One might as well begin with Émile Zola’s novel Nana, which describes the original operetta scene in 1860s Paris. In Chapter One you get a detailed account of a performance of the fictional Blonde Venus at the Théâtre des Variétés, where Jacques Offenbach’s real-life La belle Hélène premiered in 1864, retelling the story of the daughter of Venus. Offenbach’s superstar Hortense Schneider in the title role appeared more or less like Nana: “A shiver went round the house. Nana was naked, flaunting her nakedness with a cool audacity, sure of the sovereign power of her flesh. Her Amazon breasts, the rosy points of which stood up as stiff and straight as spears, could be clearly discerned beneath the filmy fabric. […] The men’s faces were tense and serious, their nostrils narrowed. All of a sudden, the woman stood revealed, a disturbing woman with all the impulsive madness of her sex, opening the gates of the unknown world of desire.”

French soprano Hortense Schneider (Oil on canvas by Alexis-Joseph Pérignon, 1868) © Operetta Research Center
French soprano Hortense Schneider (Oil on canvas by Alexis-Joseph Pérignon, 1868)
© Operetta Research Center

It’s not surprising that a new form of musical theatre offering unknown worlds of desire created a sensation, worldwide. Everyone wanted to see these new shows and their stars, and everyone tried to make money with them – outside of so called respectable venues such as the Hofoper in Vienna or the Opéra-Comique in Paris. In Zola’s novel the director of the Théâtre des Variétés actually calls his house a “brothel”. Indeed, the original operetta theatres were frequented by high class gentlemen and the demi-monde. They found a safe space there, which meant that the authors of operettas could utilise the secluded world they operated in to tell stories that flung traditional moral values out and transgressed: there was zany music that parodied everything, making every note sound “false” and a joke; there were female characters that defied modesty and did as they pleased; actresses cross-dressed and blew away gender conventions with “horrible prettiness” and “satanic subversiveness”, parodying typical male behaviour and setting the tone for the nascent equal rights movement. But there was also cross-dressing from male actors who, additionally, often presented themselves as early sex symbols, such as C. D. Marius in London, who appeared in Chilpéric in the 1870s, a piece by Offenbach’s most immediate French competitor, Hervé.

C. D. Marius as Landry in <i>Chilpéric</i> in London in the 1870s © Operetta Research Center
C. D. Marius as Landry in Chilpéric in London in the 1870s
© Operetta Research Center

British prima donna Emily Soldene wrote about Mr Marius in her memoirs: “Young and beautiful, and slender, and sleek, and sly and so elegant. He played Landry, and made love to Frédégonde or Brunehaut, he didn’t care which, with an ardour that was not only particularly French, but particularly pleasing and particularly successful, so successful indeed that every girl in the front of the house was seized with a wild desire to understudy those two erratic, not to say imprudent characters.” Under such circumstances it did not matter that Mr Marius could not sing. “He got there all the same,” Soldene writes. It should be noted that few of the original operetta stars were classical singers: instead, they had a background in music-halls, vaudeville, and the bedroom. It’s on record that Offenbach forbade La Snédèr to ever take a singing lesson: he was worried that too operatic an approach could ruin the effect of his music.

Both Hervé and Offenbach got away with outrageous sex on stage by presenting it as over-the-top farce, and Offenbach had the protection of the powerful Count de Morny, half-brother of Napoleon III and one of the most influential men in France. Morny and his fellow Jockey Club members saw Offenbach’s theatre as their private playground where their feelings of superiority over bourgeois small-mindedness could be acted out, with stimulating libretti by the best writers in France. Many worked in Morny’s Ministry of the Interior, so they were very aware of the social and political situation, including jokes about it in their texts, comparable to what Randy Rainbow does today with Trump and the USA. In such an atmosphere it was possible to present the first discussion of same-sex marriage in Offenbach’s Island of Tulipatan in 1868, a show that also deconstructs gender norms long before Judith Butler came along. Operettas were very much ahead of their time, which makes these ridiculously funny pieces incredibly modern. Everything in them was a joke, a deconstruction, a provocation – an erect middle finger in the face of heteronormativity. No wonder guardians of morality raged against operetta everywhere.

