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Operetta's Silver Age

Josh Borths – September 8, 2015

The world was full of optimism and champagne at the turn of the 20th century. On the surface, Europe was dancing to the carefree melodies of operetta, but under that cavalier veneer, the cracks that would lead to World War I were beginning to grow.

Operetta—literally meaning “little opera”—was the populist form of classical music in Europe during this time. Popular genres of music had always balanced the more experimental, operatic styles. Singspiel produced Mozart’s The Magic Flute, ballad opera produced The Beggar’s Opera and opera comique produced Carmen

However, this ever-present divide between “art music” and “popular music” became more pronounced at the beginning of the 20th century. As the definition of music was challenged, operetta presented a refreshing alternative to the dark and expressionistic world of Modernism. The two most famous composers in the Silver Age of operetta, which overtook the Golden Age of Johann Strauss II, were Franz Lehár and Emmerich Kálmán. These composers took the world by storm with pieces such as Lehár’s The Merry Widow in 1905 and Kálmán’s Tatárjárás in 1908. Their folk dances, waltzes, and beautiful melodies became the popular tunes of the day, and their stories connected with audiences by dramatizing contemporary people dealing with contemporary, relatable problems.

From operetta to musical theater

Once World War I broke out in 1914, the role of operetta became more profound: Simultaneously distracting audiences from the chaos around them and allowing them to process the war in a lighter way – the stories of disgraced Counts, lost fortunes, mismatched lovers, and countries on the verge of bankruptcy were familiar and immediate, but less visceral than audiences’ reality. However in the 1930s and 1940s, operetta composers and librettists stagnated. In a time of economic depression, they relied only on what had worked previously. Instead of telling the stories of the present, they told the stories of the past.

Pointing the way: Broadway & Beyond

While this tendency toward nostalgia would signal the death of operetta, the styles and techniques used in operetta were absorbed and eventually paved the way for the Broadway musical.

Today, we find the definition and purpose of opera shifting once again as the line between “art music” and “popular music” slowly disappears. Musicals are more operatic, and operas are more populist. This new frontier serves as the perfect backdrop to re-examine these operettas and accept them for what they truly are: beautiful stories worth singing.

Based on Laughter Under Tears by Stefan Frey.