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.