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What is Operetta?

Operetta is commonly described as a theatrical per-formance consisting of alternating parts of singing, acting with spoken word, and dancing.

During the 17th and 18th century the term “operetta” was used to mean shorter and less important spectacles in comparison to opera. In the 19th century, operetta increased in stature until it was considered to be an art
form of its own, and no longer simply a “little opera.”

Today’s operetta is the daughter of the French opéra comique, with limits that are not always easily defined. The same could be said of the many genres that grew from this same origin, such as the “musical farce” or vaudeville--until the “musical” was established. The difficulty in describing operetta is that it is often explained ambiguously, focusing on only one element or another; but in spite of this, it has its own characteristics distinguishing it from all these other forms.

How is an Operetta structured?

Operetta has a nature of its own, in the world of theatre. The composer can choose to tell some of the story like a play, in spoken words only, but can then make significant use of music.

Music informs the structure of operetta, indicating emotions, taking the place of speech, commenting on the action, helping the audience to be cued in to character and plot. Music overlaps verbal expression of the characters, brings the fiction of the stage to a reality for the audience through the composer’s message. Music also has the capability of revealing the characters’ motivations, discovering their inner life and spiritual feelings.

Quite often, in order to expose the emotion in the psyche of a character, the composer will use a solo instrument to delineate the characterization. In the score there are often musical reminiscences and leitmotifs. Reminiscences reprise earlier scenes in the opera, and tend to be recreated verbatim. On the other hand, leitmotifs symbolize persons or abstract concepts, and can appear at different times in different guises.

Operetta is usually divided into three acts. The first act presents the story and introduces the characters; the second act develops the plot, with complications and unexpected events; and the third act is the final solution of the story, often with a very happy ending.

Usually there are four principal actors: the tenor, the soprano, the soubrette and the fool (who is usually a bass). Sometimes there are two other subordinate actors. All together they express themselves in trios, quartets, quintets, and in solos throughout the three acts. They each sing a ballad, an aria or a song as a duet. Actors can appear alone on stage, in couples or with the chorus. The chorus is often incorporated with the corps de ballet.

The ballads tend to express feelings shared with the majority of the characters, and appear mainly in the last two acts, and always after a long recitative, as a commentary or with a characterizing function.

Modern operetta has enjoyed popularity in many countries; after its glittering birth in mid-19th century France, it was the Viennese operetta that became most admired and popular. Even today, although overwhelmed by the “musical,” operetta is widely accepted and enjoyed. In many countries there is a growing “rediscovery,” and operetta is very enthusiastically performed in Austria, Germany, Hungary, France, Italy, and Spain.

The legendary world of operetta has always attracted all kinds of audiences: those longing for amusement, of getting away from the reality of everyday life and of partaking of not only the lofty peaks of “serious” music, but also the kind of music that amuses in a gay, comic, and sentimental way,
sometimes suffused with a faint melancholy.

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