Oakeley, Sir Herbert (Stanley)

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(It.: ‘opera-tourney’).

A tournament with music in an operatic style, cultivated mainly in the 17th century at the ducal courts of northern Italy and in Paris, Vienna and Munich. SeeTourney.

Opera voor Vlaanderen.

Company created in 1981 by the merging of the Koninklijke Opera companies of Antwerp and Ghent.


(It.: diminutive of ‘opera’; Fr. opérette; Ger. Operette; Sp. opereta).

A light opera with spoken dialogue, songs and dances. Emphasizing music rich in melody and based on 19th-century operatic styles, the form flourished during the second half of the 19th century and the first half of the 20th. During the 20th century it evolved into and was largely superseded by the Musical comedy. The term ‘operetta’ was originally applied in a more general way to describe works that were short, or otherwise less ambitious, derivatives of opera.

1. Nature and development.

2. France.

3. Central Europe.

4. Britain and the USA.

5. The modern scene.




1. Nature and development.

As a specific artistic form, what we now regard as operetta evolved in Paris in the 1850s as an antidote to the increasingly serious and ambitious pretensions of the opéra comique and vaudeville. It was to fill this gap that various attempts were made to establish a home for short, lighthearted operatic-style works. The particular success of Jacques Offenbach and his company at the Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens, offering programmes of two or three satirical one-act sketches, was such that it led to the extension of the format into works of a whole evening’s duration and to the establishment of opéra bouffe as a separately identifiable form of full-length entertainment.

The success of Offenbach’s works was not confined to France, and their popularity in other countries led to the development of various national styles. It was with the evolution of the Operette in Vienna during the 1870s that the term first became applied to full-length works. When English-language works were produced, the terms customarily used were ‘comic opera’ or ‘comedy opera’; it is only in retrospect that the term ‘operetta’ has come to be applied to all national schools.

In Austria the importation of Johann Strauss into the theatre from the ballroom provided Viennese operetta with a composer to rival Offenbach. Strauss also provided the characteristic Austrian style – romantic rather than satirical and with a strong dependence on dance rhythms, especially the waltz. Meanwhile a counterpart had emerged in Spain with the revival of the Zarzuela, §3, at first owing much to that country’s Italian operatic traditions but later developing an essentially Spanish national style. The English-language counterpart, most notably the ‘comic operas’ of Gilbert and Sullivan, owed much to the British theatrical traditions of ballad opera and burlesque and even something to the Victorian choral tradition.

As a popular form of entertainment, the operetta reflected contemporary taste in the nature of its plots and moral attitudes as well as in topical references. As the predominant form of popular musical theatre of its time, it attracted composers, librettists, performers, managers, directors and designers. The importance of its dialogue made it even more dependent than opera upon a strong libretto. Some of its major successes involved recognized comic playwrights such as Henri Meilhac and Ludovic Halévy in France and W.S. Gilbert in Britain. Many of the most successful and enduring of 19th-century Viennese operettas also had librettos adapted from French originals, which again were often by Meilhac and Halévy. Specialist performers developed who could combine singing with acting (and perhaps dancing) ability. Although composers such as Bizet, Chabrier and Delibes tried their hand at operetta in its early years, the most successful were generally specialists in such lighter forms.

By the 1880s and 90s the expansion of the form from its one-act origins had brought it to a point where it occupied much the same position as the opéra comique of 40 or 50 years earlier. With the passing of many of the major practitioners of operetta and the periodic quest for change that typifies the popular musical theatre, elements of the contemporary variety theatre were increasingly incorporated in the 1890s, a trend that evolved particularly in London under the designation ‘musical comedy’ or ‘musical play’. Where previously the logical development of the story had been of particular importance, displays of female glamour, fashionable dress and elaborately staged routines assumed greater importance.

At least until World War I the operetta, along with the early musical comedies, retained much of its traditional grounding in 19th-century light operatic styles. Indeed it enjoyed a powerful renaissance as a new school of more sensuous Viennese operettas, exemplified by Franz Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe (1905), gave the genre its most glittering international success. Lehár himself continued to maintain high standards of musicianship, rooted in a European classical musical training, so that he could aspire to write for the opera house while Puccini (in La rondine) aimed to write operetta in the manner of Lehár.

