Opera Vs. Musical Theater

by Chip Marsden

"The Lion King" is one of the most successful Broadway musicals in history.

Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images

Opera and musical theater, to the untrained eye, may appear very similar, and there are many similarities between them. Fundamentally, both are theater art forms in which musical scores and lyrics are used as a means of advancing the plot. Both are very diverse, as well, and have a rich history and strong cultural impact.


Opera as we know it today is an entirely musical affair. A score plays from beginning to end, and all of the words (the libretto) are sung. Musical theater in the popular sense is used today to describe the Broadway musical format, which prominently features songs and an original score, but also has spoken dialogue like one would find in a play. These definitions aren't absolute, as some popular musicals, such as "Rent" and "Les Miserables," are entirely "sung-through" like an opera, but they are still good guidelines.

Age Difference

Opera is far older than the modern Broadway musical. Opera traces its roots to 16th century Italy. The Broadway musical, by contrast, didn't begin taking shape until the mid-to-late 19th century. While the opera undoubtedly was a historical forerunner to the Broadway musical, the two art forms exist independently today, and each has its own distinct set of staging conventions.

Frequency and Longevity

Some Broadway musicals, such as "Lion King" or "Phantom of the Opera," will run eight shows per week in the same theater for months or even years, and keep the same cast members for prolonged periods. That's unprecedented in opera. Operas don't play as frequently as musicals in their venues, nor do they have the longevity of a Broadway musical in terms of duration at a single venue. This has a lot to do with the fact that an opera tends to be longer than the average Broadway musical (three to four hours is not an uncommon run time for an opera), and requires a greater vocal effort from its performers.


With the exception of modern opera-esque Broadway shows (such as "Rent") that have found tremendous success, Broadway musical theater generally enjoys more commercial success and audience reach than opera in today's culture. Popular Broadway shows are major tourist attractions in America and cast recordings are sold as CDs and digital downloads. Opera in modern-day America simply does not enjoy that commercial success, though in America and worldwide, the classic operas, such as those by Puccini and Verdi, are still widely performed and admired as seminal works of art.

About the Author

Based in Virginia, Chip Marsden has been a writer for more than eight years. He has covered film, politics and culture for regional newspapers and online publications. Marsden holds a B.A. in theater arts with a concentration in performance.

Photo Credits

  • Stephen Lovekin/Getty Images Entertainment/Getty Images