Correct middle-class feminine behaviour

So how did we arrive at such a different notion of operetta? It started with a counter movement. After Offenbach conquered the world, and newspapers like The Tribune in New York stated in 1868 that the composer’s hit Genevieve de Brabant was “the most revolting mass of filth that has ever been shown on the boards of a respectable place of amusement in this city,” a different kind of audience got curious about this form of commercial musical entertainment, but they wanted the modesty of their wives and daughters protected. So along came writers such as Gilbert and Sullivan. Carolyn Williams observes in her 2011 study: “Gilbert especially was scrupulous – even avuncular and fussy – about correct middle-class feminine behaviour, insisting that the female members of the chorus not be thought coarse in any way. […] The women of the Savoy chorus were marketed as exceptionally beautiful, but chaste – to be looked at, but not to be approached.”

With the new respectability, a wave of shows emerged catering to audiences who had trouble with the radical changes of modern life and longed for a world where things had been better. Countless “olden days” operettas give testimony of this, the pasticcio Dreimäderlhaus/Blossom Time by Berté/Schubert being the most successful of its kind, followed by Sigmund Romberg’s Student Prince as a tale from Old Heidelberg.

President Ulysses S. Grant attending <i>La Perichole</i> in New York © Operetta Research Center
President Ulysses S. Grant attending La Perichole in New York
© Operetta Research Center

For the longest time, these opposing forms of operetta existed parallel to each other, attracting different target groups. But the sexually subversive undercurrent remained. Even when Lehár’s Die lustige Witwe came around in 1905 and became an international phenomenon, Viennese critic Felix Salten wrote that the music is “filled with carnal lust” which lets “desire and sexual cravings fully break through, bordering on frenzy”. Louis Treumann as Danilo especially represented a new – or old – style of operetta. According to Salten, Treumann had a “slight touch of vice and hysteria”. He was a Menschendarsteller – someone who presented a “real human being”, not in a “naturalistic way”, but “stylised”. In the original production at Theater an der Wien, Treumann supposedly threw himself into dance to “truly find himself”, letting passions rage, reaching “ecstatic climaxes”. That’s probably not a description you could apply to any performance of the show at an opera house in the past 50 years. Remember the recent Met staging with Renée Fleming and Nathan Gunn? Not much ecstatic climaxing there, and certainly no vice and hysteria.

Under the Swastika

It was the Nazis who fundamentally changed the image of operetta after 1933, eliminating the up-to-date side of the genre, still evident in Erich von Stroheim’s 1925 movie version of The Merry Widow. The Nazis claimed all of this was “degenerate” and “Jewish”, and elevated 19th-century Vienna waltz works by Johann Strauss and Carl Millöcker to the status of “golden operettas” that should best be presented by great opera singers with symphonic orchestras and played as a kind of Singspiel-Ersatz at state-subsidised theatres. The idea that the genre needed elevation and Veredelung spread also to the UK, where Malcolm Sargent recorded Gilbert and Sullivan with British opera stars in the 1950s, turning these pieces into “an institution like Westminster Abbey”. This notion also spread to France where Offenbach got the national-possession-treatment too, culminating in Jessye Norman and Felicity Lott singing Helena, which is the opposite of what Offenbach envisioned.

With the emphasis on “beautiful music” – started by the Nazis – came the total neglect of plots and lyrics, mostly by Jewish authors. Operettas became “easy listening”, something for the masses suffering from the daily horrors of working life. This is how Hans Severus Ziegler put it in a 1939 operetta guide. The organiser of the Entartete Musik exhibition insisted that hard working audiences would be grateful for a few hours of uncomplicated distraction. It was downhill from there on. As Marc Miller writes in The Theater Mania Guide to Musical Theater Recordings in 2004: “Operetta albums from decades ago often sound even more dated than the material itself, with white-bread orchestrations and stilted singers.”