Yet after World War I, and increasingly during the 1920s, the works of André Messager, Reynaldo Hahn and Lehár that conspicuously sought to maintain classical operetta standards were becoming the exceptions in a popular theatrical scene increasingly dominated by song-and-dance musical comedy based on American vaudeville and dance-band song styles, seeking relief from the escapist, Ruritanian operetta world of dukes and princesses. To all intents and purposes the era of the classical operetta ended before World War II, though in Europe the term has continued to be attached to works that evoke European traditions.

There remains no clearly defined and universally agreed dividing line between operetta and the musical, and different lines of demarcation are drawn depending upon nationality, individual taste and prejudice. Such works as South Pacific, My Fair Lady, West Side Story, Fiddler on the Roof and Sweeney Todd have been seen as a modern continuation of operetta (Bordman, 1981). However, for all the undoubted operetta characteristics to be found in them, they are more precisely musicals, and their structures, production techniques and audience appeal are significantly different from those of the classical operetta.


2. France.

Although it was not until the mid-1850s that what is now regarded as operetta began to emerge as a separately identifiable genre, works that would today be classified as such were already in existence. Adolphe Adam’s Le chalet (1834) and La poupée de Nuremberg (1852), Massé’s Les noces de Jeannette (1853) and Offenbach’s Pépito (1853) had scores far more operatic in form than the collections of songs provided for vaudevilles but were nonetheless lighter and more modest than the works increasingly being accepted by the Opéra-Comique.

Adam himself had opened an Opéra-National in 1847, though the venture proved short-lived. More successful was Hervé’s Théâtre des Folies-Nouvelles opened in 1854 as the Théâtre des Folies-Concertantes. However, it was with the opening of Offenbach’s Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens during the Paris Exhibition year of 1855 that these foundations were firmly built upon (see fig.1). The works of Offenbach’s repertory were initially little more than satirical sketches with just a few musical numbers. However, the improbable plots and the wit and sparkle of the productions, composed not always by Offenbach himself but also by such men as Adam, Emile Jonas and Delibes, made them the rage of Paris. Within a couple of years Offenbach was able to tour not only in France but abroad.

With a small theatre licensed initially for only three or four stage performers, Offenbach’s early opéras bouffes or opérettes remained for some time necessarily modest one-act pieces, satirical or farcical in tone, used musical scores of up to eight numbers (solos, duets, trios and quartets) and were accompanied by an orchestra of up to 16 players. The relaxation of restrictions on the number of stage performers permitted him, in 1858, to put on his first two-act opéra bouffe, the mythological satire Orphée aux enfers, which added enormously to his reputation at home and abroad and provided operetta with its first enduring masterpiece.

Although Offenbach continued to produce one-act works, the pattern for the future was set by the sequence of longer works that included, most particularly, La belle Hélène (1864), La vie parisienne (1866) and La Grande-Duchesse de Gérolstein (1867; fig.2). All had lighthearted and witty books by Meilhac and Halévy, satirizing the Paris of Napoleon III. They call for a full cast, chorus, orchestra of up to 30 musicians, and scores comprising some 20 to 30 musical numbers including fully developed opening numbers and finales. By the end of the 1860s the French opéra bouffe had grown into a fully fledged genre with characteristics that firmly distinguished it not only from contemporary vaudeville but also, in its satirical wit and popular appeal, from opéra comique.

After the civil war of 1869–70 and the demise of the Second Empire, Offenbach’s popularity began to wane. The French public came to prefer a more romantic form of entertainment and they found it in works by Charles Lecocq, Robert Planquette, Louis Varney and Edmond Audran. Grace and refinement allied to classical musical standards were brought to French operetta by Messager. His Véronique (1898), together with Louis Ganne’s rousing Les saltimbanques (1899), ensured that at the turn of the century French operetta could still be ranked as a worthy successor to the old opéra comique.

During the 20th century French operetta progressively lost ground in international terms to Anglo-American musical plays on the one hand and Viennese operetta on the other. Messager continued to uphold French musical standards, as did Reynaldo Hahn, another cultured musician who combined a more modern style with traditional opéra comique standards. Increasingly, however, French operetta could be typified by works that owed more to the French music-hall chanson than to operatic traditions. Since World War II the name of operetta has been kept alive by the opérette à grand spectacle exemplified by a series of works by Francis Lopez that began with La belle de Cadix (1945); these retain the operetta’s taste for escapist stories, exotic locations, spectacle and effects, but have little substantial contact with the operatic format of the classical operetta.


