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West Side Story - An Opera or a Musical?

June 25, 2011

West Side Story is one of my favorite works because in some ways it functions very much like an opera. Most would argue that it is not an opera, primarily because there is spoken dialogue. However, there are operas that were written with dialogue, such as the opera Carmen.

But what makes West Side Story function as an opera? For the most part, it is the use of the leit motif. In simple terms, a leit motif is a snippet of a melody (tune) that is used to represent a single character, emotion, idea, and/or both. When we hear that leit motif (tune), we have a sense of what it represents. For example, the leit motif in Tony's first song (i.e. aria) comes to represent his fascination with Maria.

Maria, I just met a girl named Maria.

The first three notes sung in the HIGHLIGHTED word are the essence of the motif. We hear the same motif again in the balcony scene, right before the duet, Tonight. This time however, it's played only in the orchestra. As the musical progresses, that motif begins to represent more than Tony's love for Maria. It begins to represent their undying love, their unbreakable bond. That is the magic of opera and that is what exists in West Side Story.

I won't bore you with more facts ( i.e the use of the orchestra in West Side Story as another character or the other motifs, the use of the tritone throughout the work), but it's enough's to say that often the differences between opera and some musical theater works, such as West Side Story, are small.

What are your thoughts?