Operetta - A Theatrical History and Timelines November 25 2022

An Operetta is a form of theatre combined with a light opera. It grew out as an independent genre around the middle of the nineteenth century. It originated, in Paris in the 1850s from the French opéra-comique, to satisfy a need for short, light works to contrast with the full-length entertainment of the increasingly serious opéra-comique. 

Before World War One, the capitals of operetta were mainly European (Paris, Vienna, and London). However, at the beginning of the 20th century, thanks to works by the likes of Gilbert and Sullivan and Johann Strauss, New York, Budapest, and Berlin were added to the list of leading operetta cities. Operetta’s death was thought to have occurred during the 1930s, brought about by a variety of conditions including the ascendancy of the more popular musicals that have cheaper tickets.



Jacques Offenbach

Different scholars have defined the Operetta genre differently, due to the various changes that have occurred in its meaning over the centuries and from country to country. Due to the genre’s loose definition, the exact structure of operettas is difficult to pin down. It is useful, however, to point out some of the things that differentiate operetta from the standard opera. 

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Jacques Offenbach CDV (carte-de-visite) by photographer Charles Reutlinger.

Standard Operas usually put more emphasis on singing and music than on acting. Operettas, however, consist of spoken dialogues that are interfered with by musical numbers. Furthermore, these dialogues are carried out in ‘common’ language making it easy for the average person to understand the plot. Therefore, operettas were more comprehendible and accessible to the general public.

The Operetta genre originated as a musical work of satirical and even farcical nature. However, it’s rather known today for its clear comical, and romantic plots that nearly always have a happy end. Such plots aren’t sophisticated and don’t require much background from the audience, in contrast with the standard opera which is often difficult to comprehend without knowing the plot beforehand.



The term, “operetta had been used before 1850, as many composers wrote short comic scenes or sketches. However, this was nothing more than a passing interest, and these composers’ names have long been forgotten. Jacques Offenbach, as well as Hervé, was often credited with having written the first operettas and with creating the operetta genre.

Louis-Auguste Florimond Ronger (1825-1892), popularly known as Hervé, is a French organist, singer, and composer. Hervé was often referred to as “the father of the operetta.” However, this title is sometimes given to his rival, Jacques Offenbach, whose career ran in parallel to his. In fact, a jealous rivalry soon developed between the two, which was only patched up in 1878, when Hervé sang in a revival of Offenbach's "Orphée aux enfers".

Hortense Schneider

Hervé wrote about 50 operettas, of which the most celebrated Parisian scores were L’Oeil crevé (October 12, 1867), Chilpéric (October 24, 1868), Le Petit Faust (April 28, 1869), La Femme à papa (December 3, 1879), Lili (January 10, 1882), and Mam’zelle Nitouche (January 26, 1883). However, in contrast to Offenbach’s operettas that achieve multi-lingual international success, most of Hervé’s works are forgotten and not performed nowadays.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Soprano Hortense Schneider, considered one of the most prominent operetta singers in the XIX century.

Jacques Offenbach (1819-1880), whose original name is Jacob Offenbach, is a French composer of German origins. He was the seventh of ten children born to a musical father. Having learned the violin and cello as a child, he moved to Paris, in 1833, where he studied at the conservatory and soon secured a position in the orchestra of the Opéra Comique. He spent much of the 1840s touring Europe as a virtuoso cellist. From 1850 to 1855, he was the conductor in Comédie-Française and in 1855, he opened his own little Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, where he staged one-act operettas.

Offenbach’s achievements were mainly in the field of operetta. He excelled in this field, producing almost 100 examples. Several of his operettas continue to keep a place in the repertory, notably Orpheus in the Underworld (1858) and La belle Hélène (1864). Although based on ancient myth, Offenbach‘s works satirize Napoleon III’s Second Empire and the Parisian society of the day. 

Henri Meilhac (1830-1897) is an opera librettist, whose work is most closely tied to the music of Jacques Offenbach, for whom he wrote over a dozen librettos, most of them in collaboration with Ludovic Halévy (1834-1908). Meilhac’s most successful collaborations with Offenbach are La belle Hélène (1864), Barbe-bleue (1866), and La Vie parisienne (1866).