Three Helenas in Vienna, showing off their legs to the theatre director in the 1860s. © Operetta Research Center
Three Helenas in Vienna, showing off their legs to the theatre director in the 1860s.
© Operetta Research Center

Things did not change until in 2005 the Dresden conference Operette unterm Hakenkreuz showed that the genre had a fascinating historical dimension. A new generation of scholars started looking at operetta from perspectives of Holocaust studies and later also from perspectives of post-colonialism, racism, gender debates, gay and lesbian studies, queer studies, feminism and so on. Suddenly operettas were included in exhibitions about the German Revolution of 1918/19 at Museum für Fotografie in Berlin, or Offenbach’s La Creole was included in the Orsay Museum exhibition Le Modèle noir about the representation of Black people. Laurence Senelick published a book called Jacques Offenbach and the Making of Modern Culture, Kurt Gänzl wrote a two-volume book on Emily Soldene and the backstage affairs of the 19th-century operetta business, Schwules Museum in Berlin honoured Erik Charell and LGBTIQ operetta with an exhibition in 2010, and at Theater Museum Wien a 2012 exhibition called Welt der Operette opened with the section “The Birth of Operetta from the Spirit of Pornography”. At a conference in Leeds earlier this year, young researchers from the Czech Republic and Hungary analysed how the genre was performed under communist and socialist regimes, while a researcher from the USA talked about operetta performances in concentration camps, including Die Fledermaus.

This novel research goes hand in hand with a new type of performance. Barrie Kosky at Komische Oper Berlin has been the most important trendsetter here. He made it his mission to bring formerly shunned “degenerate” jazz operettas from the Weimar Republic back, starting with Paul Abraham’s Ball im Savoy. For these productions, conducted by specialist Adam Benzwi, Mr Kosky used celebrated German actors such as Dagmar Manzel and Max Hopp, or musical comedy stars like Katharine Mehrling or Christoph Marti, who demonstrate how much better non-opera singers manoeuvre in this genre. Also, Kosky has brought the most dazzlingly sexy dancers onto the stage to vitalise his productions, worthy of Hortense Schneider and C. D. Marius.

Message in a Bottle

Inspired by this success other theatres followed. The Maxim Gorki Theater in Berlin presented the Mischa Spoliansky cabaret operetta Alles Schwindel and managed to attract a politically interested audience with young stars such as Jonas Dassler and Vidina Popov, who can sing and dance like a re-born Gene Kelly mixed with Lotte Lenya.

Slowly, the international press took notice, The New York Times reported, as did Opera Canada in a special feature in 2019. Kosky was invited to stage Offenbach’s Orphée aux enfers at the Salzburg Festival this summer, putting this new approach into the global spotlight. The reaction by critics and audiences alike was stunned and mostly positive. There has not been that much genitalia on display since the days of Offenbach and Hervé. And even if it was more Babylon Berlin than Parisian, there’s a clear link between the mad-cap world of original operetta and the later jazz operettas from Berlin and Vienna, filled with syncopated Dadaistic nonsense. And though Kosky had to use opera singers in Orphée, he didn’t allow them to speak a single word of dialogue. It was, instead, delivered by Max Hopp, which made all the hilarious difference.

Marcel Beekman and Kathryn Lewek in Kosky's <i>Orphée aux enfers</i> at Salzburg Festival © SF | Monika Rittershaus
Marcel Beekman and Kathryn Lewek in Kosky's Orphée aux enfers at Salzburg Festival
© SF | Monika Rittershaus

One can only hope that new recordings will emerge that present more forgotten shows with stories relevant for today and with casts that do the same. So far, most (or many) recording companies have not dared to take the step away from classical opera singing in their respective rediscovery series, which is why their operetta releases have mostly fallen flat on their face. Because these recordings sound like operetta has sounded in almost all recordings after 1945: trite and boring.

Kosky said to The New York Times: “We can’t even imagine how radical those performances were then, in those gaslit theatres, with half-naked women prancing around, men smoking in the theatre, where performances were improvised.” I’d say that there is enough historic material in circulation today – with YouTube acting as an important message in the bottle with regard to being able to hear and see performers of the past such as Max Hansen, Fritzi Massary and Louis Treumann – that it’s become a lot easier to imagine what it was like, and what operetta could be like again. All it takes is daring to break away from traditions that have outlived themselves and trusting audiences to be curious to discover something new. As E. M. Forster said: “only connect!”