What Is the Difference Between an Opera & an Operetta?

by Jennifer Sobek
Operas have elaborate sets and costumes.

Operas have elaborate sets and costumes.

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An operetta is a specific kind of opera that is light in music and subject matter. Operettas are close in nature to lighter forms of musical theater. An opera is a dramatic form of musical theater where the actors sing their parts to convey the story.

Subject Matter

A main difference between an operetta and an opera is the subject matter. Operettas are often less serious and even contains some comedic plots. Many operettas also center on the satirical form of entertainment, coming close to the modern musical-comedy. An opera, on the other hand, is more dramatic and always conveys its story line through singing. The opera's drama comes from the music and to a lesser extent, the opera's plot. Operas tell stories and have several dramatic-themed elements, including conflict, love triangles, murder and jealously.

The Singing

The opera singers perform in a very theatrical style. However, the performers in an operetta are often classically trained opera singers who intersperse dialogue within the performance. The dialogue that's woven into the performance does not include any singing or musical accompaniment, although sometimes you may hear instrumental music under the dialogue. Some examples of an operetta include Johann Strauss' "Die Fledermaus" and Lehàr's "Die Lustige Witwe (The Merry Widow)." Two examples of operas include Georges Bizet's "Carmen" and Ruggero Leoncavallo's "Pagliacci."


Operas have several different characteristics that set them apart from operettas. For example, music is the main element of an opera, as it is performed entirely to music. Classical operas lend themselves to dramatic music, thus evoking a wide array of emotions, moods and feelings. Additionally, not only does a choir perform in an opera, but you will also very frequently see soloists. An opera also has a "libretto," or little book, that is used as a musical script and includes stage directions and instructions.

Lighting and Costumes

Operas also include specific lighting effects to enhance the dramatic music. Just as lighting is important in an opera, so is the costuming. Opera soloists and choral members have elaborate costumes, whereas operetta costumes are not as intricate because of the more upbeat nature of the performance.

About the Author

Jennifer Sobek has been a writer since 1993, working on collegiate and professional newspapers. Her writing has appeared in the "Copperas Cove Leader Press," "Fort Lewis Ranger," "Suburban Trends" and "The Shopper News," among others. Sobek has a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from Rowan University.

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