Another figure that was particularly associated with the works of composer Jacques Offenbachis is the French soprano Hortense Schneider, also known as La Snédèr, (1833 - 1920). La Snédèr was one of the 19th century’s greatest operetta stars. She made her debut in 1855 in Offenbach’s Le violoneux in the Théâtre des Bouffes Parisiens. She then performed the role of Boulotte in Barbe-bleue and the title roles in the famous La belle Hélène.

French Operetta




Offenbach’s amusing take on the Trojan War, La belle Hélène, was premiered at the Théâtre des Variétés, in Paris, on 17 December 1864. It was very well received and proved to be one of his greatest successes in the French capital. Several performances of La belle Hélene followed in three continents. It continued to be revived throughout the 20th century and has even remained a repertoire piece in the 21st century. 

La Vie Parisienne is an operetta, composed by Jacques Offenbach, with a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. Premiered at the Théâtre du Palais-Royal, it was Offenbach's first full-length operetta success. It soon became one of his most popular operettas. Unlike Jacques Offenbach’s earlier pieces and mythological subjects, La Vie Parisienne portrayed contemporary Parisian life. Another famous Operetta was La Barbe-bleue by Jacques Offenbach to a libretto by Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy. 



Charles Lecocq (1832-1918) is a French composer, who became the most prominent successor of Jacques Offenbach. Lecocq kept alive Offenbach’s spirit in the French operetta but adapted it to the more sober style of light opera prevalent after the Franco-German war. He studied at the Paris Conservatoire under François Bazin, Fromental Halévy, and François Benoist. His setting of Le Docteur Miracle with Georges Bizet won first prize in an operetta-writing contest organized by Offenbach in 1856.

Fromenthal Halevy

Lecocq produced a series of popular operettas of which the most successful were Fleur de Thé (1868), La Fille de Madame Angot (1872), and Giroflé Girofla (1874). He enjoyed considerable success in the 1870s and early 1880s before the changing musical fashions of the late 19th century made his style of composition less popular. 

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Fromenthal Halevy, Carte-de-Visite (CDV) by photographer Disderi.

Another famous French Operetta composer in the 1870s was Robert Planquette (1848-1903). After studying at the Paris Conservatoire, Planquette played and wrote songs for cafés concerts. His operettas were extraordinarily successful in Britain, especially his Les cloches de Corneville (The Bells of Corneville, 1878), in which he showed his talent for melody. Les cloches de Corneville was first presented at the Fantaisies Parisiennes and ran for a total of 596 performances worldwide. It may as well be the most popular French operetta ever written.



Offenbach was unabashed about spreading the operetta genre around the continent. In 1861, he staged some of his works at the Carltheater in Vienna, which paved the way for Austrian and German composers to adopt the operetta style. Despite having developed on the basis of already existing European tendencies in the genre, Austrian composers and librettists managed to take the best from the Italian opera and French operetta, making Vienna become the center of operetta productions.

Austro-Hungarian Operetta



The most significant composer of operetta in the German language was Johann Strauss II (1825-1899). Strauss was the eldest son of the famous Austrian composer Johann Strauss I. He was highly influenced by Offenbach’s work, so much so that he collaborated with many of Offenbach’s librettists for his most popular works. However, his satire was often generic, unlike Offenbach who commented on real-life matters  

Strauss’s third operetta, Die Fledermaus (The Bat, 1874) became the classical example of Viennese operetta. Equally successful was his Der Zigeunerbaron (The Gypsy Baron, 1885). Among his numerous other operettas are Der Karneval in Rom (The Roman Carnival, 1873) and Eine Nacht in Venedig (A Night in Venice, 1883). The final Strauss operetta was Die Göttin der Vernunft (The Goddess of Reason, 1897). Most of Strauss’s stage works were first performed at the historic theatre, Theater an der Wien, which never failed to draw huge crowds.

Franz von Suppe

Another famous Austrian composer was Franz von Suppé (1819-1895). He was a contemporary of Strauss, who closely modeled his operettas after Offenbach. He composed over 30 operettas, notably most known for his operetta, Leichte Kavallerie (1866), Fatinitza (1876), and Boccaccio (1879).

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Franz von Suppé by photographer Fritz Luckhardt, Vienna.

The Viennese tradition was then carried on by Carl Zeller (1842-1898), Karl Millöcker (1842-1899), Carl Michael Ziehrer (1843-1922), Richard Heuberger (1850-1914), and many others in the twentieth century.

