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operetta(ŏpərĕt`ə), type of light opera with a frivolous, sentimental story, often employing parody and satire and containing both spoken dialogue and much light, pleasant music. In the early 19th-century opéras comiques of Boieldieu, Auber, and Adolphe Adam, there was a growing tendency toward sophistication, preparing the way for Offenbach, who during the French Second Empire created the operetta. The distinction between the operetta and the lighter examples of opéra comique that immediately preceded it is hard to draw; in general the opéra comique makes some appeal to the sentiments, while the French operetta attempts only to amuse. The Viennese operetta, dating from c.1870, did not have the excellent librettists that the French enjoyed; the operettas of Johann Strauss the younger suffered from this defect. Those of Suppé owe much of their virtue to Offenbach's influence. Less distinguished are the products of the early 20th cent., represented by the works of Franz Lehár and Oscar Straus. The immortal operettas of W. S. Gilbert and Sir Arthur Sullivan were to London of the 1880s what Offenbach's works had been to Paris 20 years earlier. The noteworthy composers in American operetta are Victor Herbert and Reginald de Koven. After World War I operettas gradually gave way to musical comedies (see musicalsmusicals,
earlier known as musical comedy, plays that incorporate music, song, and dance. These elements move with the plot, heightening and commenting on the action.
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a type of musical theater (a variety of opera with spoken dialogue) that combines vocal and instrumental music, dance, and ballet with elements of variety-stage art. Satirical songs and dances are usually the basis of the musical dramaturgy of the operetta. As a rule, each scene culminates in a dance popular during a particular period and in a particular country (for example, the cancan and the galop in J. Offenbach’s works; the waltz, polka, and mazurka in works by J. Strauss the Younger and; czardas in E. Kálmán’s works). In many cases, the dance determines the entire musical atmosphere of the performance. Genres and types of vocal and instrumental music characteristic of opera, including the aria, duet, ensemble, and chorus, are also used in operetta, but they are usually simpler, and they conform to the song-and-dance pattern. The vocal and choreographic numbers in an operetta constitute an integrated whole and help develop the plot and affirm the ideas of the work. This unity of music and dance distinguishes the operetta from the vaudeville and other types of musical comedy and drama, in which music plays a subsidiary, ornamental role on the order of the divertissement.
The original meaning of the term “operetta” was somewhat different from its contemporary meaning. Until the mid-19th century, short operas were called operettas. The sources of operetta may be traced to the traditions of musical comedy performances, its historical antecedents—comic opera, including operatic parodies, French vaudevilles, and the Austrian and German Singspiel.
Operetta emerged as an independent genre in the 1850’s in France, in the 1860’s in Austria, in the 1870’s in Great Britain, and in the 1880’s in America. The parodic operetta was especially favored in France, where its creators and early champions were Hervé and Offenbach. The latter raised theatrical parody to the level of biting social satire (Orpheus in Hell, 1858). Original, ironically topical operettas were created in the 1870’s through 1890’s in Great Britain by A. Sullivan. In the second half of the 19th century, composers in France and Austria gradually turned away from parody, satire, and topical themes and returned to the sociohistorical and lyric romantic subjects of comic opera. Representative of this trend are later works by the French composers Offenbach and Hervé, as well as works by C. Lecocq, R. Planquette, and E. Audran, and operettas by the Austrian composers J. Strauss the Younger, F. von Suppé, K. Millöcker, and K. Zeller. Having become a purely light form of entertainment, a commercial performance, at the turn of the century the operetta became identified with the music hall in Great Britain and with the theater of farce in France. The Austrian, or “new” Viennese operetta, into which F. Lehár and, especially, E. Kálmán injected Hungarian national melodies, went through a period of revival and innovation in the early 20th century and won broad international recognition. The lyrical sentimental principle prevailed in the creative work of the composers of the Viennese school, who created a new type of operetta —a combination of the melodrama and the comic play, which, in its own way, had a great deal in common with the verist opera. For some time, the traditions of the Viennese school influenced the German, or Berlin operetta, but in the 1930’s primitive, light, entertaining musical farces began to dominate the Berlin school. In the 1920’s and 1930’s features of crisis became more prominent, and dramatic, musical, and theatrical clichés became entrenched in Viennese operetta. In terms of both ideas and art, the quality of operetta abroad declined considerably.
In North American operetta, which had developed at the end of the 19th century, a new type of work, the musical, became firmly established in the 1920’s. The musical, which combined the musical comedy and the musical play, sometimes had a noncomic foundation. Its success is associated with the creative work of the composers J. Kern, G. Gershwin, I. Berlin, R. Rodgers, C. Porter, F. Loewe, and L. Bernstein.
Essentially, the prerevolutionary Russian operetta theater (first performance, 1868) did not have a national repertoire. The foundation for Soviet operetta was laid in the mid-1920’s by the composers I. O. Dunaevskii and N. M. Strel’nikov. Among the composers who later used this genre were B. A. Aleksandrov, Iu. S. Miliutin, V. P. Solov’ev-Sedoi, K. Ia. Listov, O. B. Fel’ts-man, A. G. Novikov, T. N. Khrennikov, V. I. Muradeli, O. A. Sandler, and V. E. Basner. They strengthened the link between the operetta and the Soviet mass song. V. V. Shcherbachev, D. D. Shostakovich, D. B. Kabalevsky, and G. V. Sviridov, masters of the Soviet symphony and opera, also turned to operetta. Characteristic of works by Soviet composers are a lyrical romantic tendency, a striving to use themes from contemporary life, and the development of heroic, patriotic plots. Historical slice-of-life operettas, musical comedies for children, works similar to vaudevilles, and musicals have been created.
The diverse traditions of folk musical comedy theater have been developed in operettas by composers from the national republics, including A. S. Aivazian (the Armenian SSR); A. P. Riabov (the Ukrainian SSR); R. S. Gadzhiev (the Azerbaijan SSR); Sh. E. Milorava and G. G. Tsabadze (the Georgian SSR); A. Zilinskis (the Latvian SSR); E. Arro, L. Normet, and B. V. Kyrver (the Estonian SSR); and D. Kh. Faizi (the Tatar ASSR). In the 1940’s and 1950’s operetta began to develop successfully in the other European socialist countries, including Bulgaria, Czechoslovakia, the German Democratic Republic, Hungary, Poland, Rumania, and Yugoslavia.
REFERENCESIankovskii, M. Operetta. Leningrad-Moscow, 1937.
Iankovskii, M. Sovetskii teatr operetty. Leningrad-Moscow, 1962.
Orelovich, A. Chto takoe operetta. Moscow-Leningrad, 1966.
Schneidereit, O. Operettenbuch [5th ed.]. Berlin, 1958.
Grun, B. Kulturgeschichte der Operette [2nd ed.]. Berlin, 1967.
A. A. ORELOVICH