In this article I assert that our modern understanding of the singspiel as a genre has been shaped not by eighteenth-century principles but rather by nineteenth-century notions of ‘romantic’ German opera. In contrast to a later through-composed ideal, Johann Adam Hiller’s comic operas, often viewed as the prototype of the German comic genre, were designed precisely in order that the songs might easily be detached from the spoken dialogue, disseminated outside of the public opera house and sung by audiences in various other contexts. The express purpose of these songs, as articulated by librettist Christian Felix Weisse, was to promote communal singing in social circles across Germany. The genre was thus designed for circulation within what Habermas describes as the public sphere: a conceptual space between the State and the private home in which texts, ideas and musical works were circulated and debated.
Composed in what was called the German Volkston (in the manner of the Volk), Hiller’s melodies are recorded as being sung and played throughout the streets and parks of major German cities and became so popular that they became known as folksongs. This idea of the Volk as a collective entity and of the Volkston, however, was rooted in a deeper sense of the public as nation. Inspired by Le devin du village and J. J. Rousseau’s writings on politics, language and the fine arts, Weisse and Hiller’s operas employ the pastoral mode, in which idealized peasants sing in the manner of a folksong. The idyllic simplicity of these early German-language comic operas appealed to a diversified German audience by affirming their roots, the public use of their language and their morally upright character as a nation. Thus comic opera as a genre was circulated within the public sphere with the intention of transcending the boundaries of social class to unite the German nation in song.