Tthe description of a piece of musical entertainment as opera is much more clear cut than the term operetta. We know an opera when we see and hear it. But with an operetta it can be also named a light opera or a comic opera, or even a musical comedy. Operetta literally means a small opera. It was initially popularised in France in the 1850s. It was in response to the need for shorter, and more light hearted works of entertainment, than the common opera of the day. Operas of the day could last for 4–5 hours, be rather grim or tragic, and often based on mythology or gods, and contain much thunder and lightning. If Jacques Offenbach wasn’t the first to write an operetta then he was the first to make it into an indispensable entertainment of France’s Second Empire.
Shorter in length, operettas were usually humourous, and satiric, contained spoken dialogue and usually incorporated ballet and dance. They usually ended happily. They were also often rather risqué. The popularity of French operetta spread around the world, and countries such as Germany, Austria, Italy, Spain, England and the United States developed their own forms. In Spain, they developed the zarzuela, in Italy the opera buffa, as opposed to the opera seria. In England, the works of William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan were and continue to be, enormously popular in English speaking countries. Their mantle was later assumed by Edward German, and later Lionel Monckton. Germany, Hungary and Austria gave us works by Franz Lehár, Carl Millöcker, Oscar Straus, Johann Strauss Jnr, Emmerich Kalman, and Franz von Suppe. In the United States, inspired by both Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan, Victor Herbert (an Irish immigrant) created charming operettas. He was followed by Sigmund Romberg and Rudolf Friml.
In England and America, in the 1890s a more popular entertainment was developed and called Musical Comedy. These works differed from operettas, in that the musical sequences were even shorter. The big Act Finales disappeared, and no song lasted more than 2–3 minutes. The plots were usually set in contemporary times, and even less consequential than in operetta. However, there was one work, outstandingly popular which stopped Musical Comedy from entirely supplanting operetta. Lehár’s Die Lustige Witwe—The Merry Widow created an international sensation, especially in Berlin, Vienna, New York and London. It ran for years, and was seen by thousands. It seemed operetta had not died.
Popular operettas in English across the Atlantic were Babes in Toyland (1903), The Red Mill (1906), Naughty Marietta (1910), Sweethearts (1913) and Eileen (1917) all by Victor Herbert (1859–1924). Herbert wrote a whopping 43 operettas. In London, The Arcadians, The Geisha, A Country Girl continued the tradition of Gilbert & Sullivan. The enormously popular Chu Chin Chow, by Australian Oscar Asche, to music by Frederic Norton, ran for an enormous five and a half years in London. Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria have recently staged all of these works. Noel Coward and Ivor Novello continued the British tradition with Bitter Sweet, Operette, Conversation Piece, The Dancing Years, Glamorous Night, King’s Rhapsody, among many. Austrian composer Robert Stolz with Ralph Benatzky created the mega-hit Im weissen Rössl or The White Horse Inn in 1930 and like The Merry Widow was an international hit. Johann Strauss’s music was re-employed to make such hits as The Great Waltz, and Casanova.
But from the 1930s operetta had had its day. Increasingly out of fashion, the world preferred even more light weight and often sillier entertainment. Most of the 30s works, even by masters like George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers and Jerome Kern are un-produceable today, unless severely re-written. Jerome Kern had created in 1927 an endurable masterpiece in Show Boat. But he never followed it with anything like its quality. After the World War II there was a re-kindling of interest in operetta. Elisabeth Schwarzkopf recorded her ravishing version of The Merry Widow, which brought the work back to popularity. MGM had a huge hit with the Mario Lanza dubbed film of The Student Prince. The Merry Widow, The Desert Song, The Great Waltz, all received the big Hollywood treatment, and were very successful.
Broadway musicals nodded to their operetta-esque ancestors, and works like Carousel, Brigadoon, The Most Happy Fella, Kismet, The Song of Norway, sound to this writer’s ears more operetta than musical comedy. There have also been blatant attempts to recreate an operetta in such works as Candide, The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Phantom of the Opera, and most recently A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder.
In February 2023 Gilbert & Sullivan Opera Victoria (GSOV) are staging a garden concert of highlights from Broadway Operetta, titled ‘Only Make Believe’. There will be highlights from Babes in Toyland, The Red Mill, Naughty Marietta, Eileen (Victor Herbert), The Firefly, The Vagabond King (Rudolf Friml), The Desert Song, The Student Prince (Sigmund Romberg) and Show Boat (Jerome Kern). To book go to gsov.org.au.
Staged by this writer, with musical direction by Geoffrey Urquhart, this will be a delightful tribute and remembrance of music that almost got away. Operettas remain not only as relics of gone by musical tastes, but a testament to a time when melodies were not only abundant but there was charm and grace in their performance, which is totally lacking in today’s popular entertainment.