Franz Friedrich Richard Genée (1823 - 1895) is a Prussian-born Austrian librettist. With Friedrich Zell (the pseudonym of Camillo Walzel, 1829 - 1895), he co-wrote the libretti for dozens of German versions of French and, later, English operettas. However, he is most famous for the libretto of Die Fledermaus, Johann Strauss II's most famous operetta. Genée is remembered today as the Viennese Golden Era's greatest librettist.



The end of the 19th century was a paradoxical period for the operetta in Paris. Many theatres disappeared, while others who were noted for their operettas switched over to non-operetta productions. By 1901, the number of operettas opening in Paris had dropped drastically, and their level of quality had likewise deteriorated.

German operetta




Following the death of Johann Strauss and his contemporary, Franz von Suppé, Franz Lehár was the heir of the Viennese operetta. While by no means the most prolific composer, his few hits were bigger hits than many other composers' successes. He gave the genre renewed vitality and has majorly assisted in leading operetta into the Silver Age of Viennese Operetta. 

Franz Lehar Photograph

Lehár was born in Hungary, in 1870. He studied violin at the Prague Conservatory, under Antonín Bennewitz. After he graduated from the Conservatory in 1888, he joined his father's band in Vienna, as an assistant bandmaster. 

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Franz Lehar -signed photograph

In his most successful operetta, Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow, 1905), Lehár created a new style of Viennese operetta. He introduced waltz tunes and imitations of the Parisian cancan dances as well as a certain satirical element. The Merry Widow remains one of the more valuable stage properties in existence as it has definitely paved a pathway for composers such as Leo Fall (1873-1925), Oscar Straus (1870-1954), and Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953) to continue the tradition of the Viennese Operetta.

Among Lehár’s other operettas are: The Man with Three Wives (1908), The Count of Luxembourg (1909), Gypsy Love (1910), and The Land of Smiles (1923). Many of his works were filmed, including The Merry Widow and The Land of Smiles. 

Another prominent figure in the development of Viennese operetta in the 20th century is the Hungarian composer Emmerich Kálmán (1882-1953). His compositional style was influenced by the Viennese style of precursors such as Johann Strauss II and Franz Lehár, and incorporated some elements of Hungarian folk music.

Kálmán’s first stage work was Tatárjárás (The Gay Hussars, 1908). A few years later, he moved to Vienna and began to compose German-language operettas for theatres there. His first greatest success came from Csárdáskirálynõ (1915). It was performed by almost every musical theatre in the world, often enjoying several runs. Among his other, most popular works is Gräfin Mariza (1924).



Offenbach's influence reached England in the 1860s. The English-language operetta was known in England as comic opera to distinguish it from the French and the German Operetta. One of the main indicative characteristics of the English operetta is that it was designed to serve the taste of the middle class who before that was rarely seen in theaters and music halls.

Gilbert & Sullivan

Despite the quick development of operetta in England, the most prolific and famous productions in the field were carried out by the long-running collaboration between the librettist, Sir William Schwenck Gilbert (1836-1911), and the composer, Sir Arthur Seymour Sullivan (1842-1900) during the Victorian era. In the period between 1871 and 1896, Gilbert and Sullivan produced 14 operettas together, which were later called Savoy Operas. The name Savoy Operas is derived from the Savoy Theatre, which impresario Richard D'Oyly Carte built to house the pair’s pieces.

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Photographs and signature cuts of Gilbert & Sullivan matted.

Sullivan and Gilbert’s operettas had an outstanding influence on the further development of musical theater as they were innovative in both form and content. One of their most successful works is The Pirates of Penzance which premiered at the Fifth Avenue Theatre in New York City in 1879. Its London debut was in 1880, at the Opera Comique, where it ran for 363 performances.

Sullivan and Gilbert’s next work, The Mikado, was their greatest, in terms of worldwide popularity. It premiered at the Savoy Theatre in 1885 and was a success from the beginning. Its initial production ran for 672 performances and within only one year, some 150 other companies were performing the operetta in England and the United States.


