It’s better if you know the words. “Hamilton” is packed with rapid-fire lyrics, shooting out at you in a firework range of styles: The better you know the album, the more you’ll enjoy it. And among the audience members packing the Kennedy Center Opera House for the show’s much-touted summer run, many arrive knowing the whole thing by heart.
This isn’t usually the case for Broadway musicals. True, jukebox musicals such as “Mamma Mia” or “Jersey Boys” offer beloved songs, packaged in new ways. And true, revivals of classic musicals bank on this kind of familiarity: Indeed, the “singalong Sound of Music” has become a veritable standard of the summer pops-concert circuit. But for a majority of audience members to come to see a show for the first time knowing it cold — that’s a phenomenon that I, at least, associate with opera.
And “Hamilton,” indeed, is opera, in all the ways that count.
Learning a show from a recording is very much like reading a book before seeing the movie version. Immersed in sound, you construct a framework of images that shape your perception of the work. Listening to a recording, everyone is a director: clothing the characters in imagined costumes, blocking the action on an idealized stage. When I was a child, learning Broadway musicals from my mother’s collection of original cast albums involved a certain amount of hypothesis: What did the characters say to one another between the songs, and what story linked one song to another? But on an opera recording, all of the story is included. “Hamilton,” too, is through-composed. There’s no dialogue on stage that isn’t captured on the cast album. It’s a contained whole — which makes it, to my mind, all the more immersive.
Seeing something that you’ve lived so intensely in your mind can be a bitter anticlimax. There’s a prosaic, finite quality to seeing characters you feel you know given flesh, be it in a movie, on a TV screen or onstage. Most opera fans, at some time or other, have experienced the disillusionment the Russian soprano Galina Vishnevskaya recounted in her memoir, when, after internalizing recordings of Tchaikovsky’s opera “Eugene Onegin,” she went to see it for the first time: The singers were too old and not particularly engaging; the production was dusty and shopworn.
That’s not likely to happen on Broadway, though. Broadway can’t afford it. The eager “Hamilton” fans who see it live for the first time will encounter, as I did, a watertight show. This is one of the most shipshape presentations I’ve ever seen: text and music and dramaturgy seamlessly crafted together and presented in an equally seamless production, from the wooden sets to the synchronized and peripatetic dancers. Having internalized the cast album of “Hamilton” before I saw it, along with many other fans, I confess that I did feel slightly distanced from the production when I was actually there, perhaps because I had already attuned my expectations of the characters to the nuances of the recording, particularly Lin-Manuel Miranda’s distinctive, slightly goofy account of the lead role as a young man. However, I also found the charge of watching it so great that I had trouble sleeping that night, tossed on a restless sea of story and music and words that bristled with little Sondheim-like twists to lodge firmly in my ear.
Broadway shows have better production values than operas. How could they not? For all of the stereotypes about large-scale opera productions, and for all of their tremendous costs, opera generally comes to the stage after four to six weeks of rehearsal. Although the piece is almost always a known quantity, often adorned with the label of “masterpiece,” that amount of rehearsal time isn’t anywhere near enough to bring to the stage a well-oiled machine like “Hamilton,” honed over months of crafting and, by now, years of performance.
The irony is that what “Hamilton” represents now is exactly what opera used to be: a thrilling, contemporary, immersive stage presentation that’s a union of story, text, music, image and movement, and that gets under the skin and into the blood of a wide audience that feels it speaks profoundly to them. There’s something addictive about “Hamilton,” and that’s partly a result of spending three hours fully concentrated on sound and spectacle, straining to get every word, alongside hundreds of other people doing exactly the same thing. You don’t get that from a recording. Nor, often, do you get it in an opera house, where audiences these days tend more to float along with the tide, reading super-titles of dialogue transpiring in a language they don’t understand, than sit with the razor-sharp focus of a young “Hamilton” fan pouncing on every flint-spark of lyric shooting from the stage.
So yes, “Hamilton,” I’d say, is an opera — but I say that knowing that the term “opera” might be off-putting to the average “Hamilton”-goer. “Opera” has become, in the popular imagination, a signifier of snooty elitism and artistic exaggeration, not to say stereotype (the fat lady in the Viking helmet). But the only real difference between “opera” and “Hamilton” is that “opera” has become handicapped by what it is thought to signify — by the idea that it is thought to represent some sort of pinnacle of high art.
Certainly some operas are high art. But some operas, in their day, were eminently populist, the equivalent of multiplex films, and these days they’re all lumped together on the same putatively exalted plane. Too, the conflation of “art” and “opera” has contributed to opera’s image as exclusionary: “Art” in this context has come to mean, all too often, “highfalutin.” Abstract sets and interpretive directors’ concepts, often the most creative part of the enterprise of putting on a work that opera fans have seen dozens of times already, help distance the form from its inherent popular appeal. Gone, all too often, is the thing that made opera so vital in its day, and has helped it endure: its direct appeal to the senses and the feelings.
Then along comes “Hamilton,” a period costume drama involving a story told in music that turns out to be better and better, and reveals more and more of itself, the closer you get to it. To the young listeners poring over the recordings and source material and annotations, it’s inflamed exactly the kind of excitement and passion and hunger for more that I felt when I was first discovering opera, delving into recordings of Verdi and books about Verdi and source materials for Verdi operas. Unfortunately, some operagoers look down on “Hamilton,” as they look down on Kendrick Lamar’s recent Pulitzer Prize in music, basing their disdain on uninformed stereotype: the idea that “their” music is inherently superior to rap. I fear, though, that they’re missing the point. If I had to list one distinction between “Hamilton” and opera, as a genre, I’d say that “Hamilton” is art, and opera, these days, merely symbolizes it.