A Stroll Through The Many Genres of Opera (Part Three)

By John Vandevert

Having explored the tricky terrain of opera’s more conventional genres, as well as its regional varieties, what is left are the rather obscure versions of opera that have grown from different types of traditions and histories. What would happen if modern politics and opera were combined? What do you get when you feature a small break between each scene of an opera?  Many different answers can be given, but certain traditions have sprung up to explore these ideas, each with their own specific name.

In Part One of this three-part series called “A Stroll Through The Many Genres of Opera,” we looked at five different genres of opera that are most-popular today in the houses around the world. In Part Two, we explored four regional varieties of opera that emerged over the course of opera’s development. Now we have reach the series’ finale! In Part Three, we will explore four different types of specific operatic genre that have emerged from the continually developing art style known as ‘opera.’ Having now effectively gone beyond ‘genre,’ opera is no longer just a single monolith, but instead is made of many different things all at once. In this final part we will explore the following: Rescue opera, Radio opera, Burletta, and the ironically-named CNN opera.

Stay tuned for our next series beginning next month, “A Trek through the History of American Opera With OperaWire.” 

Rescue opera

Almost exactly what it sounds like, the rescue opera can be thought of as an opera centered around the protagonist being saved from mortal danger. First picking up steam in the latter-half of the 18th century in France thanks to the development of Republican ideals during the French Revolution, the rescue opera looked to motivating the people to have the courage and fortitude to continue in the face of danger and turmoil. While the term itself was never formally used during the 18th century—being developed two centuries later by English poet and music critic Dyneley Hussey and further expanded by others, including American music critic Patrick J. Smith—the genre itself finds its inspiration throughout opera.

Everyone from Mozart and Verdi to Wagner and Beethoven have used elements that could be considered part of the ‘rescue’ repertoire. However, because the genre is so closely linked to the French Revolution and the ideologies therein, a strong anti-elite, anti-aristocracy, pro-working class sentiment is necessary within operas of this genre. Championing fraternity, overcoming obstacles, pursuing the greater good, and creating universal alliances in the face of restrictive forms of societal control lie at the heart of the rescue opera.

Examples of this genre include Beethoven’s “Fidelio,” Cherubini’s “Lodoïska,” Mussorgsky’s “A Life For The Tsar,” and Rossini’s “Torvaldo e Dorliska.” 

Radio opera

A much-beloved genre when it was created and a sacrifice to the changing mediums of public performance, the radio opera was just that: opera designed for radio audiences, with the acting and singing tailored to fit the medium in which it was broadcasted. While its successor, the television opera, became far more popular in the mid- to late 20th century, the radio opera could be considered one of the first attempts to deliver opera to a larger audience beyond the theatre. A typical radio opera was far shorter than the theatrical operas were either then or now, with some as short as 15 minutes, depending on the space they were afforded on air. 

Initially popular in Germany, where it was known as funkoper (radio + opera), this ‘genre’ was more-so a series of tailored operatic vignettes that were composed to conform to the acoustic state of the period’s technology. This often led composers to think of novel ways to write for the capabilities of the radio. The genre reached the apex of its popularity during the 1920s, before being gradually replaced by television opera from the 1930s into the late 1970s/early 1980s, whereupon the genre, slowly declining in popularity, all but vanished. 

Examples of this genre include Goehr’s “Malpopita,” Kneip’s “Christkinds Erdenreise,” Tailleferre’s “Le Maître,” and Dallapiccola’s “Il prigioniero.”


Between scenes of an opera there are sometimes breaks from the energy of the plot. Sometimes these can take the form of a burletta (little joke), a small opera based around a comic theme. First popularized in the 18th century to break up the scenes of serious opera (opera seria), the comic intermezzo was used to keep the audience engaged and alert for the following scenes of the opera. However, over the course of history and depending upon where the tradition developed, the nature of the burletta changed. In England, for example, the burletta was quickly developed into its own operatic genre, the ‘ballad opera’ (an English version of the German Singspiel genre), while in Italy and within the Italian tradition the genre maintained its between-scene usage. 

Composers like Haydn, Pergolesi, Fisher, and many others, created burlettas throughout the second-half of the 18th century up to the first-half of the 19th century, before the genre lost its popularity and ultimately developed into ‘comic opera’ and other variants. The term has also been used to define the ‘scherzo’ section of an instrumental, normally chamber, piece of music, normally the third of four movements, although the moment can also stand on its own as a separate work itself. 

Examples of this genre include the famous opera “La serva padrona” by Pergolesi, O’Hara’s “Midas,” Haydn’s “L’infedeltà delusa,” and Dibdin’s “The Recruiting Serjeant.” 

CNN opera

Perhaps the most contemporary of any the genres we have looked at thus far, this type of opera almost exclusively takes its inspiration from current events. Nicknamed the ‘CNN opera’ due to the news channel CNN and their coverage of all types of world news and events, operas within this category are formally structured to follow a dramatic retelling of pressing, often polemical, events in politics both domestically and foreign in scope. The nickname does not just come from the political focus of these operas, but from the rather cynical and controversial, if not problematic, way in which the theme of the opera is portrayed.

Nevertheless, politically topical operas are not a foreign concept and can be traced across operatic history to both the time of the French Revolution and the period of the Italian Risorgimento: the process of Italian unification in the mid-19th century. During the 20th century, the politically-motivated opera was a rather ubiquitous concept, and nothing has changed in the 21st century opera scene either. Operas discussing fat-shaming, like Matt Boehler’s “Fat Pig,” and racial harassment, like Huang Ruo’s “An American Soldier,” have brought the concept into the present day. 

Examples of this genre include John Adams’ “Nixon in China,” Anthony Davis’ “X, The Life and Times of Malcolm X,” and, famously, Terence Blanchard’s “Fire Shut Up in My Bones.”


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