Do I hear a waltz…? If that waltz is accompanied by an amusing plot, luscious melodies, spoken dialogue and a little, possibly slightly suggestive, humor, chances are that are lucky enough to find yourself at an operetta. The younger sibling of opera, and the precursor of the musical, operetta – or opéra comique, to give its original French title – offers a lighter take on life than its more dramatic elder sibling, with a classical flavor often missing from the brasher anglophone musical. Neither a fully-sung drama, nor a play with added songs, but combining the best of both worlds, operetta is often unfairly overlooked or dismissed, but offers an ideal introduction to the conventions of classical music theater for the novice, or simply a charmingly light-hearted night out for the aficionado.
Born in France in the mid-19th century, the operetta boomed under the inventive powers of Jacques Offenbach, whose Orfée aux Enfers or “Orpheus in the Underworld”, premiered in 1858, embodies all the characteristics essential to the genre. Frivolity, humor – often somewhat blue – and an exaggerated, frequently satirical, depiction of recognizable archetypes are paired with music in a classical style, and inevitably, a dance, although the now-inextricable pairing of operetta and waltz occurred later, as operetta’s center moved to Vienna. This lighter style became so popular that many notable premieres took place in one of France’s oldest and most venerated theaters, the Opéra-Comique, which is closed for restoration until early 2017.
As the Belle Époque launched optimistically forth, operetta spread rapidly to Vienna, where Johann Strauss the Younger premiered Die Fledermaus in 1874 at the Theater an der Wien, starting a craze that rapidly grew to international proportions and paved the way for future worldwide hits. Franz Léhar’s 1905 “The Merry Widow”, was performed over half a million times before 1960 and is still the most commonly performed operetta in the world, with performances at Covent Garden and the Metropolitan Opera among its credits. Sigmund Romberg’s “The Student Prince”, was adapted for the cinema in1954, featuring the singing voice of superstar Mario Lanza.
Although operetta was hugely popular in France, in the German-speaking countries of Europe the genre acquired a new flavor, and a new status. Romantic, nostalgic and glamorous, operetta was, and still is, performed in renowned opera houses by the same stars that sing dramatic operas on other evenings. Among the most highly regarded venues in the current day are Vienna’s Volksoper and Berlin’s Komische Oper, the site of the premiere of another of Léhar’s big hits, “The Land of Smiles” in 1929. Operetta mania endured in Austria and Germany well into the 20th century, and in some cities, the appetite for operetta remained so strong that an entire theater was dedicated to the repertoire. In the rebuilding of Dresden after World War II, an operetta theater was an essential addition to the city, and the Dresden State Operetta opened in 1947 with – what else? – “The Merry Widow”.
Operettas around the world leave audiences with a smile on their faces, and a tune in their hearts. Join their number and discover a world of delights!