Article by Tom Sutcliffe

Operetta is not really Italian at all, but originally French. It was the Austrians who turned the French form opérette (which was what Jacques Offenbach called his short one-act musical comedies) into the Italian-sounding operetta. Central European capitals like Munich and Vienna quickly developed a taste for their own style of romantic operetta. Munich is said to be the northern most Italian city, when it’s not being too robustly Bavarian. Munich and Vienna have always been places with their hearts south of the Alps. In Mozart’s time at the Austrian imperial court, Italian was the civilised language for opera, not German. (Hence the career of Lorenzo da Ponte whose brilliant libretto for Figaro’s Wedding was a translation of French comedy into Italian for a German-speaking composer). Whatever else it may be, operetta is certainly very European.

Not all comic opera or operatic comedy is operetta. In France – in the last century – the comic opera genre came to include crime, tragic low-life, and exotic adventures like Delibes’s Lakmé. Carmen for instance, whose plot is scarcely a laughing matter, was created for the Opéra Comique in Paris, and therefore conceived with spoken dialogue.

What is the difference between opera and operetta? The simplest answer is that operetta (meaning in Italian literally “little opera”) is less pretentious than opera, and intended to be more accessible and popular. Operetta is more likely to have spoken dialogue, melodious numbers and a comic plot. It’s fun. It’s pleasure. It’s easier on the brain.

The creator of French opérette was not initially Jacques Offenbach (born Jacob Eberst in Cologne in 1819 to a Jewish father) but the young organist of a lunatic asylum chapel called Louis Auguste Joseph Florimond Ronger. His trade name was Hervé and he was a brilliant comedian and actor as well as composer. In Offenback’s early work Oyayayie (The Queen of the Isles), Hervé played the Queen herself in drag. Hervé’s first operetta was tried out with the inmates of the Bicêtre asylum as performers. Hervé’s mother was in charge of the wardrobe there. One of his last and best works (Mam’zelle Nitocheu) exploits his own life-story. It’s about a convent girl who discovers her music teacher is leading a double life as a composer of opérettes. Hervé knew that performance was a form of psychological therapy, that humour is a great healer. But above all he was a master of burlesque, a student of life’s absurdities through whose representation on stage a greater truth emerges.

In Offenbach’s day the French term for a full length comic opera was “opera bouffe”, which the Italians had long known as opera buffa – to distinguish it from opera seria. In opera seria, which lasted for four to five hours, audiences could feel they were getting hopelessly lost in some labyrinthine da capo aria (meaning literally, “repeat from the top”). The Italians have never had any operetta to speak of. Classics like Falstaff and Gianni Schicchi are opera buffa, as are the comedies of Rossini and Donizetti. But is there any difference between opera buffa and operetta? Give a genius some stock characters and situations: the young lover, the old bachelor, the rich heiress, the peasant villagers, the amorous soldier, the small-town lawyer. Mix them well, and they become Don Pasquale or L’Elisir d’amore (The Elixir of Love) or The Merry Widow or Countess Martiza or Patience. Comic opera, opera buffa, operetta – what is there in a name? Rossini’s Barber of Seville is an opera buffa, whereas Figaro’s Wedding is a comic opera with lashings of what Mozart would have regarded as Gemütlichkeit (a German word that strictly means “feeling” rather than “sentimentality”). And Gemütlichkeit became one of the most essential of all ingredients for German operetta.

So the term operetta is synonymous with the light, fantastic, theatrical and romantic – and not very different from the “the musical”, except that in post-war years, and especially since the retirement of the great Ethel Merman, the all-pervasive microphone has taken over “musical theatre” in the same way that it has utterly conquered popular song. In another sense the term “operetta” is a tribute to the snobbishness of Deuxième Empire Paris and Emperor Franz Josef’s Vienna. And, like all attempts to keep the lower classes in their place and away from the heady pretensions of true opera, it contained the germ of its own destruction. The infectious wit of a genre that wore its sophistication so lightly was, on that very account, irresistibly inviting to the upper classes themselves. Snobs and aristos may acknowledge in their hearts a responsibility for high culture. But they are always prone to philistinism and slumming, and susceptible to something that slips down easily. The success of operetta from the middle decades of the 19th century onwards, like the triumph of The Beggars’ Opera in 18th-century London, reflected the power of the people. As the influence of the middle and lower classes waxed, the masses, meaning everybody who was anybody, became just crazy about operetta – the lower class form of opera.

