What is an... Operetta?

Stephen Johnson gets to grips with classical music's technical terms

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What is an... Operetta?
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The first thing to be said is that operetta is not the same thing as comic opera, even though operetta is, or at least aspires to be, comic.

The ‘etta’ ending is a diminutive – ‘light opera’, or even ‘opera lite’ – and there is nothing diminutive about, for instance, Mozart’s Marriage of Figaro or Verdi’s Falstaff. In fact ‘opera lite’ probably comes closest to the truth.

Like the German Singspiel, the first 19th-century operettas attempted to dispense with what Samuel Johnson called the ‘exotic and irrational’ elements in opera, while keeping the bits that didn’t make non-initiates cringe – in other words, the tunes.

Curiously, given their reputed love of high artifice, the French led the way here. Adolphe Adam’s one-acter Le chalet (1834) is a notable early example, but it was Offenbach who provided the first enduring classics of the genre, and in doing so set the tone for much that followed.

Musically, out goes the all-too-easily-risible sung recitative, while arias and even ensembles are simple and tuneful, with the words as clearly audible as possible. Satire, the lifeblood of Offenbach’s Orpheé aux enfers or La belle Hélène, remained a key strand.

As the makers of Duck Soup and The Ruling Class realised the following century, having characters sing their utterances to cleverly wrought ‘artless’ tunes is as sure a way of sending them up as giving them beautiful, complex operatic melodies is of bringing out their inherent pathos.

Sullivan in London and Suppé and Johann Strauss II in Vienna followed Offenbach’s example, though as a Viennese Strauss was able to inject his own version of crème patissiere into the confectionery.

In time this led to the kind of romantic Ruritanian semi-farces which blossomed as the real Ruritania – Hapsburg Vienna – sickened and died.

As the spoken element grew and the operatic residue began to shrink, operetta morphed into the musical comedy. English-speaking countries, especially the US, led the way. Catchy tunes, contemporary plots – it turned out to be a winning formula.

Interestingly, though, the great diaspora of the Second World War saw a re-injection of Viennese sweet soulfulness and Berlin astringency as emigrant composers fled to the New World.

As the musical edged out the musical comedy, featherweight plots and cardboard cut-out characters yielded to greater depth and edgier satire: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Bernstein, Sondheim. Musicals, operettas, or just operas? Hard to say; but even so, you can see where their roots are.

This article was first published in the March 2015 issue of BBC Music Magazine

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