Another prominent Operetta English composer during the 19th century is Noel Coward (1899-1973). He especially thrived during the Great Depression, writing a succession of popular hits. One of which is the operetta, Bitter Sweet, which words and Music were both written by Noel Coward. Bitter Sweet was initially opened in 1929 at the Palace Theatre, Manchester, before its London premiere at his Majesty’s Theatre in the same year. It then ran in London for 697 performances, at five different theatres.

English Operetta




Americans usually took their cue from Europe and England when it came to musical entertainment, so by the late 19th century, the operetta genre had eventually reached America. Operettas made by Gilbert and Sullivan, as well as those by the French composer, Offenbach, enjoyed an enthusiastic vogue in the 1870s and 1880s. However, New York’s infatuation with operetta reached a peak in 1907, when Léhar’s “The Merry Widow” arrived on American shores.

The first-ever American composer who produced musical works in the operetta style was Victor August Herbert (1859-1924). Victor was born in Ireland and classically trained in Germany. He got his education playing the cello in some of the most highly-regarded orchestras in Austria and Germany.

Upon his arrival in New York in 1886, Herbert began playing, conducting, and composing at a furious pace. By 1894, he had his first operetta, Prince Anania staged on Broadway. The piece was well-received, and he soon composed three more operettas for Broadway, The Wizard of the Nile (1895), The Serenade (1897), which enjoyed an international triumph, and The Fortune Teller (1898).

American operetta


His first major hit, however, was Babes in Toyland (1903). Two more successes followed, Mlle. Modiste (1905) and The Red Mill (1906), solidified him as one of the most popular American composers.

Herbert’s work was highly influenced by European operettas, especially by Gilbert & Sullivan and the Viennese school. He produced an overall of 43 operettas that were of extreme popularity in his time and can still be seen today on Broadway.



The next biggest operetta hits in America were made by the Austrian-American composer Frederick Loewe (1901-1988) and the American lyricist and librettist Alan Jay Lerner (1918-1986). The pair collaborated on a series of Broadway musicals including Brigadoon, Paint Your Wagon, My Fair Lady, and Camelot, all of which were made into films. This partnership spanned for around three decades from 1942 to 1960 and again from 1970 to 1972.

Loewe was born in Germany, to Viennese parents. He moved with his father to New York City in 1924 where he worked as a pianist in German clubs and was an accompanist for silent films. Meanwhile, Alan Lerner was born in New York City and attended Harvard University. His career in musical theater began with his collegiate contributions when he worked on Hasty Pudding musicals.

Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner

[CLICKABLE IMAGE] Frederick Loewe and Alan Jay Lerner at work

Lerner and Loewe met at The Lambs Club in New York, in 1942. the pair's first collaboration was a musical adaptation of Barry Connor's farce The Patsy, called Life of the Party, for a Detroit stock company. It ran for a nine-week, encouraging the duo to join forces with Arthur Pierson for ‘What's Up?. What's Up opened on Broadway in 1943 and ran for 63 performances. Two years later, it was followed by The Day Before Spring.

Lerner and Loewe 's first hit was Brigadoon (1947). The musical ran on Broadway for more than a year and won the 1947 New York Drama Critics' Circle award as Best Musical. It was followed in 1951 by the Gold Rush story 'Paint Your Wagon.' While this show ran for nearly a year and included songs that later became pop standards, it was not as successful as Brigadoon.

In 1956, their 'My Fair Lady' was produced and was a huge hit on both Broadway and London. The musical won the Tony Award for Best Musical. The American media company Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer took notice and commissioned them to write the film musical Gigi (1958). the film ended up being a huge success and won nine Academy Awards, including Best Picture



Spanish Operetta


Other Operettas




While European-style operettas were very popular in America in the late 19th and the early 20th century, the situation changed completely after World War I and the Great Depression as the vast majority of the former audience could no longer afford to spend money on entertainment. There is no denial, however, that the operetta style was immensely influential in America and the world. This genre has actually influenced the development of later musical styles, particularly the Broadway musical, originating in New York, which has now gained popularity around the world, outstripping both the standard opera and operetta.



- Spanish Operetta (zarzuela) Singers Cabinet Photographs

- Franz Lehar's operetta "Paganini" 1930 World Premiere Program

Johann Strauss II Signed Card with his Photograph 

Charles Lecocq Autograph Letter Signed

Victor Herbert Large Signed Photo with Music Quote



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