ACCORDING to most French dictionaries of the mid-nineteenth century, the word opérette was taken from the German Operette, itself derived from the Italian term operetta. The -ette or -etta designated something diminutive, a "little" opera or a "little" opéra-co-mique. There was substantial agreement that operettas were performed in "little theatres or salons, " and several dictionaries, particularly the musical ones, named Mozart as the originator of the term.
The Dictionnaire de l'Académie française (1878, 1935) called operetta a "dramatic composition of which the action is gay or comic and the music light." The 1957 Larousse de la Musique called operetta a "genre derived from opera buffa which was born and developed in the course of the nineteenth century." The more recent Webster's Third New International Dictionary (1976) termed it "a light musical-dramatic production having usually a romantic plot and containing spoken dialogue and dancing scenes." And the 1979 Concise Oxford Dictionary of Opera calls it "a term used for a play with an overture, songs, interludes, and dances." These definitions are admittedly vague.
Part of the difficulty rests not only with the half-truths in many definitions but also with changes in meaning over centuries and from country to country of terms that scholars have used (or should use) in defining the genre. Thus, the original Italian word operetta meant something different in Mozart's day from what it does now, while it still means something quite different in France and in England. Opéra-comique, which deserves and has received comprehensive studies on its own, was something else entirely in eighteenth-century France than the form it became in the nineteenth century, and it could not and still cannot be translated with accuracy into the English term comic opera, which