Musical drama similar to opera, usually with a romantically sentimental plot, employing songs, dances, and orchestral interludes interspersed with spoken dialogue. The modern tradition began with Jacques Offenbach, who wrote some 90 operettas and inspired a Viennese tradition that began with the works of Franz von Suppé and Johann Strauss. In Britain most of the 14 comic operettas (1871–96) of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan have been enduringly popular. In the U.S. the works of such composers as Victor Herbert, Reginald De Koven, John Philip Sousa, and Sigmund Romberg were widely popular in the early 20th century. Seealso musical.
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Operetta is a genre of light opera, light in terms both of music and subject matter. It is closely related both to opera and also to other forms of lighter musical theatre, and in many cases, it is difficult to assign a musical theatre work to a particular genre.
Operettas are often considered less "serious" than operas, although this has more to do with the often comic (or even farcical) plots than with the caliber of the music. 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; e.g., the circumstances of the title character in the opera "Robert le diable (opera)" was a code for the parental conflict and resolution of king of France at its first performance.
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. 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's Show Boat (1927), Bernstein's Candide, and Walt Disney's animated Snow White (1937) among others.
Though Jacques Offenbach is usually credited with having written the first operettas, such as his La belle Hélène (1864), Ernest Newman remarked 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). "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.
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, Nico Dostal and Sigmund Romberg in the 20th century.
The height of English-language operetta (at the time known in England as comic opera to distinguish 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 film 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-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. More modern operettas include Candide and, some would claim, musicals like Brigadoon.
A late 20th century renewal of the importance of recitative and through composing in some modern musicals, in fact, brings some such works closer (in some ways) to traditional opera than to operetta.
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