Opera vs Operetta vs Musical...What's the Difference? May 28 2021
Like many artforms, the dividing lines between stage works
including music are blurred.
Opera vs operetta, and even operetta vs musical theatre can occasionally be difficult to determine, especially with works of a grand, 'operatic' scope.
For example, a role like Sweeney Todd in Sondheim's musical of the same name sits as well in the hands of an operatic bass-baritone as it does a suitable musical theatre performer; indeed, the work sits in the repertoire of many opera houses worldwide.
However, it isn't an opera - not every role requires an 'opera' singer, or an operatic technique. Although Andrew Lloyd-Webber's The Phantom of the Opera is firmly a musical, both Christine and Carlotta need a strong classical technique to master their roles.
Other mainstream operas such as The Magic Flute could equally be argued to be operetta, or even early musical theatre - much of the plot is spoken dialogue, and although there are dark themes and quests to be overcome, for the good guys, everyone lives happily ever after. And like many musicals, some of the roles - particularly Papageno, Monostatos and Papagena - sit as well in the hands of singing actors as they do with opera singers.
Looking at a brief history of each can be useful in seeing both similarities and differences.
Opera - where did it start, and what is it?
Inspired by Greek drama, and through the ideas of an educated circle of Florentine humanists called the Camerata, Jacopo Peri's Dafne is the earliest composition that can be considered to be a true opera. The Camerata believed that at least the chorus sections of classical Greek plays had been sung, and perhaps the whole work. Most of the music for Dafne is lost, although the libretto survives. Opera wasn't born in a vacuum, however; for most of the sixteenth century, musical theatrical spectacles became more and more common to commemorate significant events.
With lavish staging and dancing, this new Italian form rapidly spread across Europe, fusing with elements of the French ballet de cour and English masque to develop into the art form we are more familiar with today - works which are generally completely sung, with or without a 'ballet' act, and accompanied by orchestra.
Operetta - where did it start, and what is it?
Operetta as a term to describe an art form first appears in 18th
century Italy, and Mozart was known to use the term disparagingly. The term generally refers to lighter works than full-scale operas, although Jacques Offenbach (shown here) frequently used 'operetta' as an art form to get around French government laws regarding the staging of works with more than one act or more than four characters.
Recognized as a genre in its own right by around 1850, the 'home' of operetta shifted from Paris to Vienna by the end of the century. The melodies were possible to be sang, and the principal characters often had to have dance skills to match their vocal abilities.
Again, as an art form, it can be considered to have its origins in lighter court amusements of the 16th and 17th centuries, although operetta can be considered to be the forerunner of the modern musical. Elements of operetta can be found in many musical theatre works, particularly those by composers such as Rodgers, Sondheim, and Kern.
Musical Theatre - where did it start, and what is it?
Combining song, dance, acting, and spoken dialogue, musical theatre's origins clearly lie with operetta. Drawing on structural elements from W. S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan (shown here), Edwardian music hall and musical comedies, and the likes of American creators such as George M. Cohan, works such as Show Boat (1927) herald something completely new.
There are musicals that are through or near through-composed, but as a rule, the emphasis is on acting skills first and vocal abilities second. Additionally, an operetta performer might be expected to have competent dance skills alongside a strong voice.
The scores are not necessarily unsophisticated either - the complexities of some of the set pieces of late twentieth century musicals blur the lines of "music first" or "story first" almost to point of making a "what is it?" definition irrelevant. Again, to use Sweeney Todd as an example for the opera vs operetta vs musical argument, it's desirable to have classically-trained voices for Todd, Joanna, and the Judge at the very least; even though opera singers warm their voices with vibrato to project, and sound quite different to even the most 'classical' sounding traditional music theatre or light operetta performer.
Gilbert and Sullivan operetta
No discussion of operetta can even begin without mentioning the British pairing of W.S. Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan. Alongside other operetta composers such as Offenbach, Lehar, and Johann Strauss, their works are famed for absurd plots - often with cases of mistaken identity - which resolve happily, often with a boisterous chorus reprise of a big tune from earlier in the work.
