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The Operetta


Operetta (literally, "little opera") is a performance art-form similar to opera, though it generally deals with less serious topics. Often some of the libretto is spoken rather than sung (but this is true of some operas as well). Instead of moving from one musical number (literally so indicated in the scores) to another, the performers in operetta 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). In some 19th Century entertainments called melodrama, music accompanied spoken dialogue for special effect. Music is sometimes played quietly under the spoken dialogue in some light operas also.

Operetta is often considered less "serious" than opera, although this has more to do with the often comic plots than with the caliber of the music. Formerly, opera expressed politics in code in some countries, such as France; e.g., the circumstances of the title character in the opera "Robert le Diable" was a code for the parental conflict and resolution of king of France at its first performance. At such times, operetta was often actually despised for not being political.

Operetta is a precursor of the modern musical comedy. There is a fundamental but subtle distinction between the two forms. An operetta is more of a light opera with acting, whereas a musical is a play with singing. This can best be seen in the performers chosen in the two forms. 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. However, this distinction is sometimes 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 both in Kern's Show Boat (1927), Bernstein's Candide, and Walt Disney's animated Snow White (1937) among others.

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 his La belle Hélčne (1864).


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, Emmerich Kálmán and Sigmund Romberg in the 20th century.


The height of English-language operetta (at the time known in England as comic opera to distinuish it from French or German operetta) 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 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 and even some movie adaptations. 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-Simpson - 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 English musicals well into the fifties retained an "operetta-ish" flavour.

Text Source: Wikipedia


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