Opera & Musical Theater


Operas come in many forms and styles, from dramatic to comedic. Eric Skelly explores the operatic style of the “singspiel,” and the ways in which it influenced German opera.

When the curtain goes up on Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio or The Magic Flute, one of the first things we notice about Abduction and Flute once the overture is finished, is that there’s dialogue in these operas.  We won’t hear the secco or “dry” recitative (the music that connects the opera’s arias, ensembles and choruses) that we’re used to hearing in Mozart’s Da Ponte operas (Don Giovanni, The Marriage of Figaro, et.al.), where the recitative is accompanied by a solo harpsichord or piano.  Here, the musical numbers are connected by plain spoken dialogue.

From HGO’s production of Mozart’s Abduction from the Seraglio
Photo by George Hixson

That’s because Abduction and Flute are a Singspiels.  Literally translated, Singspiel means “sing-play.”   It loosely translates to “musical comedy,” specifically a brand of German comic opera that had its heyday in the mid-to-late-18th century.

Early on, like its contemporaries French op?ra comique, Italian opera buffa and English ballad opera, German Singspiel was a decidedly lowbrow entertainment.  It featured light, farcical topics; texts borrowing heavily from popular entertainment or from the common vernacular; very simple music that anyone could sing (because the actors who were to sing it typically had little or no musical training); scores that made use of nationalistic folksong; and, of course, dialogue between the musical numbers.

Christian Felix Weisse

Among the early important figures in Singspiel were Christian Felix Weisse, J.C. Standfuss and Johann Adam Hiller.  Weisse translated into German the texts of several English ballad operas, which were then set to music by Standfuss.  Entitled The Devil to Pay; or, The Wives Metamorphosed (Der Teufel ist los; oder, Die verwandelten Weiber, 1743) and The Merry Cobbler (Der lustiger Schuster, 1752), these mark the earliest known German Singspiels.  How interesting that they were, in part, British imports (!).

Johann Adam Hiller quickly became the Singspiel king (my term, not his).  He was easily the most popular composer of Singspiels in his day, beginning with a new version of The Devil to Pay in collaboration with Weisse (1766), and going on to compose no less than 12 Singspiels. 

Johann Adam Hiller

In the latter part of the 18th century, the Singspiel underwent a transformation.  Essentially, the Singspiel split into two branches.  In northern Germany, the Singspiels of Weisse and Hiller held sway, strongly influenced by the French op?ra comique, from which Weisse mined most of his libretti.

In southern Germany, however, the predominant influence came from Italy’s more vivacious and virtuosic opera buffa.  In 1778, a new National Theater opened in Vienna with a Singspiel of this sort, entitled Die Bergknappen (The Miners) by Ignatz Umlauf [Don’t you just love that name?!]  The National Theater was built by Austrian Emperor Josef II, who has achieved fame in our time through Peter Shaffer’s fictional account of him (“Too many notes!”) in the play and film Amadeus.  Four years later, Josef II’s theater saw the world premiere of Mozart’s The Abduction from the Seraglio.

Abduction, of course, was neither Mozart’s first Singspiel, nor his last.  His first was Bastien und Bastienne, which Mozart composed in the French op?ra comique style at the ripe old age of twelve (!).  Twenty-six years later came Za?de, which Mozart did not finish, but from which survives the gorgeous soprano aria “Ruhe sanft mein holdes Leben.”  (Just pick your favorite lyric soprano’s Mozart recital disc and you’re likely to find this gem of an aria.)  With its plot concerning escape from a Sultan’s palace and its comic slave master, Osmin, Za?de looks as though it might have been a trial run for Abduction

From the San Fransisco Opera’s production of Mozart’s The Magic Flute
Photo by Larry Merkle

A short one-act Singspiel called The Impresario (Die Schauspieldirector, 1786, which premiered on a double bill with a Salieri opera!) preceded Mozart’s final work for the theater, and some say the crowning achievement of his career.  The Magic Flute (Die Zauberfl?te, 1791) really transcended the Singspiel genre.  Mozart himself did not call it a Singspiel, but a “gross Oper,” or “grand opera.”   Yet it retains Singspiel’s comedic origins with the character of Papageno (though adding unprecedented sociological and philosophical weight in Tamino and Pamina’s journey toward enlightenment); it retains Singspiel’s form of self-contained musical numbers connected by spoken dialogue; and it retains early Singspiel’s reliance on simple, folksong-like melody in much of Papageno’s music, and in some of Tamino and Pamina’s as well.

The Magic Flute and Beethoven’s Fidelio are considered the crowning glories of Singspiel, operas which then led the way forward to German Romantic Opera (Carl Maria von Weber’s Der Freisch?tz), and even further forward to Richard Wagner.  Consider Senta’s Ballad in The Flying Dutchman, with its folksong-like form and rhythms . . . or the heavy use of folksong, the cast of common folk characters, the comedic nature and the strong sense of nationalism in Die Meistersinger.   Singspiel, that “lowbrow” 18th century musical entertainment, essentially gave birth to German Opera.