The origins of the operetta
At the end of the 19th century, Vienna was the undisputed music capital of Europe.
While other countries snatched the riches of the earth, while the neighbouring German empire strived for its unification and threw itself into the feverish frenzy of industrialisation, which was to sweep away everything old and left no stone unturned, people in Vienna stuck to the old ways and still insisted that it was the art and the easy muse that made life.
And this was not only the widespread world view of the ruling class, but this thinking went through all layers of the Viennese population. Even the smallest citizen demanded at “his Heurigen” not only a good glass of wine, but also a hearty snack and rousing music.
So every Viennese knew how to tell which military band had the most verve, where the best entertainment musicians were to be found and who was on the programme of the Volksoper.
That’s how it came about that next to the Italians, the Viennese were considered the most musical people of their time. In all the streets you could hear it resounding and ringing, laundresses sang at their work, musicians played from their works with open windows and even the smallest smile of a famous opera singer was considered more than the greeting of a queen.
Of course this was a fertile ground for all kinds of arts.
For only in this air could a Schubert raise his voice, only here could a Hugo Wolf pursue his dreams of an ideal Spain or a Johannes Brahms resurrect the Viennese Classicism.
And probably only here could one of the most light-footed and heart-refreshing genres of European music history be created: the operetta.
The operetta! Who can’t immediately think of Adam, the prison guard Frog or the pig baron Zsupán. And who doesn’t have the most beautiful melodies from the “Bird Seller”, the “Merry Widow” or the “Beggar Student” in their ears.
These works, which still touch us today and make us smile, could only have been written here, in Vienna at the end of the 19th century.
But before I go into some of these works from the next time on, I would like to take a short look at the development of the operetta and present those genres which led to its origin.
First there is of course the opera, as whose little sister the operetta was always considered. But even more important than the opera were the Singspiel and the Viennese folk comedy, which were spread in Vienna for a long time and which prepared the ground on which the operetta could start its triumphal procession.
And last but not least, I must also mention the composer whose works conquered the stages of Europe from Paris in the 1850s and who triggered a real operetta boom: Jacques Offenbach.
But let us begin with the Viennese folk comedy. Each of us probably knows the names of F. Raimund and J. Nestroy, since they are considered the most important representatives of this original Viennese theatre tradition.
But what is probably far less well known is that their work represents only the last bloom of a rich tradition that goes back to the show booths of the Renaissance and the figure of the buffoon.
The name derives from the fact that the showpieces for the “common people” were to be separated from the works for the aristocracy by name and were therefore called “folk plays” (Volksstücke).
Their action usually comes directly from the everyday life of ordinary people and the plays were often enriched by interludes of music, singing and dancing.
The Viennese Folk Comedy (Volkskomödie) developed directly from a subgenre of this genre, namely coarser comedies, which were called “antics”.
As was to be expected in Vienna, music played an important role in these works from the very beginning. This finally went so far that it was difficult to distinguish between a simple opera and a antics. Above all because both genres were played in the same theatres with the same orchestra and sometimes with the same performers.
The Viennese Volkskomödie reached its climax in the period between the Congress of Vienna and the great stock market crash of 1873, in a time of enthusiasm and exuberant joie de vivre in which an enthusiastic audience stormed the city’s entertainment venues and offered a receptive ground for these works.
Beside the antics there was the Wiener Singspiel. As I have already said, the boundary between the forms was fluid, but both genres have enough characteristic traits to be treated separately in music history.
The Singspiel developed around 1700 as a bourgeois counterpart to the courtly opera. It experienced a massive upswing when Joseph II decided to transform the French Theatre in Vienna (today’s Burgtheater) into the “Teutsche Nationaltheater” and to promote the performance of German Singspiele there.
In this context, such works as A. Salieri’s “Der Rauchfangkehrer” or Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” were created. These works show very clearly how the “Wiener Nationalsingspiel” combined the traditions of old Viennese folk theatre with opera buffa and opera seria. The big difference, however, was that now the song was used instead of the aria and the spoken word instead of the recitative.
Thus the Singspiel could best be described as a play with musical interludes, which is characterized by a cheerful basic character.
It is cheerful because the part of the bourgeois world that could be shown on stage according to the standards of the time had to be presented in the form of a comedy. It was only when this commandment lost its influence that people gradually began to convey more serious content through singspiel.
This can be seen very well in the late works of Mozart or in Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, whose first act was still written in the form of a Singspiel and which only turns into a tragic opera in the course of the work.
Finally, let’s take a look at the probably most beautiful city on the continent, Paris in the middle of the 19th century.
It was a time in which the upper middle-class public separated from the petty bourgeois, which was also reflected in their leisure activities. For the upper middle-class audience began to get closer to the nobility, or at least tried to be close to them in cultural terms, and strove to get to the concert halls and the opera, while new, cheaper performance venues had to be built for the petty bourgeoisie.
It was in this spirit that Jacques Offenbach, former Kapellmeister at the Comédie-Française, also opened a new temple of entertainment, his “Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens”, which was exclusively dedicated to the then emerging genre of the “opérette bouffe”, and began with the overwhelming success of “Les deux aveugles” (“The Two Blind”).
Already in 1858 Offenbach’s first multi-act operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld” was premiered in Paris and subsequently began its triumphal march through Europe.
Its most famous movement is certainly the “hell gallop”, which has since become world-famous as Can Can and is inseparably connected with the genre of operetta.
In the same year J. Nestroy brought Offenbach’s first work to a Viennese stage in the Carltheater with the translated and adapted “Mariage aux lanternes” (” The betrothal at the lantern”). He had such a success with it that the genre of the operetta became in shortest time the success guarantor of the Viennese stages.
Nevertheless, one will rub one’s eyes in amazement when one approaches Offenbach’s works with our ideas of an operetta.
Our listening habits are so strongly influenced by the Viennese operetta tradition that even the Austrian cultural critic Karl Kraus coined the term “Offenbachiaden” for Offenbach’s works to make it clear that only Offenbach could be described as a representative of this genre.
Still in 1877, his works were described as “a kind of posse, which one tends to call the name of the higher idiocy, transferred to the musical field“.
But this was only one of Offenbach’s tricks. Under the guise of this kind of parody he was able to bring a new, more revealing kind of eroticism to the stage, which under other circumstances would never have made it through Parisian censorship.
To quote Meyers Konversationslexikon once again: His works were “so interspersed with the spirit of the demi-monde that with their slippery materials and sensual, mostly trivial tones they must exert a decidedly immoral effect on the larger audience“.
In the German-speaking area, this liberality was even less common on stage. Here the press spoke of “the tremendous frivolity of Offenbach’s […] musical farces”, of the “dissoluteness […] of the whole genre” and judged Offenbach with “concern about the composer endangering morals”, whose works represented the “negation of all moral and legal order”.
But soon talented Viennese composers were to set to work to write their own works of a similar kind. And they were to find such approval that the operetta became one of the most important genres of its time and its melodies still fill our hearts today.