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What is an Operetta?

An operetta is a captivating theatrical genre, blending the enchantment of opera with the light-heartedness of musical theater. It's a melodious journey, often comedic and always entertaining, featuring spoken dialogue, songs, and dance. This art form invites audiences into a world of romance, satire, and whimsy. Curious about the timeless charm of operettas? Let's explore their magical allure together.
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

An operetta is a light opera in which not all words are sung — i.e., there is spoken dialogue — and which may also include dance. Operettas are usually shorter than operas, and are often comic. The form evolved in Paris, and its origins are connected with the works of Jacques Offenbach in the 1850’s. For a time it was among the most popular forms of musical entertainment.

Because it includes spoken dialogue, a strong libretto is essential. The main librettist for Offenbach’s operettas was Ludovic Halévy, who was one of the librettists for Georges Bizet’s Carmen. Halévy and Hecto - Jonathan Crémieux wrote the libretto for Orphée aux enfers — in English, Orpheus in the Underworld — the best-known of Offenbach’s operettas, especially the famous cancan. Originally produced in 1858 it was revised and re-released in 1874.

Not all words are sung during an operetta.
Not all words are sung during an operetta.

In Austria, the work of Johann Strauss, Jr. was important in the development of the operetta. His third operetta, Die Fledermaus, The Bat in English — which had a libretto based on a work by Halévy and Henri Meilhac — proved to be an enduring success after opening in the same year as Offenbach’s revised Orpheus; 1874. Der Zigeunerbaron, The Gypsy Baron in English, with a libretto by Ignaz Schnitzer, has also had lasting popularity since its first production in 1885.

Besides Halévy, the other notable operetta librettist was the Englishman Sir William Schwenck Gilbert. Working with his countryman Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan in a pairing that has made the cognomen Gilbert and Sullivan famous worldwide, they created fourteen operettas, eleven of which were first performed in the 1870’s and 1880’s and are still frequently produced in the twenty-first century.

In the early twentieth century, Die Lustige Witwe, The Merry Widow in English, composed by Franz Lehár with a libretto that was based on a work by Mielhac was the composer’s first broad success, as well as a commercially successful venture. It premiered in 1905.

The differences between the operetta and the musical are not universally agreed upon. The operetta is more associated with Europe, while the musical is closely tied to the United States. The musical is considered to be an offshoot of the entertainment called musical comedy rather than operetta. Both use the elements of sung and spoken words, as well as dance, to entertain audiences.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is an operetta and how does it differ from an opera?

An operetta is a genre of light opera, characterized by its humorous or romantic themes, lighter musical composition, and often spoken dialogue. Unlike traditional opera, which tends to be more dramatic and musically complex, operettas are designed to be more accessible and entertaining. They typically have shorter running times and simpler storylines, making them a popular form of entertainment in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

Who are some famous composers of operettas?

Famous composers of operettas include Johann Strauss II, known for "Die Fledermaus," and Franz Lehár, who composed "The Merry Widow." These composers are celebrated for their ability to blend catchy melodies with witty librettos, creating works that have stood the test of time. Gilbert and Sullivan from England also made significant contributions to the genre with their series of comic operettas, including "The Pirates of Penzance" and "H.M.S. Pinafore."

What are some of the most popular operettas?

Some of the most popular operettas that have captivated audiences worldwide include "The Merry Widow" by Franz Lehár, "Die Fledermaus" by Johann Strauss II, and "The Mikado" by Gilbert and Sullivan. These works are renowned for their memorable music, engaging stories, and the way they reflect the social mores and humor of their time.

How has operetta influenced modern musical theater?

Operetta has had a profound influence on modern musical theater by paving the way for the development of the musical comedy genre. The integration of songs, dialogue, and dance in operettas set the stage for contemporary musicals. Elements such as character-driven plots and the use of music to advance the story are direct legacies of the operetta tradition in shows on Broadway and the West End.

Where can I see an operetta performance today?

Operetta performances can be enjoyed at various opera houses, theaters, and festivals around the world. Companies that specialize in light opera or have a repertoire that includes classic works often stage operettas. Additionally, some musical theater groups and university performing arts programs may produce operettas as part of their season, offering audiences the chance to experience this charming genre live.

Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

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Mary Elizabeth
Mary Elizabeth

Mary Elizabeth is passionate about reading, writing, and research, and has a penchant for correcting misinformation on the Internet. In addition to contributing articles to MusicalExpert about art, literature, and music, Mary Elizabeth is a teacher, composer, and author. She has a B.A. from the University of Chicago’s writing program and an M.A. from the University of Vermont, and she has written books, study guides, and teacher materials on language and literature, as well as music composition content for Sibelius Software.

Learn more...

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Discussion Comments

Fristepha
I’ve never been a big fan of regular operas (they’ve always seemed a little too intense and I often get lost in their very confusing plots); however, there is something about operettas that I really like. They just seem more approachable. I highly recommend giving operettas a chance, especially if you’ve found operas to be a little too much. I recently found Gilbert and Sullivan and fell in love with "Pirates of Penzance" (how did I not know about this show?). Could any other operetta-philes give some recommendations based on my new found love of Gilbert and Sullivan?
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    • Not all words are sung during an operetta.
      By: Kalim
      Not all words are sung during an operetta.