Who wouldn’t rather be popular than famous, if they couldn’t be both? Operetta has been a passport to fame and fortune for its top practitioners: Offenbach, Lecocq, Audran, Messager, Johann Strauss, Franz Lehar, Emmerich Malman, and even our very own Arthur Sullivan, whose Savoy Operas were called operettas, though they are really operettas. Savoy opera is just a trade name. But what has happened to our tunes during the 20th century? Modernism is of course partly to blame for the cheesiness which substitutes for genuine melodic originality in the warhorses of today’s musical theatre. Our century has increasingly devalued melody and the unadorned human voice, and the ability to sustain the melodiousness and theatrical truthfulness for operetta has simply disappeared.

The great thing about operetta, whatever drawer of society you emerge from, is that you are guaranteed a good time with it in the theatre – and not too much concentration if you don’t want. Operetta has been an opportunity for significant and highly accomplished composers of proven melodic flair and theatrical instinct (a species as dead as the dodo) to extend their art in concealing art. Die Fledermaus, Johann Strauss the II’s masterpiece, is in a way a work as sublime and flawless as Mozart’s Figaro’s Wedding. Carlos Kleiber, Placido Domingo and Nikolaus Harnoncourt have all recorded their enthusiasm for the musical greatness of Fledermaus. Of course Strauss’s flawless masterpiece is a different category of dramatic work from Figaro. The mirror Strauss holds up to the audience has a basic view of human faults, where Mozart’s truthful enlightening portraits of Susanna and the Countess register ideals and almost saintless beside the humour. Strauss’s Adele is a delightfully insecure show-off, and a subsidiary cameo. Whereas Cherubino, who is also a bit of an insecure show off, seems in her songs somehow to embody the essence of burgeoning adolescent sexuality, male and female.

Comedy is king. And comedy is in its way harder work than tragedy. Comedy separates the men from the boys – both in the theatre and in the opera house. Why? Because comedy, satire and farce are only funny if they are truthful. Lift the surface just a little way, let the mask slip ever so slightly, and the truth in Feydeau’s cruel farces is devastating. Comedy is on the very cusp of vulnerability, a factor which tragedy tends relatively to ignore. Comedy negotiates over the boundaries of faith and confidence and trust. It deals in ambiguity. It is closer to the life we lead, whereas tragedy concerns the unresolvable and the absolute, the invincibility of ignorance, the determination of heroism. Comedy by contrast rests on shifting sands. It’s about the magic of the theatre which permits us to perceive the sensitive and the subtle, the blessed fruits of peace and happiness. Comedy is closer to home, which is why you find local amateur dramatic and operatic societies attempting to put operetta on – however difficult it may be to match the artistry of the great stars. Even clumsy attempts to lead our imaginations into the everyday of Offenbach and Gilbert & Sullivan can succeed, however dislocated and bizarre those worlds may be. Amateur roughness merely adds further distortions to a comic mirror that is already presenting life through the muddling refraction of caricature and cartoon.

The theatre of classical Greece, where people encountered the gods of their prevailing religious mythologies (just as Christians meet the Bible in Church), very clearly differentiated between tragedy and comedy. The two implicitly divided genres of opera and operetta are a bit like classical theatre, obeying the differentiation of objectives established long ago. Opera presents often the tragic mask – a dace with the mouth turned down, black eyes weeping. Operetta gives us the comic mask with mouth and forehead on the brink of movements and laughter. We can now recognise ancient Greek theatre as a form of practical theology, made exciting and entertaining for the community as a whole. Theatre, whether comedy or tragedy, re-examined ancient stories of divine intervention in human affairs. Tragedy showed heroes with elevated aspirations caught in the toils of fate. It purged the audience’s emotions by involving them in the tragic experience. Homer’s epic poem, Odyssey, was not mythology for the Greeks – but a quarry of evocative stories to be recycled in much the same way that, later, Handel would recycle the Old Testament and Ovid’s Metamorphoses in oratorios like Israel in Egypt and Semele, and Bach would dramatically and meditatively reinterpret the Passion of Jesus Christ. Where Plato suggests that artistic representation is inferior and misleading, because it is not reality, Aristotle maintains that the imaginative treatment of narrative material is actually superior to the events being depicted – because in the theatre reality can be assessed, qualitatively and morally, as well as represented.

Opera and operetta are our nearest descendants from ancient Greek theatre. Offenbach and Aristophanes are kissing cousins in Orphée aux Enfers (Orpheus in the Underworld). But in opera the demarcation between comedy and tragedy is less precise. Mozart classed Don Giovanni as “drama giocosa” (giocose drama) – though it concerns murder and rape and concludes with its hero being dragged to the fire and brimstone of hell. Beethoven’s Fidelio mixes epic grand arias and the symbolic defeat of an evil prison governor with a suburban domestic subplot. Mozart’s Figaro’s Wedding turns a revolutionary political comedy into both a spring-like and autumnal Clintonesque tale of sexual betrayal. Così fan tutte starts in comedy, but its emotional roller coaster ride takes in the tragic shattering of every delusion about personal fidelity. Verdi, with a couple of exceptions, wrote only tragedy. Wagner is almost all argumentative epics. In the 20th century tragic opera has become the norm – from Berg and Janacek to Britten – though Richard Strauss after Rosenkavalier stuck to comedy.

