Horse Operas, Soap Operas, and Space Operas

Soap operas seem to have nothing to do with soap or opera. We get the "soap" part from the early sponsors—soap companies. We have to go all the way back to horse operas to understand the "opera" part.

Mark Allen, Writing for
2-minute read

soap opera space opera horse opera

Opera has been an art form since 1597 when a Florentine singer and composer created a theatrical performance in which the lines were sung instead of spoken.

The soap opera has been an afternoon entertainment staple since before World War II, before television. A listener named Alush posted a question in the Grammar Girl Facebook group asking about the origin of the term soap opera. Good question: The dramas have no obvious relationship with soap or opera. To understand why anyone would call a 15-minute relationship-focused radio drama a soap opera, it helps to start with an older term—horse opera.

We don’t refer to a horse opera much anymore, preferring the term Western. But as early as 1917, silent movie actor William Hart was called “the Caruso of horse opera.”

Even before the first Hollywood Western in 1903, the term was applied to equestrian entertainment of the 19th century. Maybe horse opera was coined because of the grand spectacle these shows presented, or maybe it was the combination of art forms, just as opera combined music and theater. Mark Twain in his Letter from Carson City mentions singing a tune from a horse opera in 1863. An 1851 guide to the musical scene in New Orleans suggested that those with “a penchant for the Horse Opera” should seek out the amphitheater-based circus of Spalding and Rodgers.

Like Hollywood horse operas, soap operas were not operatic. Why soap? It’s wasn’t about the genre, it was about the sponsors. Proctor & Gamble, maker of Ivory Soap since the 1880s, sponsored The Guiding Light radio drama when it debuted in 1937. P&G has since produced or sponsored many of the most popular soap operas, and it still advertises its products on The Young and the Restless

After horse operas and soap operas came space operas, a term that seems to have been popularized in the 1950s for science-fiction novels set in space with grand and melodramatic themes. Star Wars was deemed a space opera when it came out in 1977, and the term has been applied to Star Trek, Firefly, Flash Gordon, and Ender’s Game.

That segment was written by Mark Allen, a freelance copy editor who is known as @EditorMark on Twitter.

Image courtesy of Shutterstock.