Like other operettas, these contain spoken dialogue and dance
opportunities for both principals and chorus, and yet the emphasis is still firmly on excellent singing. Works such as The Mikado (1885) coincided with a Victorian interest in Japanese culture, and coincided with a Japanese exhibition in Knightsbridge.
The ninth of their works together, The Mikado also coincided with Sullivan's wish to approach more serious subjects in his writing - he was sick of absurd plots (the following year, he composed the cantata The Golden Legend for the Leeds Festival; a setting of Longfellow's poem, and a more serious work).
And yet there was still a wish for authenticity - one of the visiting Japanese women living in the 'village' at the exhibition was invited in to coach Leonora Braham, Jessie Bond, and Sybil Grey - the original Three Little Maids - how to move and behave like Japanese schoolgirls.
Gilbert and Sullivan operettas aren't all froth, however; their absurd topsy-turvy plots and libretti provide a neat cover for satirizing government and Victorian life in general. In fact, they tackle life's big questions head on in much the same way as opera does; just in true operetta style with a song and dance at the end.
Other notable operettas
The rest of Europe was also developing a fine operetta tradition during the 19th century. Viennese operetta in the hands of Johann Strauss produced Die Fledermaus - a work with spoken dialogue requiring virtuoso singing - a work in the mainstream repertoire of most opera houses around the world.
The French tradition of opéra comique is almost synonymous with Jaques Offenbach. Orpheus in the Underworld (1858), which gave the world the famous can-can (swiftly adopted by both the Moulin Rouge and Folies Bergere for their dance routine), remains his most popular work, and again, demands a great deal from the star soprano. Together with La belle Helene, these are perhaps the two most famous French contributions to the genre. Hervé might have put in the groundwork with his Don Quichotte et Sancho Panca, but Offenbach turned the genre into something unmistakable.
More problematic is The Tales of Hoffmann - Offenbach's 'serious' opera with spoken dialogue. In this sense, it has more in common with Beethoven's Fidelio, falling somewhere between play and opera.
A contemporary of Lehar (composer of The Merry Widow),
Emmerich Kalman (shown on the right) was a fellow student of both Bartok and Kodaly, and his early works included symphonic poems, piano works, and vocal works. However, his real talent was for writing cabaret songs, which led to a sidestep into operetta - works such as The Gay Hussars (1908), Die Csardasfurstin and Die Zirkusprinzessin cemented his position as one of the leading composers of the Silver Age of Viennese operetta.
To his distaste, he was one of Hitler's favourite composers, and was offered the opportunity to become an 'honorary Aryan' after the Anschluss, despite being Jewish. He refused, fled Vienna for Paris, then America, not returning to Vienna until 1949. He died in Paris in 1951.
As transportation improved during the 19th century, theatre entertainments with music found their way across the Atlantic. The lines between music hall and musical were blurred, and runs of successful shows were long - Gilbert and Sullivan operettas, such as HMS Pinafore and The Mikado were just as popular in New York as they had been in London. The operetta style - integrating lyrics and dialogue - began to inspire American composers.
Born in Guernsey, Victor Herbert lived and worked in Germany as a musician before becoming a naturalised American citizen in the early 20th century, having emigrated with his wife in the 1880s. Initially playing the cello in the Metropolitan Opera orchestra, he supplemented his income with teaching. Having had some success as a composer already - his Serenade for Strings Op.12 was performed at the Steinway Hall - he composed his first operetta in 1894, a well-received piece called Prince Ananias. His subsequent three works for Broadway were equally well received, but his first real hit was his operetta Babes in Toyland (1903).
In conclusion, although we can give definitions of what is a musical, what is an operetta, and what is an opera, there will always be works that straddle two genres, or works that fit clearly into one, but demand some of the skills from another. The beauty of musical genres is that they are constantly evolving forms, and if there's one thing there will always be an audience for, it's something new.
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