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The Lyric Stage: Sept. 9 - Bernstein Conducts West Side Story

In  the mid 1950's Leonard Bernstein addressed the question of when is a work a musical comedy, or when is it an opera? He took the example of South ­Pacific, and said that when Emile sings "Some Enchanted Evening" we are hearing a musical, but when Bloody Mary sings "Bali Ha’i", we are in the world of opera.

“You just know,” he said. It’s to do with the tone, the sound, and most importantly the nature of the story."

With the opportunity thirty years later to almost totally control a recording of his own West Side Story, he said this: "l'd always thought of West Side Story in terms of teenagers, and there are no teenage opera singers, it's just a contradiction in terms. But this is a recording and people don't have to look 16, they don't have to be able to dance or act a rather difficult play eight times a week. And therefore we took this rather unorthodox step of casting number-one world-class opera singers. . . " And, we add, to enhance the sound of the orchestra from that of a  Broadway pit band to more of a symphonic sound. With a story already worthy of many opera treatments, the result of this approach is bound to be more like opera than musical comedy. "Cool" and the "Jet Song," still Broadway; but "Maria" and "Somewhere" - defintitely arias. The result is a whole new dimension to West Side Story that in no way detracts from the original concept.

This week we have highlights of that 1984 recording. It features Kiri te Kanawa as Maria, Tatania Troyanos as Anita and Jose Carreras as Tony. Marilyn Horne sings Somewhere, and Nina Bernstein and Alexander Bernstein speak the words of Tony and Maria. Leonard Bernstein conducts.