An Opera By Any Other Name

Years before Gilbert and Sullivan began their first collaboration, musical theatre, as we know it, existed in the form of the comic opera, popularized in Western Europe in the 1700s and 1800s. Perhaps the best known of these early musicals in English was John Gay’s 1728 satirical ballad opera, The Beggar’s Opera. Gay and his collaborator, Johann Pepusch, set new lyrics to popular ballads of the day in order to tell this story of prostitutes and cutthroats to a broad audience, and satirize Italian opera. The public was riveted, and the creators’ efforts and those of their producer, John Rich, were rewarded with an unprecedented 62- performance run that reportedly “made Gay rich and Rich gay.” In the 20th century, this early musical would be adapted by playwright Bertolt Brecht and composer Kurt Weill into The Threepenny Opera, which introduced the hit song “Mack the Knife.”

A century after the premiere of The Beggar’s Opera, cellist and composer Jacques Offenbach revolutionized the musical form in Paris due to limitations set by the French government which only permitted his independently financed productions to consist of one act and three speaking/singing characters. Offenbach self-produced his “operettes” at the tiny Theatres des Bouffes-Parisiens, and with new-found success, the once unpopular composer moved his company to a larger theatre. Offenbach’s satirical and punchy operetta Ba-ta-clan (1855) gained international fame at the cost of the grand operas it ridiculed, and after the three-character limit was abolished, Offenbach’s more expansive Orfee aux Enfers (Orpheus in Hell, 1858) brought him more international fame. By the time of his death in 1880, Jacques Offenbach had completed over one hundred of these operettas — light-hearted but critically minded compositions that carved a path for Gilbert and Sullivan’s success, and popularized musical theatre across the world.

Viennese composers such as Johann Strauss II and Franz Lehar built on Offenbach’s operetta form to create works such as Die Fledermaus (The Bat, 1874) and Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow, 1905). In England, John Gay’s rowdy ballad opera legacy combined with the British tradition of variety- show music hall to continue to pave the way for William Gilbert and Arthur Sullivan’s light operas to revolutionize the theatre again, 150 years after The Beggar’s Opera had sparked the public’s interest in locally-themed musical theatre entertainment.

– Allison Horsley

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