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LIGHT OPERA LINGO: Is it Musical Theatre or Operetta?

September 30, 2012

By Laura Perkett

You say “potato,” I say “potahto.”  When I hear people talking about operetta versus light opera versus opéra comique, I always think, “Wait, aren’t they all pretty much the same?” How did musical theatre get thrown into this mix? And, why has the Lyric Opera of Chicago been programming musical theatre works like Oklahoma! and Showboat of all things in their recent seasons? These questions tend to come about from time to time, and I myself have probably asked them at some point. Light opera, opéra comique, and operetta are not quite the same, although they have many similarities. Because of their similarities, and because they have influenced each other over time, their terms can get mixed up. Light opera and operetta tend to be used interchangeably. Companies that specialize in Light Opera are more often programming classic musical theatre in addition to operetta in their seasons. And, while musical theatre in its current form is a totally different beast from opera, the operetta, light opera and opéra comique traditions can be credited as influences and precursors in its evolution. With all that in mind, how does one make sense of the overlap between these terms and genres?

Frontispiece for Le théâtre de la foire by Le Sage and D’Orneval, 1722. “The Muse of Comedy brings together Poetry, Music, and Dance to form little entertainments under the name of Opéra Comique.”

Operetta: It literally means “little work” or “little opera.” Operetta is a lighter style of opera that was an outgrowth of the French opéra comique style. As the full-length productions from the opéra comique repertoire became increasingly serious, the desire for audiences to see shorter and lighter works arose, and operettas began to emerge around the 1840s to fulfill that need. Composer, singer, librettist and conductor Hervé is often credited in creating the official operetta form. Operetta is essentially a shortened opera with dialogue, and there are often one or more dances. Johann Strauss II was known to write in a polka or two, and let’s not forget about the can-can music that Jacques Offenbach and other French composers wrote!

Opéra Comique: Literally, this means “comic opera,” and, in simplest terms, it is an opera with dialogue and dance. The French opéra comique genre originated with vaudevilles, satirical poems set to popular songs of the day. While the genre mainly included comedies in its repertoire earlier in the 19th century, it expanded to the point where it became opera with dialogue. As the repertoire became more serious, comique took on a new connotation of “humanistic” rather than “humorous.” We don’t think of Bizet’s Carmen as being humorous, but its portrayal of real-life situations is the reason it is considered an opéra comique in its original form as debuted at the Opéra-Comique in Paris. If this desire to portray real-life situations in operatic works sounds a lot like verismo to you, then you’re onto something. Seeking “truth” in realistic situations in the opéra comique would eventually become one of several influences in the rise of the verismo genre of opera in the early 20th century.

Light Opera: Nowadays, this term is often used as a blanket term for works that emphasize the centrality of the voice the way a typical and “serious” opera does, but they have more dialogue and a straight-forward sensibility more commonly seen in musical theatre works. Light opera is almost the same as operetta, except for one small technicality. In the most literal sense, Light Opera denotes the English tradition that stemmed from the ballad opera tradition in the 18th century, where comic plays would use songs set to popular tunes. This origination is very similar to that of the French opéra comique tradition.  They were not considered “family-friendly”, as one can imagine. In the mid-19th century, audiences started looking for works that were more light-hearted. When a production of Offenbach’s “The Grand Duchess of Gerolstein” opened at the Covent Garden in 1857, the demand for operetta in England grew. Richard D’Oyly Carte eventually commissioned librettist W.S. Gilbert and composer Arthur Sullivan to write a one-act play together, and resulting work “Trial By Jury” was the beginning of a long and successful collaboration for the duo. Even now, one can think of Gilbert & Sullivan as a prime example of Light Opera and Operetta in the English tradition.

Musical Theatre: As previously mentioned, it stems from the light opera and operetta traditions. In its present and most common form, musical theatre is essentially a play with singing and dancing. While operettas and light operas are cast with classically trained opera singers, musical theatre productions may use actors and dancers who are not classically trained singers. When one thinks of the musical movies that became popular especially from the 1940s through the 1960s, the musical theatre genre opened up many opportunities for the likes of Gene Kelly, Frank Sinatra, Judy Garland, Bing Crosby, and countless others because they were able to sing, act and dance to varying degrees. This equal, if not greater, emphasis on dialogue and dance in relation to the music is what distinguishes musical theatre from opera and operetta. As musical theatre integrates dialogue, music, and dance as equal elements, it also pays homage to its precursors.

There is very much a connective thread between opéra comique, light opera, operetta, and musical theatre. The main characteristic that distinguishes them is the amount of dialogue and dance in relation to the amount of music in a given show. While there is some dancing in opéra comique, light opera and operetta, we see the flashiest dance numbers in musical theatre. These genres all share similar beginnings, and despite their differences they are still very much related. With all that in mind, it ultimately does make sense for an opera company to launch occasional operetta and musical theatre productions. It also makes sense to throw musical theatre into the mix of “serious” opera, opéra comique, operetta, and light opera.

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