Music Operetta
Micaela Baranello
  • LAST REVIEWED: 25 February 2016
  • LAST MODIFIED: 25 February 2016
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199757824-0171


Operetta is a form of musical theater that mixes song with spoken dialogue and dance. It originated in France in the 1850s and spread internationally, with distinct styles emerging in Austria, Germany, England, the United States, and beyond. Operetta offered a lighthearted, mass-market alternative to opera, targeting a diverse and cosmopolitan audience and taking advantage of the latest trends in popular song, dance, and fashion, from plot subjects to costumes. As works, operettas are often difficult to formally distinguish from similar partially sung genres like the opéra-comîque and the Singspiel, but due to theatrical regulations (particularly in Paris), operetta developed its own theatrical system and institutions. Yet in the 20th century, composers and librettists, particularly in Austria and Germany, sought increased artistic prestige and wrote operettas of greater gravity and complexity. This aspiration to higher status, combined with the genre’s rampant popularity, gave operetta a highly contested place in the critical establishment. It was alternately lauded as socially important and condemned as aesthetically suspect and kitsch; this instability persists today in much of the scholarly literature. While operetta’s continued popularity has made it the subject of much fan writing, particularly in German, it is still largely excluded from music history. Theater historians, particularly in Germany, have done vital work on operetta, but relatively little attention has been devoted to operetta as a musical genre. One notable exception, as seen below, is Gilbert and Sullivan, where scholarship may offer some models to historians who wish to consider other repertories. Because the secondary literature largely divides itself according to national schools, much of this guide is organized geographically. Scholars in search of primary sources should note that while piano-vocal scores are usually easy to obtain, full scores and scripts containing spoken dialogue were often circulated in manuscript or printed in limited quantities and must be tracked down at major research libraries or archives.

General Overviews

Traubner 2003 is the standard reference history. Encyclopedic in scope, the book examines most corners of the repertory (the Soviet Bloc is notably excluded) to an extent unmatched by any other study. Yet the volume is more a compendium of popular works than a history, as it lacks scholarly documentation and often shortchanges musical style. Klotz 2004 offers a similarly broad survey and contains many insightful analyses of operetta texts, and occasionally scores, as well as thorough and consistent details of times and places, though the alphabetic organization stymies any historical narrative. Klotz evinces a marked preference for satire and frequently condemns works for the sin of sentimentality, a common scholarly perspective (see Aesthetic and Cultural Readings). Lamb 2007–2015 is a brief, somewhat dated overview (showing some of the same prejudices as Klotz), summarizing many of the most important points of operetta’s stylistic development. Jewanski 1994 (in German) may be the most thoughtful and considered of the brief histories, though Germanic repertoire is overrepresented. Keller 1926, the first major operetta history, is a surprisingly thorough work, most notable for its landmark bibliography of primary sources. Note that the text of many of the sources cited in Keller can be found in the anthologies Linhardt 2001 and Linhardt 2009 (both cited under Austrian Overviews and Source Collections). Oppicelli 1985 is another history for a general readership, but it offers unusually thorough coverage of both Italian and Soviet repertories.

  • Jewanski, Jörg. “Operette.” In Die Musik im Geschichte und Gegenwart. Vol. 7. Edited by Ludwig Finscher, 706–740. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 1994.

    Broad, even-handed German-language overview of the definition, historiography, and history of operetta. While the focus is decidedly Germanic, Jewanski does survey other traditions.

  • Keller, Otto. Die Operette in ihrer geschichtlicher Entwicklung. Leipzig, Germany: Stein Verlag, 1926.

    The first major study, perhaps most useful today as a historiographical document. Yet Keller’s work is more thoroughly documented than many later studies, and his lengthy bibliography remains invaluable for its record of German-language reception.

  • Klotz, Volker. Operette: Porträt und Handbuch einer unerhörten Kunst. Kassel, Germany: Bärenreiter, 2004.

    Organized alphabetically by composer; contains detailed summaries, data, and insightful analyses of many works, but the author is notably polemical against any hint of sentimentality.

  • Lamb, Andrew. “Operetta.” In Grove Music Online. Edited by Deane Root, 2007–2015.

    A solid and succinct overview of the genre’s development, but fails to take recent scholarship into account.

  • Oppicelli, Ernesto. L’operetta da Hervé al Musical. Genoa, Italy: Sagep Editrice, 1985.

    Illustrated Italian-language history; mostly discusses librettos and reception. Useful for its coverage of Italian operetta and a short section on operetta behind the then-extant Iron Curtain. No documentation.

  • Traubner, Richard. Operetta: A Theatrical History. Rev. ed. New York: Routledge, 2003.

    Originally published in 1983, this remains the standard reference source, though Traubner’s idiosyncratic organization, lack of documentation, and casual value judgments merit caution.

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