3. Central Europe.

During the late 1850s Viennese theatres began staging Offenbach’s opéras bouffes, at times in pirated versions, but often under the composer’s own direction. These in turn inspired one-act comic and satirical operettas in similar style from locally active composers, of whom the most notable was Franz Suppé.

Offenbach’s virtual monopoly of larger-scale productions remained unchallenged in Vienna until Johann Strauss (ii) was recruited from the dance hall. Strauss introduced the distinctively Viennese operetta style, with more exotic settings, romantic rather than satirical stories, and scores built around dance forms, especially the waltz. His Die Fledermaus (1874), based on a play by Meilhac and Halévy, became the most widely celebrated of all operettas, though he lacked the greater theatrical flair displayed in works such as Suppé’s Boccaccio (1879) and Carl Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudent (1882).

Thereafter Strauss demonstrated ambitions to move towards full-scale opera, most notably in Der Zigeunerbaron (1885). The major operetta successes of the 1890s came from composers who favoured a more relaxed, more charming and insinuating style, especially Carl Zeller and Richard Heuberger. In the early 20th century the classical operetta found a new lease of life when Lehár perfected his technically assured, sensuous musical style in Die lustige Witwe. It achieved the most wide-ranging contemporary success of any operetta and was followed by a string of internationally successful works, by Lehár himself, Oscar Straus and Leo Fall.

Before World War I temporarily restricted the international currency of Viennese operetta, these three composers had been joined in the forefront of the Viennese school by Emmerich Kálmán, who fused the Viennese waltz style with an intensely rhythmic Hungarian sound. Kálmán’s contribution highlighted an extension of operetta’s field of play, for he had begun his career in a burgeoning Hungarian school of operetta. The taste for Lehár also struck an especial chord in Italy, later inspiring native Italian works such as Virgilio Ranzato’s I paesi dei campanelli (1923).

However, shifts in the political and popular musical balance had moved the centre of German operetta to Berlin, and it was with works such as Paul Lincke’s one-act ‘spectacular burlesque-fantasy operetta’ Frau Luna (1899) that a recognizably different Berlin school of operetta emerged. Later, the considerable international success of Eduard Künneke’s Der Vetter aus Dingsda (1921) helped to consolidate the shift of the centre of German-language operetta production to Berlin, which saw the premières of works of Viennese composers, such as Fall’s Madame Pompadour (1922) and Lehár’s Das Land des Lächelns (1929), with the tenor Richard Tauber. By now the German operetta formula provided less for an integrated set of characters than a series of operatic-style solos and duets for the leading soprano and tenor, interspersed with comic duets for a buffo and soubrette and supported by choral contribution. Moreover, in Lehár’s works the often zany plots of 50 or 60 years earlier were now replaced by stories with unhappy endings.

Signs of the terminal decline of the classical operetta could now be found not only in the raiding of melodies by the classical masters for ‘new’ works, but also in works such as Paul Abraham’s Viktoria und ihr Husar and Ralph Benatzky’s Im weissen Rössl (both 1930) that sought to combine the traditional romance of operetta with modern stories and dance styles.


4. Britain and the USA.

In London, too, English versions of Offenbach’s opéras bouffes began to appear during the 1860s, and it was directly under the influence of Offenbach’s Les deux aveugles (1855) that Arthur Sullivan composed Cox and Box (1866). The series of works on which Sullivan collaborated with W.S. Gilbert between 1871 and 1896 (including HMS Pinafore, 1878; fig.3) swept the stages of the English-speaking world, though success in translation was limited by the distinctively British nature of both humour and music. Other British examples came from Frederic Clay, Alfred Cellier, Edward Solomon and Edward Jakobowski.

It was especially in London, during the 1890s, that a trend emerged that was to have fundamental significance for the development of operetta and the popular musical theatre. At a time when imported French operettas and the native comic operas of Gilbert and Sullivan were losing their immediate appeal, the London public took readily to the style of show loosely termed ‘musical comedy’ or ‘musical play’. Sidney Jones’s The Geisha (1896) retained much of the comic opera tradition of Sullivan and proved a phenomenal contemporary success not only throughout the British Empire but around the world, receiving more performances in Germany than any contemporary native work. Other shows, however, were concerned less with the integrity of the libretto than with a more immediate appeal, with an emphasis on contemporary fashion, glamorous male and female chorus lines, catchy interpolated numbers, and specially staged song-and-dance numbers.

