What is Operetta?

So, we all know Musical Theatre and we’ve all heard of Opera, but what exactly is ‘Operetta’?  How is it different from the aforementioned styles?

Operetta came out of Opera — more specifically from the French ‘Opera Comique’ who’s name became increasingly misleading.  ‘Opera Comique’ really came to describe Opera presented in a ‘realistic’ style, not necessarily comedies or lighthearted operas.  ‘Carmen’ is an ‘Opera Comique’ but it has a very tragic ending.

Some feel that ‘Operetta’ describes ‘Opera with Dialogue’ which is also misleading.  Mozart’s ‘Die Zauberfloete’ (The Magic Flute) and ‘Die Entfuehrung aus dem Serail’ (Abduction from the Seraglio) are both ‘singspiels’ which have dialogue, but are firmly entrenched in the operatic tradition.  Carmen has dialogue (in some productions).  Operetta tends to describe the subject of the plot — whereas ‘Opera seria’ tends to  be much more serious and often tragic, Operetta’s plots are lighthearted and often downright silly.

While the creation of the operetta form goes to the somewhat obscure composer/librettist/conductor and scene painter Herve (1825-1892), the perfection of the form is really credited to Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880).  These operettas had over the top characterizations with very explicit and often lewd portrayals — sometimes Courtesans took the lead roles!  This was eventually toned down as the base for the audience widened to include the middle and lower classes and these operettas were presented by opera singers rather by the more ‘vaudevillian’ performers.

German operettas continued in the slightly tamer versions of the French operettas, many are still performed quite often, such as ‘Die Fledermaus’ by Johann Strauss.  Towards the 20th century, German operetta often incorportated the ‘newer’ music styles such as jazz and syncopated rhythms in its composition.

Gilbert and Sullivan are considered the fathers of English-language Operetta and their pieces often took a satirical tone, making fun of Parliament (‘Iolanthe’), the Oriental style that had come into fashion (‘The Mikado’), the Aesthetic movement (‘Patience’) and even some Grand Opera (‘The Pirates of Penzance’).  In the earlier part of the 20th Century, American Composers such as Victor Herbert and Sigmund Romberg wrote lavish, romantic operettas with sweeping melodies that became popular all over.  By the end of World War I, the operetta style was losing ground as they were being replaced by musical revues and the more modern styles of what we now know and love as Musical Theatre.

There is always a place, I feel, for the Operetta.  Even in the silliest of Offenbach and Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, there are musical pieces that are timeless and have made their way into popular culture.  Some companies now specialize in offering only Operettas and Gilbert and Sullivan pieces have withstood the tests of time and revivals to remain ever popular with many audiences.

‘Orpheus in the Underworld’ as produced by the Boston Opera Collaborative

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