10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about operetta

When you hear “operetta”, you immediately think of frilly costumes, “cheesy” music or staging? Well, you have been mistaken!

10 (little) things you (perhaps) do not know about operetta
Scène de la mouche dans 'Orphée aux Enfers' de Jacques Offenbach , © Getty

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart seems to be the first one that used the word “operetta” to make fun of the “little pieces” of his time… But do not trust this anecdote! The same word means today a full genre, as rich and worthy as is the “great opera”.

Demonstration in ten points!

An operetta is a (really) funny opéra-comique

The opéra-comique is a musical show in which alternate sung sections and spoken sections. Carmen of Bizet in an example of opéra-comique, even if its subject has nothing neither funny nor light.

The operetta, as far as it is concerned, is supposed to make people laugh. We find in it the same alternating between spoken and sung scenes. But, when the opéra-comique mainly deals with serious subjects, historical or mythical, the operetta offers a joyful and satirical show.

Operetta is a daughter of the opera-comique who went astray, but girls who have gone bad are not always without appeal”, Camille Saint-Saëns

An operetta is not a “small opera”

It is true there is that suffix as tender as it is pejorative: -etta. There is also the mocking origin of the word. And it might lead us to think that operetta is a form of opera less important and accomplished. Certainly not!

The two genres are very different. For the operetta comes from a long popular tradition: the one of Parisians fairs and vaudeville. Therefore, it was created in 19th century against the opera’s elitism and seriousness, never in an attempt to copy.

A good operetta first relies on a good booklet

The operetta is built on a double parody: first its plot, satire of the society, and second its music who makes fun of the great lyrical pieces. But a parody has to be subtle, especially because shows could still be censored in the 19th century…

Jacques Offenbach’s successes are equally due to his composing talent and to his librettists’ clever way with words. Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy were masters in the art of innuendos and discreet denunciation. Like Jupiter in Orpheus in the Underworld who sings:

“Keep up appearances at least, Keep up appearances! It is all there is”

The operetta artist has to be a good singer and a good actor!

Is operetta the playground for beginners and for artists who have reached the end of their career? Not at all! In the marital argument duet of the first act of Orfeo ed Euridice for example, the singing exercises demand as much technique and vocal strength as a great Rossini’s aria.

Moreover, the operetta singers also have to be good actors and must make the audience laugh. And, as the master of comedy said it:

“It is a much strange enterprise to make the good people laugh”, Molière

Offenbach preferred the expression “opéra-bouffe”

If Jacques Offenbach’s pieces are now designated as “operettas”, he had untitled them “opéras-bouffes”. Why? Because he was fighting to gain recognition as a composer and the word “operetta” was still suffering of a pejorative connotation, especially confronted with the lyrical dramas of his contemporaries Jules Massenet or Léo Delibes.

However, if one wants to be precise, an opéra-bouffe is not exactly the same as an operetta. The plot of the first parodies society when the second’s is more often sentimental.

The operetta is a made in France speciality

I thought the opéra-comique was ceasing to be the opéra-comique; [...] and that the composers working at the Favart room were only doing little big operas”, Jacques Offenbach

The French operetta was born in a much specific context: the artists were trying to avoid the censorship and were rejecting the big bourgeois shows. Therefore, it distinguishes itself from the Italian opera buffa, which, much like the commedia dell’arte, was developed in an entertaining tradition and not with a satirical purpose. 

The operetta is neither the equivalent of the Singspiel, Germanic form close to the opéra-comique with plots often fantastic and deprived of any sense of satire (like The Magic Flute of Mozart). It also cannot be compared to the Spanish zarzuela born in the aristocratic fiestas of Madrid.

The story of the operetta was the story of the theatres’ directors fight

And that fight was long. In 1669, Pierre Perrin is given the unique privilege concerning the lyrical art for the Académie Royale de Musique. Between that date and the first momentum of freedom in the theatres in the 19th century, French cultural life was filled with censor and expulsions. 

Composers, librettists and popular theatres directors have to play around the rules. The master of circumvent was without a doubt Hervé (or Louis-Auguste-Florimond Rongé for his real name), author of what is considered to be the first operetta: Don Quichotte et Sancho Pança.

Composer, orchestra conductor, decorator and stagehand, Hervé started by creating shows for the mental patients of the Salpêtrière. Then he became in 1854 the director of a café-concert situated boulevard du Temple and called Les Folies-Mayer. It would become The Folies-Nouvelles and welcomed the first Parisians operettas.

The French operetta travelled all the way to Vienna

In the 19th century, Austrian-Hungarian Empire’s political and economic stability gave to Vienna an unprecedented cultural momentum. Johann Strauss Jr’s waltz Wein, Weig und Gesang (Wine, Woman and Song) is a good summary of the spirit at the time… It’s within this Vienna where we danced, sang and laughed that Jacques Offenbach gave representations of his pieces and was hugely successful in the 1860’s. He would have whispered in Strauss’s ear: “You should write operettas Monsieur Strauss

Ten years later, the Viennese composer gave it a try… and would end up composing about fifteen operettas, among them the famous The Bat, inspired by a booklet from Meilhac and Halévy, Offenbach’s partners.

Many Viennese operettas covered the plots of French booklets, but a difference still needs to be emphasized: Viennese shows were much less satirical then their French cousins.

Operetta did not die with Offenbach!

If operetta was in competition with music hall, cinema and musicals during the 20th century, many other masterpieces were created after Offenbach’s reign!

Let’s name as examples Véronique (1898) by André Messager, Ciboulette (1923) by Reynaldo Hahn… and after that the renewal of the operetta occurring during the Roaring Twenties, with the bawdy and daring tone of Maurice Yvain’s operettas. You’ll find below an extract from one of his big successes Pas sur la bouche

The operetta’s big comeback

It is far from absent of the French venues’ programs: if operettas still can’t find their place at the Opéra Bastille and Palais Garnier, they often fill the room at the Châtelet, at the Athénée Théâtre Louis-Jouvet and in many venues all over France.

We must also point out the prolific activities of the specialized companies, whereas they are professional like the Atelier Lyrique Angevin or amateur such as the Palétuviens.