It is a slight problem for operetta that music, which often moves us to tears, almost never makes us laugh directly at what it is doing. Why is that? Music can make us feel happy, feel like giggling. It can imitate laughter, as the Witches’ choruses do in Purcell’s Dido and Aeneas, and convey the dynamics of comic action when it evocatively accompanies comic text and ideas. Yet it is seldom funny in itself, because though it may prevaricate it rarely dissembles. Music is never insincere. It never lies or pretends. It is what it is, pure and simple in emotional potency. Music is the best witness with the most telling account and the penetrating memory. The prevailing characteristic of operetta music is accessibility. One reason operetta music feels so comfortable and stress-free for audiences is that it is very largely embodied in song forms with a few dances. Many of its sounds are unapologetic vehicles for simple sentiment. Both in its songs, and in its spoken dialogue (always intended to be in the vernacular), operetta helps to keep its audience entertained and fully informed about where its stories are going and why. In operetta the plot may get into difficulties, but audiences never lose it. They are always on top of the situation.

The first operas at the end of the 16th century, reviving or attempting to revive the Greek classical theatre, sought naturally to follow the ancient Greek model. Opera thus inherited the entire agenda of classical theatre. The first operas borrowed from the treasury of classical stories. Monteverdi’s Favola d’Orfeo mixed with moving seriousness were to be the classic elements of all opera and operetta: love and death, especially faithful love unto death. Of all operatic subjects the myth of Orpheus has prompted more works than any other. Not just serious works. Orpheus in the Underworld is a very different kettle of fish. Here the poet/musician and the brainless Eurydice are not getting on well at all. The world of the Gods both on Olympus and in Pluto’s palace of Hades seems more like EastEnders in Offenbach’s treatment. A safely remote narrative, veiled in the mists of uncertain mythology, was especially advantageous when theatre and in particular opera were subject to rigorous censorship. In France, where operetta first earned the right to entertain and be outrageous, Offenbach’s blatant political humour harked straight back to the wonderfully blasphemous religious satire in the comedies of Aristophanes. Plus ça change…

Offenbach’s Orpheus in 1858 is the first fully fledged operetta, and it indicates the limits of the genre in many respects. It is an unashamed burlesque, and it pursues its message into the realms of absurd fantasy – a possibility in operetta which the central European variety was rather cautious about, preferring the upwardly mobile social fantasies of Ruritania. With Orpheus in the Underworld at the Bouffes-Parisien, Offenbach and his librettists Crémieux and Halévy achieved his first great hit with a full-length work for large cast. One in the eye for traditional mores, as substitution of the can-can for a pompous minuet brilliantly suggests. So successful was the show internationally (it went into German in 1860 and into English in 1865, adapted by Planché who had written the hopeless English text for Weber’s glorious Oberon in 1826) that Offenbach subsequently expanded it for a new production at the Théatre de la Gaité in 1874. He added new characters, new arias, two ballets, and the presiding genius of Hervé playing the role of Jupiter. The theatre world that created French operetta was heady, extravagant and extremely exciting. From this largesse, most productions since have quarried according to taste.

The genius lay in the music and in the composer’s and librettists’ irreverence towards the hallowed old story. They took a bleary-eyed leering view of the high sententiousness of traditional versions such as Gluck’s, which is parodied at one point. Orpheus was a God in the Orphic mysteries. He is still the spirit of music and art at the heist level of human attainment. To treat him as a typical suburban French bored husband is arresting blasphemy, to put it mildly. The view of duty and morality represented by Jupiter and the other gods is precisely what you might expect from a bunch of politicians. Introducing “Public Opinion” into the scenario as a sort of chorus character (naturally female) is the most subversive, deliciously wicked and blithely unauthentic touch of all. In English the very title of the operetta is ambiguous, suggesting an underworld of shady criminals who inevitably are straight out of the top drawer. Offenbach’s handling of the Orpheus narrative enshrines a revolutionary view of theatrical reality compared with previous neo-classical operatic versions. Society and politics are shown in a desperate topsy-turvy spin, and the wonderfully memorable music keeps the comic mystery whirling regardless. What more can one ask of operetta? What more could it do?

Tom Sutcliffe is opera critic for the Evening Standard