Operetta (Italian, plural: operette) is a genre of light opera, light in terms both of music and subject matter. It is also closely related, in English-language works, to forms of musical theatre.
Operetta in French
Operetta grew out of the French opéra comique around the middle of the 19th century, to satisfy a need for short, light works in contrast to the full-length entertainment of the increasingly serious opéra comique. By this time the "comique" part of the genre name had become misleading: Carmen (1875) is an example of an opéra comique with a tragic plot. Opéra comique had dominated the French operatic stage since the decline of tragédie lyrique.
Jacques Offenbach is usually credited with having written the first operettas, such as the early one-act hits Les deux aveugles, Le violoneux and Ba-ta-clan (all 1855) or his first full length operetta-success Orphée aux enfers (1858) - that established the so called "Offenbachiade", works like Geneviève de Brabant 1859, Le pont des soupirs 1861, La belle Hélène 1864, Barbe-bleue and La Vie parisienne both 1866, La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein 1867, La Périchole 1868 and Les brigands 1869 - most researchers remark that the credit should really go to one Hervé, a singer, composer, librettist, conductor and scene painter, whose real name was Florimond Ronger (1825–1892). In 1842 he wrote the little opérette, L'Ours et le pacha, based on the popular vaudeville by Scribe and Saintine. In 1848, Hervé made his first notable appearance on the Parisian stage with Don Quichotte et Sancho Pança, which in retrospect can be considered the starting point for the new French musical theatre tradition. Hervé's most famous works are the Gounod-parody Le Petit Faust (1869) and Mam'zelle Nitouche (1883). "But it was Offenbach who took up the genre and gave it its enormous vogue during the Second Empire and afterwards." - Robert Planquette, André Messager and others carried on this tradition.
What characterizes Offenbach's operettas is the grotesque way they portray life, but also the extremely frivolous way this is done, often bordering on the pornographic. Émile Zola describes the back-stage and on-stage situation in an operetta theatre à la Offenbach in the Second Empire, the Théâtre des Variétés, in his novel Nana whose action takes place in late 1860s and describes the career of operetta diva/courtesan Nana, strongly modeled after Offenbach's female star Hortense Schneider. (It was Offenbach's librettist Halévy who personally gave Zola all the details, as George Holden remarks in his introduction to the Penguin Classic edition of 1972.) Considering how Zola describes an operetta performance in Paris, it is not surprising that the mostly male, Upper Class audience crowded the various theaters every evening, and that other Upper Class audiences in other cities, like Vienna and Berlin, longed to see these shows in their home towns as well, thus establishing a performance tradition of Offenbach world wide. The highly erotic way Offenbach's operettas where originally played with stars à la Schneider (or the legendary courtesan Cora Pearl, who appeared in a revival of Offenbach's Orphée in 1867 completely covered in diamonds, and little else) explains the scandalized reaction of certain parts of the general public. It also explains why operetta has always been considered a 'frivolous' art form. Indeed, together with the grotesque qualitites, frivolity is one of the defining elements of 'authentic' operetta à la Offenbach and Hervé. It was only later, when audiences widened and became more middle and lower class, that operetta became more 'serious' and 'nostalgic'. In consequence, many of the originally pornographic French (and Viennese) operettas were later played in a toned down, 'classical' version, which is how audiences today are mostly presented with the genre, i.e. in an opera house with opera singers, not in a private theatre with courtesans in the lead roles. Marion Linhardt describes the change in audiences and repertoire with regard to Vienna in her book Residenzstadt und Metropole. Zu einer kulturellen Topographie des Wiener Unterhaltungstheaters (1858–1918), whereas the erotic element of operetta has been described in the first (German language) gender study on operetta, Kevin Clarke's Glitter and be Gay: Die authentische Operette und ihre schwulen Verehrer (2007).
Operetta in German
The most significant composer of operetta in the German language was the Austrian Johann Strauss, Jr. (1825–1899). His first work in this genre is Indigo und die vierzig Räuber (1871) although it was his third operetta Die Fledermaus (1874) which became the most performed operetta in the world and remained his most popular stage work. Its libretto was based on a comedy written by Offenbach's librettists. In fact, Strauss may have been convinced to write the operetta by Offenbach himself although it is now suggested that it may have been his first wife, Henrietta Treffz who repeatedly encouraged Strauss to try his hand at writing for the theater. In all, he wrote 16 operettas and one opera in his lifetime, mostly with great success when first premiered although they are now largely forgotten, since his later librettists were not very talented and he worked for some of the time independent of the plot. His operettas, waltzes, polkas, and marches often have a strongly Viennese style and his great popularity has caused many to think of him as the national composer of Austria. In fact, when his stage works were first performed, the Theater an der Wien never failed to draw huge crowds, and after many of the numbers the audience would noisily call for encores.
Franz von Suppé, a contemporary of Strauss, closely modeled his operettas after Offenbach. The Viennese tradition was carried on by Franz Lehár, Oscar Straus, Carl Zeller, Karl Millöcker, Leo Fall, Richard Heuberger, Edmund Eysler, Ralph Benatzky, Robert Stolz, Emmerich Kálmán and Nico Dostal in the 20th century.
