What is an Operetta?

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.

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

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.

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.

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 wiseGEEK 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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Discussion Comments

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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