The origins of the operetta
At the end of the 19th century Vienna was undisputedly the music capital of Europe.
While other countries were accumulating wealth, while the German neighbouring empire was striving towards its unification and threw itself into the feverish frenzy of industrialisation, which was supposed to sweep away everything old and leave no stone on top of the other, Vienna remained true to the old and insisted that it was art and light muse that made up life.
And that was not only the widespread view on the world by the ruling class, but this thinking went through all strata of the Viennese population. Even the smallest citizen demanded not only a good glass of wine from his innkeeper, but also a hearty snack and rousing music.
So every Viennese knew how to say which military band had the most rousing rhythm, where the best musicians for entertainment were to be found and who was on the Volksoper’s programme.
So it came about that the Viennese were considered to be the most musical people of their time alongside the Italians. You could hear it singing and playing in all the streets, laundress girls were singing at work, musicians playing from their works with open windows and even the smallest smile of a famous opera singer was more than a queen’s greeting.
Of course, this was a fertile ground for all kinds of arts.
Because only in this air could a Schubert raise his voice, only here could a Hugo Wolf indulge his dreams of an ideal Spain or a Johannes Brahms resurrect Viennese classical music once again.
And probably only here could one of the most light-footed and refreshing genres in European music history emerge: the operetta.
The operetta! Who doesn’t immediately remember Adam, the prison warden Frog or the pig baron Zsupán? And who doesn’t have the most beautiful melodies from the “bird dealer”, the “funny widow” or the “begging student” in their ears.
These works, which still touch us today and make us smile, could only be created here, in Vienna at the end of the 19th century.
But before I go into some of these works next time, I would like to take a brief look at the development of the operetta and present the genres that led to its creation.
First, of course, there is the opera, whose little sister has always been the operetta. But even more important than opera were the “Singspiel” and the “Wiener Volkskomödie”, which had long been popular in Vienna and prepared the ground on which the operetta could begin its triumphal march.
And last but not least, I must also mention the composer whose works conquered the stages of Europe from Paris since the 1850s and which triggered a true operetta boom: Jacques Offenbach.
But let’s start with the Viennese folk comedy (Wiener Volkskomödie). Each of us is probably familiar with the names F. Raimund and J. Nestroy, who are regarded as the most important representatives of this original Viennese theatre tradition.
What is probably less well known, however, is that their work represents only the last flowering of a rich tradition that goes back to the Renaissance show booths and the figure of the Hanswurst.
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 middle-class counterpart to courtly opera. It experienced a massive upswing with Joseph II’s decision to transform the French Theatre in Vienna (today’s Burgtheater) into the “Teutsche Nationaltheater” and to promote the performance of German musical plays there.
In this context such works as A. Salieri’s “Der Rauchfangkehrer” or Mozart’s “Die Entführung aus dem Serail” were written. They show very clearly how the “Wiener Nationalsingspiel” combined traditions of the Old Viennese Folk Theatre with the Opera buffa and the Opera seria. The big difference, however, was that 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.
Cheerful because the part of the bourgeois world that was allowed to 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 more serious content began to be transported through the Singspiele.
This can be seen very clearly in the late works of Mozart or in Beethoven’s “Fidelio”, the first act of which 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 of the continent, Paris in the middle of the 19th century.
It was a time when the upper middle-class audience separated from the lower middle-class, which was also evident in their leisure activities. For the upper middle-class audience began to approach the nobility or at least tried to be close to them in cultural terms, striving for concert halls and opera, while there had to build new, less expensive performance venues for the lower middle classes.
It was in this spirit that Jacques Offenbach, former Kapellmeister at the Comédie-Française, opened a new entertainment temple, his “Théâtre des Bouffes-Parisiens”, dedicated exclusively to the then emerging genre of “opérette bouffe”, and started with the overwhelming success of “Les deux aveugles” (“The Two Blind”).
Already in 1858 Offenbach’s first multi-string operetta “Orpheus in the Underworld” was premiered in Paris and subsequently began its triumphal march through Europe.
Her most famous movement is undoubtedly the “Hell gallop”, which has since become world-famous as Can Can and is inseparably linked to 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.