A Song and a Play
This Saturday afternoon at about 3:30 on NEPR, after LA Opera's performance of Madama Butterfly has reached its tragic denouement, we'll venture into the dark and dangerous realm where no mortal should ever tread. Oh no!! Not...the Wolf's Glen!? Yes, dear reader and listener. But worry not. It's only an opera. At least that's what composer Carl Maria von Weber called his masterpiece, Der Freischütz. But is it really an opera? Or is it, under that fancy label, actually something humbler, like the cheap booze several New Jersey watering holes have been accused of serving instead of the good stuff?
No question that Freischütz, with a plot that blends folklore, legend and the supernatural, set to music of outdoorsy freshness and subtle orchestral color, pointed the way to a century of German opera, especially Wagner...who called his works "music drama," but let's not go there today. But in structure, setting and musical language, Freischütz is a play with songs (only a couple of which deserve to be called "arias"), sung not by kings, dukes or gods, but by plain country folk. In other words, Der Freischütz ain't no opera. It's a Singspiel.
That term, meaning "sung play" had been around for the better part of century before Freischütz premiered in 1821. It described a genre whose DNA contained traces of the Italian commedia dell'arte (predecessor to the opera buffa), the French comédie mêlée d’ariettes ("comedy mixed with songs," a precursor to the opéra-comique), church plays, ballets, roving comedy troupes, Baroque opera, ballad opera (e.g., Gay & Pepusch's Beggar's Opera) — quite the mutt, our Singspiel.
Like the opera buffa, the Singspiel often centered on higher-born romantic leads, with the funny stuff done by lower-born characters using vernacular. Like the opéra-comique, the Singspiel dispensed with recitative in favor of dialogue, and could venture into the more serious realms of the supernatural, the heroic rescue and the like. Also like its French cousin, whose home was the Paris theater that bears the genre's name, the Opéra-Comique, the Singspiel had as its home base Vienna's Kärtnertortheater, where Mozart, Beethoven and Weber each had works premiered. Actually, that's overstating it a little, like Weber calling Der Freischütz an opera. For the real home of the Singspiel was the road travelled by wandering troupes of no fixed abode, presenting their plays anywhere someone would have them.
Famous composers? Well, there's Mozart, whose Die Entführung aus dem Serail ("Abduction from the Seraglio" or "The Harem Rescue") and Die Zauberflöte ("The Magic Flute") are the greatest works in the form. There's our friend Weber, Mozart's cousin-by-marriage, who actually used the humble term Singspiel for a pair of his earliest music theater works. Christoph Willibald Gluck wrote a couple of works in the genre, though he's better known for such serious "reform" operas as Orfeo ed Euridice and Alceste. Beethoven's opera Fidelio has elements of the Singspiel, especially in its opening scene. Schubert wrote several, though success as a music theater composer eluded him in the Singspiel as it did in more serious genres. Carl Ditters von Dittersdorf, whom one will encounter occasionally on NEPR, was probably the most successful composer in the form, though good luck seeing any of his theater works produced. Romantic composers like Albert Lortzing (Der Wildschütz, Zar und Zimmerman) and Otto Nicolai (The Merry Wives of Windsor) round out the history of the Singspiel, though their works are now often dubbed Spielopern ("play operas").
Beyond them, however, is a long list of irredeemably obscure composers, each with a hit or two, but whose music, mostly lost, has almost no chance of ever being heard again. That's show biz. Which is what the Singspiel and all our other "light" music theater genres are all about. And who doesn't like a good show?