American composer and British screenwriters, and the choice of the language is evident – English.

Another critical element of comparison of the chosen artworks is musical background. In both an opera and a musical theater, the performance is based on a perfect combination of singing and music. Still, in Sweeney Todd, words become the major driving force, where songs are properly combined with spoken dialogues and even dances. Carmen consists of arias, where all spoken words are slowly delivered to underline the role of music. Even without knowing French, a person can easily hum some parts along with the artists. In musical theaters, songs serve as a means to share some content and embody the story with all the necessary details.

Regarding such differences in language and music points of comparison, the last aspect to be discussed is the worth of the plot and motives. In Carmen, the story describes the life of a young girl, who plays with male hearts and emotions, breaks relationships, and pursues her selfish purposes. Her fate is hardly a happy ending but frustration that destroys her life and the lives of people around her. The woman loses her life and never gets a chance to choose between being a female fatale and being a lovestruck (Davis). Don José kills Carmen and gets arrests, which ruins his life and his possible future with Micaëla. Sweeney Todd represents another motif, full of revenge and injustice in society. The authors want to perpetuate the theme of inequality, lie, and social justice that are relevant today (Billington). As well as the opera, this musical shows the role of loving affairs in human relationships, but the choice of a gloomy context through informative dialogues makes this artwork’s plot realistic and shocking.

The two selected works of different genres have much in common, as well as vary from multiple perspectives. On the one hand, Carmen and Sweeney Todd do not have a happy ending but use the main characters’ deaths as the only solution. The plot based on male-female relationships is the similarity that can be observed in many artworks, including operas and musical theaters like Broadway. Still, the differences in the performance, words’ density, and music power add some voice to each story separately. An opera can never put words at the forefront as a musical does, and a musical will never have huge chorus members as operas do.

After watching Carmen and Sweeney Todd, I was challenged between choosing the work that impressed me more. Both stories have their benefits and shortages due to their overall effects, languages, and plots. Still, Sweeney Todd has a particular impact on me because of covering the themes in their darkest extremes. Modern society is mired in unequal relationships, jealousy, and a lack of hope. Not many people admit this truth and try to find other excuses for their behaviors and decisions. This musical fascinates me with its somberness and the necessity to find out some colors to never lose positive beliefs. The color of blood proves that any person has something special inside, something that should never be forgotten or changed.

In general, the analysis and comparison of operas and musical theaters bring a number of positive results. It is not enough to focus on their conventions and remarkable elements but to specify their messages and creation details. The greatness of Carmen is proved by the possibility to enjoy its single act, with a number of unpredictable feelings and emotions. Sweeney Todd entrances with its lugubrious characters and harsh truths of human life. The gap between the 19th century and the late 20th century has its impact on the creation of artworks, but this time shows that art quality is immutable.

Works Cited

Billington, Michael. “Sweeney Todd Review – Raging Underdog Adds Politics to the Pies.” The Guardian, 2019, Web.

Davis, Lizzie. “Carmen Is One of the Greatest Operas of All Time. Here Are 5 Reasons Why.” Classic FM, 2018, Web.