When James Clutton asked me to put together an operetta programme to complement the concerts on 25 July and 8 August celebrating Opera Holland Park’s return to the stage, his brief to me was simple: to bring warmth and cheer to the park, and into the lives of our friends who have missed the unadulterated joy of live music. Because whilst opera does tragedy like nothing else, operetta finds the fun and laughter in even the most difficult circumstances.

Light but not simple

Make no mistake, it is one of the most challenging theatrical forms to produce well. It requires elegance, panache, silken textures, endless subtle rubato, and crystal-clear lyrics but without ever sounding in the least bit difficult. Like the proverbial swan, everybody’s feet have to paddle like crazy below the surface in order to produce an image of serene and effortless style. And as if that wasn’t hard enough, the tone of great operettas can be elusive.

The melodies are disarmingly simple and unpretentious but are in constant interplay with lyrics whose intricacy and complexity assumes huge concentration from the audience, and sometimes a very wide range of literary and artistic references. Moreover, despite appearances, the subject matter often sees surprising depth of emotional suffering glimpsed beneath the carapace of charm. Light it may be; simple it is not.

The formation of a genre

The boundaries between opera, operetta and music theatre are porous. The beginnings of operetta were rooted in opera and theatre – Opera buffa originated in Naples, when comedians began to combine the new musical techniques of all-sung opera with older comic traditions of the commedia dell’arte. Meanwhile, in Austria, at the end of the eighteenth-century, Joseph II commissioned Mozart to write a ‘Singspiel’, Die Entführung aus dem Serail, for his new national theatre.

This aimed to combine the moral seriousness of Italian opera and the best of German spoken theatre with unpretentious vernacular musical traditions to create something more than the sum of its parts. So protean was this idea that it didn’t just beget comedies like Mozart’s own Magic Flute. Beethoven’s serious essay on political freedom and married love, Fidelio, and the gothic horror of Weber’s Die Freischütz and Marschner’s Der Vampyr also all started out from this point.

It was only in the later nineteenth century that opéra comique in France, operetta in Germany and light opera in England came into their own as a clearly separate genre. In a society where, for the upper middle classes at least, surface grace and elegance were at a premium, they reflected their patrons’ anxieties and preoccupations back to them with a wink and a smile – often through the comforting metaphor of relocation to Italy, or, even better, China and Japan.

Champagne and happy endings

It is sometimes hard to define what ties operetta together as a genre, because it is so broad. Offenbach, in particular, covered a huge range of styles in his immense output, from the most acerbic satire on politics and religion to warm and sentimental romances. It was at his urging that Johann Strauss II made the move from writing the most popular dances Europe had ever known to writing for the theatre, though of his 18 operettas only Die Fledermaus was a real success outside Vienna.

Meanwhile, in England, the combination of WS Gilbert’s acidic satire and brilliant word-play with Arthur Sullivan’s lyricism and warmth proved a perfect example of seemingly mis-matched personalities coming together to make something wholly distinctive from what either of them produced alone.

So what does unite operettas? Audiences coming to these shows know that there will be a happy end: the lovers will, one way or another, resolve themselves into satisfying pairings; evil will be neither truly terrifying nor remotely victorious; and almost every problem can be solved with a glass of champagne. They can also expect references to contemporary politics and society, and a gentle (or not-so-gentle) dig at our present foibles, which we graciously forgive if expressed with enough deft comic grace.

Emotional depths to sparkling heights

And yet, and yet. As I said above, the reassurance of a glass of something fizzy at the end doesn’t mean that dark shoals are skirted. With audience defences lowered by glittering wordplay and earworms of the most infectious variety, when we find real emotion, it strikes like a stiletto blade to the heart. Whether it is the unbearable loneliness of Katisha in The Mikado, or the drink-soaked regrets of Danilo in The Merry Widow, difficult emotions are all the more powerfully communicated for having to be handled lightly. And with these genuinely touching sorrows and near tragedies passed, the final dance is all the more delicious.

So for this operetta gala, we have put together a selection of excerpts from Mozart in the 1790s through to Lehár in the early years of the twentieth century – showing operetta’s range, and touching both the effervescent heights and the tender depths of its wide reach. With a quintet of wonderful singers, we give you a tasting menu of the wonderful world of operetta; the perfect music for a summer’s evening in the park. As well as an umbrella and your sun-cream – this is England after all – bring something that sparkles!

John Andrews conducted Il segreto di Susanna for OHP in 2019. He has conducted productions for English Touring Opera, Garsington and the Grange Festival, and recordings of English music from the eighteenth to twentieth centuries with the BBC Concert Orchestra and Brook Street Band. He is Principal Guest Conductor of the National Symphony Orchestra (UK) and conductor-in-association with the English Symphony Orchestra.