What’s the Difference Between Singing Opera and Musical Theater?

What’s the Difference Between Singing Opera and Musical Theater?

It’s a known fact that Opera and Musical Theater are very different (think Wagner’s ring cycle on the one hand and Guys and Dolls on the other), but what are the differences in singing style between the two? We did a little research — here’s what we found:

It Ain’t Over Until the Virtuosic Lady Sings

The first thing that sets operatic singing apart from musical theater is the actual composition of the music itself. Typically, operas have longer phrases with fluid melodic lines that highlight the virtuosity of the singer’s voice. One of the most common operatic styles is bel canto (literally “beautiful singing”), a style that necessitates a light voice with an even vibrato. The popularity of bel canto in the 18th and 19th centuries drove composers to write operas that catered to bel canto voices, which in turn increased the demand for bel canto vocalists, a cycle which still influences the opera world today.

American Song and Dance

Black and White Photo of Tin Pan Alley, Nickname of the district of popular music publishers in the early 20th century.
Historic Tin Pan Alley in the early 20th century

Unlike opera, musical theater is an American art form. One of the most significant American influences was the music of Tin Pan Alley, a group of music publishers in New York City that distributed nearly all of the popular music in the United States in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. Out of the unique style of Tin Pan Alley came what is known as the Traditional Musical Theatre style or “Belt.” Belt utilizes a crisp annunciation and powerful chest voice that favor comprehension over the fluidity of bel canto.

Both operatic and musical theater vocal styles arose in response to the needs of the audiences for which they were intended. In the case of opera, audiences desired melodic bel canto, which led to a light, fluid vocal style that displayed the performers’ virtuosity. In the case of musical theater, audiences wanted a modern sound which led to powerful, annunciated singing that could be easily understood in American English.


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Over the past 34 years, MidAmerica Productions has produced over 1300 concerts in Carnegie Hall and at historic halls all over the world. To have your ensemble perform in Carnegie Hall or internationally, call us at 212-239-0205 or visit us at www.midamerica-music.com.

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