Sullivan’s acknowledged comic opera successor was Edward German, with Merrie England (1902) and Tom Jones (1907). In commercial terms, however, it was the Edwardian ‘musical plays’ that captured the public fancy with their light songs and dances, elaborate chorus routines and fashionable dress. Through them the British musical theatre product was, for a few years at the beginning of the century, the most readily exported school of operetta.

The Edwardian musical play reached its zenith in such works as Paul Rubens’s Miss Hook of Holland (1907), Monckton and Howard Talbot’s The Arcadians (1909) and Lionel Monckton’s The Quaker Girl (1910). Thereafter the genre faded rapidly in favour of, first, the Viennese operettas of Lehár, Strauss and Fall, and then ragtime-inspired revue and song-and-dance musical comedy from America. Only in the special conditions of wartime did the glamorous Edwardian-style musical show enjoy a brief revival of fortune, in The Maid of the Mountains (1916), with a score by Harold Fraser-Simson and additional numbers by James W. Tate, and the ‘spectacular musical tale of the east’ Chu Chin Chow (1916), with music by Frederic Norton.

During the 19th century, European works had been readily welcomed in the USA, where a significant body of native works had also begun to emerge in the 1890s. Among those that owed allegiance to the example of Gilbert and Sullivan were Reginald De Koven’s Robin Hood (1891) and John Philip Sousa’s El capitan (1895), while Victor Herbert’s The Fortune Teller (1898) and Gustave Kerker’s The Belle of New York (1897) followed the trend towards melodically more ingratiating works.

British taste embraced American musical comedy during the 1920s, but the lingering taste for works in the older European operetta traditions was still catered for in the USA by works such as Sigmund Romberg’s The Student Prince (1924) and Rudolf Friml and Herbert Stothart’s Rose-Marie (1924), and in Britain by Noël Coward’s Bitter Sweet (1929) and Ivor Novello’s The Dancing Years (1939).


5. The modern scene.

Today operetta is scarcely to be found in the commercial theatre and, apart from a few works that have been accepted into the operatic repertory, it has become increasingly of interest to a specialist audience.

The revival of classic operettas raises difficult questions. For popular consumption, librettos are deemed to need modernizing to remove references unintelligible to a present-day audience, but for a more intellectual audience, those dated contemporary references constitute much of the essence of a work. Absorption of operetta into operatic repertories also raises other questions of style, since operetta performance requires a range of talents not to be found in the typical opera performer, including an ability to put across words in both song and dialogue and to scale down the grand-opera style of projection.

Fidelity to the original has been affected by other factors, notably the desire of opera singers for vocal challenge and greater vocal contrasts, which has influenced the public conception of the voices for which roles were conceived. By pushing up a voice trained in a lower register, a more brilliant effect can be achieved than would be the case with music written for a more restricted voice range. This has led to the taste for giving soubrette roles to a mezzo-soprano or tenor buffo roles to a baritone.

If striking a balance between authenticity and tradition thus poses particular problems, operetta nevertheless continues to enjoy its small specialist niche. In Germany, Austria and other central European countries, classic operettas continue to be staged professionally as lighter fare in the repertory of subsidized opera companies. The Volksoper in Vienna remains above all as the standard-bearer of the Viennese operetta tradition, with a repertory of operettas supplemented by the lighter operatic fare. Operetta productions at summer festivals in spa towns help to perpetuate the tradition. Likewise, in France, productions of classical French and foreign works enjoy weekend productions in major towns, as well as in the summer festival at the spa town of Lamalou-les-Bains.

That a substantially different situation has developed in English-speaking countries is due to two particular factors. The first is the overwhelming success of the Savoy operas, which have long eclipsed other works from before World War I. Works such as Monckton’s The Arcadians and The Quaker Girl at least enjoy occasional amateur productions, but Jones’s The Geisha, despite surviving into modern times in the operetta repertory in continental countries, has virtually disappeared from the British scene. The second factor is the growth of a strong native-language successor in the form of the American musical, which has largely superseded earlier traditions. The D’Oyly Carte Opera Company, for so long able to tour continuously with an unrelieved diet of Gilbert and Sullivan, finally expired from a static repertory, declining audiences and increased costs.

