Use of the term
Poster for Carmen
, probably the most famous opéra comique
The term opéra comique is complex in meaning and cannot simply be translated as "comic opera". The genre originated in the early 18th century with humorous and satirical plays performed at the theatres of the Paris fairs which contained songs (vaudevilles), with new words set to already existing music. The phrase opéra comique en vaudevilles or similar was often applied to these early stage works. In the middle of the 18th century, composers began to write original music to replace the vaudevilles, under the influence of the lighter types of Italian opera (especially Giovanni Battista Pergolesi's La serva padrona). This form of opéra comique was often known as comédie mêlée d'ariettes, but the range of subject matter it covered expanded beyond the merely comic. By the 19th century, opéra comique often meant little more than works with spoken dialogue performed at the Opéra-Comique theatre, as opposed to works with recitative delivery which appeared at the Paris Opéra. Thus, the most famous of all opéras comiques, Georges Bizet's Carmen, is on a tragic subject. As Elizabeth Bartlet and Richard Langham Smith note in their Grove article on the subject, composers and librettists frequently rejected the use of the umbrella term opéra comique in favour of more precise labels.