In the same way that Vienna was the center of Austrian operetta, Berlin was the center of German operetta. Berlin operetta often had a style of its own, including, especially after World War I, elements of jazz and other syncopated dance rhythms, a transatlantic style, and the presence of ragged marching tunes. This Berlin-style operetta coexisted with more bourgeois, charming, home-loving, and nationalistic German operettas, such as Leon Jessel's 1917 Schwarzwaldmädel (Black Forest Girl) — which were closer to the traditional bucolic Viennese operetta, and which were preferred after 1933 when the Nazis came to power. Notable German operetta composers include Paul Lincke, Eduard Künneke, Walter Kollo, Jean Gilbert, Leon Jessel, Rudolf Dellinger, and Walter Goetze.
Operetta in English
The height of English-language operetta (at the time known in England as comic opera to distinguish this family-friendly fare from the risqué French operetta of the 1860s and 1870s) was reached by Gilbert and Sullivan, who had a long-running collaboration in England during the Victorian era. With W. S. Gilbert writing the libretto and Sir Arthur Sullivan composing the music, the pair produced 14 comic operas (sometimes called Savoy Operas) together, most of which were enormously popular in both Britain and elsewhere, especially the USA, and remain popular to this day. Works such as H.M.S. Pinafore, The Pirates of Penzance and The Mikado continue to enjoy regular performances. These comic operas influenced the later American operettas, such as those by Victor Herbert, and musical comedy.
English operetta continued into the twentieth century, with works by composers such as Edward German, Lionel Monckton and Harold Fraser-Simson – but increasingly these took on features of musical comedy until the distinction between an "old fashioned musical" and a "modern operetta" became very blurred indeed. Old fashioned British musicals, in particular, retained an "operetta-ish" flavour well into the (nineteen) fifties. American operetta composers included Victor Herbert, whose works at the beginning of the twentieth century were influenced by Viennese operetta. He was followed by Sigmund Romberg and Rudolph Friml. More modern operettas include Candide, Trouble in Tahiti, and, some would claim , musicals such as Brigadoon, The Fantasticks, Les Miserables, "The Phantom of the Opera (1986 musical)" and Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street.
Operettas are often considered less "serious" than operas. Topical satire is a feature common to many operettas, although of course this is also true of some "serious" operas as well. Formerly, opera expressed politics in code in some countries, such as France; for example, the circumstances of the title character in the opera Robert le diable referred, at its first performance, to the French king's parental conflict and its resolution.
Operetta is a precursor of the modern musical comedy. At the same time it has continued to exist alongside the newer form – with each influencing the other. There is a fundamental but subtle distinction between the two forms – and this distinction is quite useful, provided we recognise that nothing here is clear, simple, or unambiguous.
Most operettas can be described as light operas with acting, whereas most musicals are closer to being plays with singing. This can best be seen in the performers chosen in the two forms. There may be less singing in a musical than in an operetta. An operetta's cast will normally be classically-trained opera singers; indeed, there is essentially no difference between the scores for an opera and an operetta, except for the operetta's lightness. A musical uses actors who sing, but usually not in an operatic style. Like most "differential definitions" we could draw between the two forms, however, this distinction is quite often blurred. W.S. Gilbert, for example, said that he preferred to use actors who could sing for his productions, while Ezio Pinza, a great Don Giovanni, appeared on Broadway in South Pacific, and there are features of operetta vocal style in Kern and Hammerstein's Show Boat (1927), Bernstein's Candide, and Walt Disney's animated Snow White (1937) among others.
The characters in a musical play may be more complex than those in an operetta - an example is both the characters of Anna Leonowens and the King of Siam in The King and I. The characters in Lerner and Loewe's musical My Fair Lady, which is based on George Bernard Shaw's 1914 play Pygmalion, for instance, are essentially unchanged from those in Shaw's work, because the musical version is so faithful to the original, even to the point of retaining most of Shaw's dialogue word-for-word.
Normally some of the libretto of an operetta is spoken rather than sung. Instead of moving from one musical number (literally so indicated in the scores) to another, the singers intersperse the musical segments (e.g. aria, recitative, chorus) with periods of dialogue without any singing or musical accompaniment (though sometimes some musical themes are played quietly under the dialogue) – and short passages of recitative are by no means unknown in operetta, especially as an introduction to a song.
In his Omnibus program "The World of Musical Comedy", composer-conductor-lecturer Leonard Bernstein stated that in a musical comedy, as opposed to an operetta, the music must not only be thoroughly American, but have a "jazzier" tone to it than the music in operetta, and the dialogue must not be in any style (such as the Southern dialect in Show Boat) which might seem "foreign" to the experience of a New York audience. By this standard, Annie Get Your Gun and Guys and Dolls are musical comedies, while My Fair Lady and the Rodgers and Hammerstein works, though frequently termed "musical plays", are actually operettas written in a very up-to-date manner rather than in the style of Franz Lehar, Romberg, or Friml. The script of this program was published in Bernstein's book The Joy of Music, and the program itself has recently been issued on DVD.
- Ganzl, Kurt. The Encyclopedia of Musical Theatre (3 Volumes). New York: Schirmer Books, 2001.
- Traubner, Richard. Operetta: A Theatrical History. Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Company, 1983
- Bordman, Gerald. American Operetta. New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.
- Linhardt, Marion, Residenzstadt und Metropole. Zu einer kulturellen Topographie des Wiener Unterhaltungstheaters (1858–1918). Berlin: Max Niemeyer Verlag, 2006 (German)
- Clarke, Kevin, Glitter and be Gay: Die authentische Operette und ihre schwulen Verehrer. Hamburg: Männerschwarm Verlag, 2007 (German)
- Riccardo Viagrande, Tu che m'hai preso il cuor. Un viaggio nel mondo dell'operetta, Casa Musicale Eco, Monza, 2009 (Italian)