Increasingly, then, the international survival of the major operettas has been achieved through their establishing a place in the repertory of opera companies – a tradition that dates back to the production of Die Fledermaus under Mahler at Hamburg in 1894. In Britain a rediscovery effort was made during the 1960s by Sadler’s Wells Opera, beyond which the most significant revival of classical operettas in London has been by student companies and by the privately financed John Lewis Music Society, whose operetta productions have covered Chabrier, Lecocq, Messager, Planquette, Suppé and Millöcker. In the USA, similarly, productions of Herbert, Lehár and Romberg at the New York City Opera have been more liberally supplemented by revivals of Sousa, Lecocq, Offenbach, Kálmán and Johann Strauss at festivals at Wooster, Ohio, and elsewhere.






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C. Preiss: Beiträge zur Geschichte der Operette (n.p., 1908)

L. Melitz: Führer durch die Operetten (Berlin, 1911, rev. 2/1933 by R. Kastner)

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E. Rieger: Die gute alte Zeit der Wiener Operette (Vienna, 1921)

A. Orel: ‘Wiener Tanzmusik und Operette’, AdlerHM

J. Brindejont-Offenbach: ‘Cinquante ans de l’opérette française’, Cinquante ans de musique française de 1874 à 1925, ed. L. Rohozinski (Paris, 1925), i, 199–232

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M.S. Mackinlay: The Origin and Development of Light Opera (London, 1927)

K. Westermeyer: Die Operette im Wandel des Zeitgeistes (Munich, 1931)

C. Altmann: Der französische Einfluss auf die Textbücher der klassischen Wiener Operette (diss., U. of Vienna, 1935)

R. Hahn and others: ‘Histoire de l’opérette française au XIXe siècle’, Le théâtre lyrique en France depuis les origines jusqu’à nos jours, ii (Paris, 1936–7), 265–325

W. Mnilk: Reclams Operettenführer (Leipzig, 1937, rev. 4/1951 by A. Würz, 21/1994)

S. Czech: Das Operettenbuch (Dresden, 1938, 4/1960)

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A.M. Rabenalt: ‘Operette als Aufgabe’ vom sein im Schein (Berlin, 1950)

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P.E. Markus: Und der Himmel hängt voller Geigen (Berlin, 1955)

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G.S. Gál and V. Somogyi: Operettek könyve (Budapest, 1959)

B. Grun: Kulturgeschichte der Operette (Munich, 1961, 2/1967)

O. Schumann: Ich weiss mehr über die Operette und das Musical (Stuttgart, 1961)

J. Bruyr: L’opérette (Paris, 1962, 2/1974)

D. Ewen: The Book of European Light Opera (New York, 1962/R)

G. Hughes: Composers of Operetta (London, 1962/R)

M. Lubbock and D. Ewen: The Complete Book of Light Opera (London, 1962)

O. Schneidereit: Operette von Abraham bis Ziehrer (Berlin, 1966, 12/1983 by H.-P. Müller)

O. Schneidereit: Berlin wie es weint und lacht: Spaziergänge durch Berlins Operetten-geschichte (Berlin, 1968)

A. Witeschnik: Dort wird champagnisiert; oder, Vom ruinösen Charme der Operette: Anekdoten und Geschichten zur Geschichte der Operette (Vienna, 1971, 2/1980)

F. Bruyas: Histoire de l’opérette en France, 1855–1965 (Lyons, 1974)

G. Bordman: American Musical Theatre: a Chronicle (New York, 1978, 2/1992)

A. Hyman: Sullivan and his Satellites: a Study of English Operettas, 1860–1914 (London, 1978)

J. Harding: Folies de Paris: the Rise and Fall of French Operetta (London, 1979)

V. Klotz: Bürgerliches Lachtheater (Munich, 1980, 2/1987)

G. Bordman: American Operetta from ‘HMS Pinafore’ to ‘Sweeney Todd’ (New York, 1981)

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L. Garinei and M. Giovannini: Quarant’anni di teatro musicale all’italiana (Milan, 1985)

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D. Zöchling: Operette: Meisterwerke der leichten Muse (Brunswick, 1985)

K. Gänzl and A. Lamb: Gänzl’s Book of the Musical Theatre (London, 1988)

A. Jacobs: ‘Wooster: Operetta Restored’, Opera (1989), festival issue, 123–5

V. Klotz: Operette: Porträt und Handbuch einer unerhörten Kunst (Munich, 1991)

A. Lamb, ed.: Light Music from Austria: Writings and Reminiscences of Max Schönherr (New York, 1992)

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