Operetta in America
Originally operetta was a product of Germany, then migrated throughout Europe and came to America by way of England’s operetta masters: Gilbert & Sullivan. In 1878 Gilbert & Sullivan’s H. M.S. Pinafore made its U.S. debut and was an immediate success. Within a year nearly one hundred productions of Pinafore were being performed in America, including an all-black company, an all-children’s version, and a Yiddish production.
The appeal of operetta over European operas was immediate: the songs were presented in the English language. Like the comic opera, the operetta contained both songs and spoken dialogue, and the light subject matter was built around themes of romance and good triumphing over evil or at least, wrongs done to hero and heroine. The differences: comic opera plots were built around realistic plots and scenarios; operettas explored the fanciful and implausible. Comic operas were grounded in the commonplace, operettas flew to the imaginative.
The first truly American operetta, De Koven’s Robin Hood, was brought to New York from Boston in 1891, originally playing only forty performances, but profitably returning over a dozen times in the next three decades. Though De Koven was American-born, the most significant contributions to the American operetta genre were provided by Europeans or European transplants.
The period of the American operetta was officially launched with the works of Victor Herbert, beginning with Prince Ananias in 1894. Over the next thirty years Herbert composed over twenty-five operettas including Babes in Toyland (1903) and Naughty Marietta (1910), both of which were made into feature movies. In his composition Herbert borrowed elements from the Viennese waltz, the German march and ballads from England and France, yet each borrowing was taken through a uniquely American musical filter.
While his music was soaring and memorable, the operetta plots, dialogue and even song lyrics lacked the depth to match the quality of Herbert’s melodies and harmonies. Herbert brought a level of professionalism and sophistication to the orchestrations. Unfortunately, American operetta hadn’t reached a maturity where the dramatic context and script, or libretto, could match the musical craftsmanship and sophistication of Victor Herbert, the first great American theatre composer. Other composers would write a few songs or incidental music – Herbert wrote everything from the opening overture to the final bow music. His concept of total creative control over the music extended to the orchestrations, often left by the composer to other musicians to take from piano to orchestra.
“Some composers think in terms of the piano, but pay little attention to it. I consider all the resources of orchestra and voice given to me to work with. If I did not work out my own orchestrations, it would be as if a painter conceived the idea of a picture and then had someone else paint it.”
During the first decades of the century American operettas had significant competition from Europe. German masters of operetta include Johann Strauss (Die Fledermaus) and Franz Lehar (The Merry Widow). When The Merry Widow premiered in New York City in 1907 it caused such a furor that the company was able to sell Merry Widow sheet music for the piano and Merry Widow records for the Victrola, but also Merry Widow hats, cigars, shoes and even corsets. An official Merry Widow cocktail was all the rage in the bars and restaurants of New York. Widow has been revived hundreds of times throughout America, Europe and the rest of the world and is widely recognized as one of the masterpieces of the operetta genre.
While Herbert’s operettas lacked a sense of dramatic maturity, two younger masters of the genre would be more successful at merging together quality music and librettos. Like Herbert, who was born in Dublin, Ireland, these came to America to seek their musical fortunes.
Hungarian-born, Viennese-trained Sigmund Romberg came to America in 1909 at the age of twenty-two. During his career, he wrote over fifty musicals, several of which were made into movies. Most successful was his masterpiece The Student Prince which ran for 606 performances when it opened in 1924. Unlike Herbert, whose lyrics and stories rarely matched the beauty of the music, Romberg insisted on crafting the music only after book, script and lyrics were completed. In so doing, he was able to create musical moments that were not only beautiful, but appropriate and cohesive with the dramatic moment. Also unlike Herbert’s operettas, which are rarely revived on Broadway, The Student Prince has had seven major revivals on the Great White Way since 1931.
Like Herbert and Romberg, Bohemian-born Rudolf Friml immigrated to America from Europe. After studying music in Prague with Czechoslovakia composer Antonin Dvorak, Friml left for America to work as an accompanist and composer. His first operetta, The Firefly, was successfully brought to the stage in 1912. Meager successes followed until his most significant operetta, Rose-Marie, was produced in 1924. Intermittent success for the next decade until musical tastes in America changed. When operetta was no longer in vogue, Romberg was able to move with the changing tastes, while Friml, inflexibly staying within the narrow confines of the form, was incapable of making the necessary adjustments to maintain his musical relevancy.
One important contribution brought to American theatre by the operettas was that, unlike previous musical theatre forms of the 19th century which emphasized male singers, the American operettas by Herbert, Romberg, Friml, and others featured women in great singing roles for the first time on American stages.
At the time of their popularity, operettas were viewed by the more snobbish in American society as “ugly stepchildren” of opera; however, in retrospect, the American operetta played an important part in the development of American musical theatre by pushing theatre music to a higher level of quality and by more systematically integrating music, script, plot and characters. While not musical theatre, its impact has been felt on the American stage since the first decade of the 20th century. The romantic fancifulness of Webber’s Phantom of the Opera and the opulence of Lerner and Lowe’s My Fair Lady are but two of the American musicals influenced by elements of operetta.
While movies and television brought a decline in the popularity of vaudeville and revue shows, the demise of the popularity of operettas wasn’t caused by another medium of entertainment so much as the turning of the American public’s taste from the quaint and old-world to the novel and innovative. By the end of the 1920s, America’s interest in operetta had been lost in the whirlwind of music called jazz. American theatre felt its impact as the music of Herbert and Romberg gave way to the more contemporary sounds heard in the musicals of George Gershwin, Richard Rodgers, and Cole Porter.