Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart (center) attending a performance of his Singspiel Die Entführung aus dem Serail
in Berlin in 1789
A Singspiel (German literally meaning "song-play") (plural: Singspiele) is a form of German-language music drama, now regarded as a genre of opera. It is characterized by spoken dialogue, which is alternated with ensembles, songs, ballads, and arias (which were often lyrical, strophic, or folk-like), rather like an operetta.
Some of the first Singspiele were miracle plays in Germany, where dialogue was interspersed with singing. By the early 17th century, miracle plays had grown profane, the word Singspiel is found in print, and secular Singspiele were also being performed, both in translated borrowings or imitations from English and Italian songs and plays, and in original German creations.
In the 18th century, some Singspiele were translations of English ballad operas. In 1736 the Prussian ambassador to England commissioned a translation of the ballad opera The Devil to Pay. This was successfully performed in the 1740s in Hamburg and Leipzig. A further version of this was made by Johann Adam Hiller and C. F. Weisse in 1766 (Der Teufel ist los oder Die verwandelten Weiber), the first of a string of such collaborations which led to Hiller and Weisse being called "the fathers of the German Singspiel."
French operas with spoken dialogue (opéra comique) were also frequently transcribed into the German, as well. Singspiele were considered popular entertainment, and were usually performed by traveling troupes (such as the Koch, Döbbelin and Koberwein companies), rather than by established companies within metropolitan centers.
Singspiel plots are generally comic or romantic in nature, and frequently include elements of magic, fantastical creatures, and comically exaggerated characterizations of good and evil.
Development of the Singspiel
Mozart wrote several Singspiele: Zaide (1780), Die Entführung aus dem Serail (1782), Der Schauspieldirektor (1786), and finally the sophisticated Die Zauberflöte (1791).
The subject matter of the Singspiel evolved over time: While tragedy was a less frequent motif than comedy, romance, or fantasy, most of the Singspiele that are still part of the modern operatic canon are those written on more serious themes, such as Beethoven's Fidelio, or Carl Maria von Weber's Der Freischütz.
The Singspiel is the direct ancestor of the operettas of Franz von Suppé, Johann Strauss II and their successors. The Singspiel is also considered the predecessor of German romantic opera, and many of the genre’s composers, such as Beethoven and Weber, paved the way to the more complex operatic style associated with Wagner, Richard Strauss and others. As a result of this evolution, except for use by certain operetta composers, the Singspiel proper was less prevalent by the 20th century. In 1927, Kurt Weill created a new word, 'Songspiel,' to describe his work Mahagonny.
^ According to the 1908 edition of Grove's Dictionary of Music, the main distinction between opera and Singspiel is: "[Singspiel] by no means excludes occasional recitative in place of the spoken dialogue, but the moment the music helps to develop the dramatic denouement we have to do with Opera and not with Singspiel."
^ GoogleBooks search result for Singspiel 1600–1680
^ Maitland, J.A. Fuller, ed. Grove's Dictionary of Music and Musicians, Vol. IV. London: MacMillan and Co., 1908. pp. 468–470.
^ Grove Dictionary of Music and Musicians (1980 edition), Ballad opera.