The word ‘Operetta’ is a chameleon. At different times in history and in different parts of the world it has meant something quite singularly specific, and that something was not the Top Cs-and-tiaras image that has been imposed upon the word in middle-Europe in the 20th century – and since glorified by lovers of that type and period of entertainment.

So, how to summarise the history of what is, insistently, called “operetta” in the 21st century in ten highlights? I’ll try.

1Let’s wipe the lot before the 1850s and begin with the opéra-bouffe, one of the greatest flowerings of musical theatre in history, from which the names of Hervé, Meilhac, Halévy and the buzzword Offenbach emerge gloriously. There are hundreds of opéra-bouffe items one could choose from this era, but here is the famous "Fly Duet" seduction scene from Orphée aux enfers, given a rather “modern” performance:

2Middle Europe tried to imitate the opéra-bouffe, but found that its biggest successes came in a less imaginatively crazy style. Nowadays, we are deluged with productions of Die Fledermaus to the exclusion of more successful and attractive contemporary pieces, of which my favourite is Millöcker’s Der Bettelstudentnow alas played with a corny rewritten ending. But even Germany’s rewriters can’t spoil the glorious music. A basso waltz song... !

3Britain had its own characteristic answer to opéra-bouffe, with which it had, nevertheless, translated and coped well. And of course that answer was Gilbert and Sullivan and their colleagues. I would be booed from the room if I selected a piece from any other than one of their works, and my favourite has always been HMS Pinafore.

4The Franco-Prussian war put an end to the wonderful frivolity of opéra-bouffe but it replaced it with a sophisticated form of opéra-comique (notice that the French, then the reference in the field, aren’t calling these things opérette yet!) To me, there is one such work which stands tête-et-épaules above all competition. Here is the Act 2 finale of Lecocq’s La Fille de Madame Angot. Madame and her friends are conspiring against the regime when the army arrives. Nonsense, says Madame, this isn’t a conspiracy! It’s a party!

5France held its place as the heart of musical theatre affairs to the end of the century, passing by the brilliant musical vaudevilles of the fin de siècle years to something more sentimental. In the vaudevilles-opérettes it was the words which triumphed. Pieces like André Messager’s Les p’tites Michu (touring France this year) produced melodies like this. Enter our heroines...

6France wasn’t the only one to turn to more sentimentally orientated pieces in the 20th century. In central Europe, while comedy was not neglected, composers turned out numbers like this one, from Leo Fall’s Die Rose von Stambul. I’ve chosen this one because of the amazing singing of Fritz Wunderlich… of course Eysler, Jakobi, Kálmán, Lehár e tutti quanti could have supplied an example equally effectively, but…

7The 20th century saw America peeking effectively into the romantic musical field, although mainly for home consumption. Victor Herbert’s Naughty Marietta is the one which seems to have emerged from the period, in spite of a struggling libretto, and one can hear why.

8France, however, had another string to its bow and in the 1910s, in what was to be a last fine French flourish, launched another text-triumphant variant on the genre. I’d call it musical comedy. But it goes down in textbooks as “operetta”. Whatever it is, it is delicious. Here is the great comic Bourvil as an itchy classic sculptor trying to pick up a dishy girl who’s “innocently” trolling the Athenian streets to model for him. Etcetera.

Oh dear. Eight already. And I’m only up to World War 1. But sadly, the best of so-called “operetta” is behind us. Oh, it still exists. And for my last two selections I’m choosing my two favourite “musicals” (that’s the fashionable word for everything nowadays).

9One of the great musical plays to come out of Britain since the birth of me is Robert and Elizabeth. It is a brilliant feux d’artifice of music and words, with a soprano role which must be among the most dazzling “operetta” tours de force of all time. But it’s more than that. The drama of Browning and Miss Barrett is supported by gentle, real comedy from her multitude of little brothers...

10And to close, back to America, where the spirit of opéra-bouffe resurfaced in unexpected and wholly-successful fashion in Cy Coleman’s On the Twentieth Century. As with Robert and Elizabeth, I’d like to pick a good half of the score here, but I’ll plump for John Cullum’s burlesque death scene “The Legacy”.

So, there you are. My toperettas from history. And yes, I know, there are all sorts of famous pieces bypassed here, but ten is ten… Enjoy!