In This Section: The Music Scene Changes

Georg Frideric Handel stopped writing opera after 1741, which can be seen as evidence of the declining popularity of the art form. Handel, the most prolific and famous composer of the 18th century in England realized that the public favor was changing. Many Englishmen believed that the Italian star singers were overpaid and uncivil, that the language was a frustrating barrier, that the recitative (or sung dialogue) was artificial, and that the plots were unrealistic.8 The rise of the ballad opera offered an appealing alternative genre.

Playbill from the operaIn 1728, the first performance of John Gay's The Beggar's Opera attracted the acclaim and attention of the popular audience in England. The first run of the performance lasted 62 nights! Today, this sounds like a lot, but in the 18th century, it was an unprecedented touchstone.9 Later, the opera was performed internationally in Dublin, Glasgow, Jamaica and New York.10 In 1750, The Beggar's Opera was one of the earliest musical comedies produced in America11; appropriately, it was produced in New York, which today is the mecca of musical comedy.

The opera launched the popularity of a new form of stage entertainment, the ballad opera. The audience for the ballad opera, unlike opera's noble and upper-class following, included people from the lower class, middle class, and upper class.12 Londoners loved the realism and satire in the ballad opera; they left the theater talking about it and singing the familiar tunes. The book trade was also stimulated because of its controversial subject matter and satire. Evidence of its popularity in the 18th century, The Beggar's Opera was performed every year of the 18th century after 1728.13

The Satire and Controversy

Running from Controversy!

The Beggar's Opera was a double satire of the Italian opera tradition and of the political corruption of incumbent Prime Minister Sir Robert Walpole and his government. Gay mocked the Italian opera tradition in many ways:

  • Gay chose popular simple tunes to mock what many British believed to be the overly virtuousic and artificial airs of Italian opera.
  • The composer disposed of recitative altogether in favor of spoken dialogue.
  • Gay's main characters are thieves and bawds, rather than the heroes and kings of Italian opera.
  • Finally, he makes fun of the often-disliked Italian divas. The year before John Gay's opera premiered, the two leading prima donnas in London, Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni, were well known to be enemies. In 1727, their rivalry escalated to a fight on stage; the two divas scratched and pulled out each other's hair! The rivalry between these ladies inspired Gay's leading female characters, Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit, and their quarreling scenes.14

The ballad opera not only made fun of Italian opera, but also provided a new popularity for native music that the masses knew and enjoyed.

Gay's ballad opera also satirized Walpole and his government. The main characters, Macheath and Peachum, were portraits of well-known criminals John Sheppard and Jonathon Wild, a notorious informer executed in 1725.15 Peachum was also meant to satirize Sir Robert Walpole. Peachum's behavior as a thief, womanizer, and double-dealer directly stabbed at Walpole who was known as a corrupt leader as well as an adulterer.16 Walpole had tried to eliminate free press many times through "spies, bribery, imprisonment, and the buying up of journalists and newspapers."17 When The Beggar's Opera premiered, the most controversial newspaper of the time, "The Craftsman," published numerous reviews praising Gay's ballad opera and reporting its success. Sir Walpole went to see Gay's opera and, not surprisingly, hated it.18 Walpole banned John Gay's sequel, Polly, in 1729. Although Polly was banned from the theaters, it was published and widely sold in the bookshops at a great profit to John Gay.

Lasting Influence of The Beggar's Opera

The Beggar's Opera is still the most successful example of the ballad opera genre. There were many authors in addition to John Gay who attempted to contribute to the genre after John Gay's success in 1728. Some of these ballad operas included:

  • an anonymous Robin Hood (1730)
  • Walter Aston's The Restauration of King Charles II (1732), which was banned
  • John Mottley and Thomas Cooke's Penelope (1728)
  • John Breval's The Rape of Helen (1733)
  • Colley Cibber's Love in a Riddle (1729), which was later cut and successfully produced anonymously as Damon and Phillida
  • Charles Coffey's The Devil to Pay (1731)
  • Henry Carey's The Honest Yorkshireman (1735)
  • numerous examples written by Henry Fielding. 19

Character from the operaThe only ballad opera that came close to the success of Gay's opera was the Irishman Coffey's The Devil to Pay.20 Henry Fielding was an important contributor of ballad operas. Although he is most famous today for his novels like Tom Jones and Joseph Andrews, Henry Fielding was a popular dramatist in his day, and he wrote thirty plays which include ten ballad operas. A few of his ballad operas are The Author's Farce (1730), The Welsh Opera (1731), and Don Quixote in England (1734).21

The success of the ballad opera not only inspired other writers, it also contributed to enlarging the audience for theater to include more of the social classes. This created a greater need for theaters and contributed to the increasing use of the theater in the Haymarket, the use of the Goodman's Fields Theatre, and the building of Covent Garden in 1732.22

The ballad opera genre undoubtedly led to the body of 19th century work of Gilbert and Sullivan, the British librettist and composer who wrote over 20 satirical operettas that are still popular today. The influence of Gay's opera continued into the 20th century. In 1928, Bertold Brecht wrote an adaptation of The Beggar's Opera and called it The Threepenny Opera, including music written by Kurt Weill.23 Gay's opera's lasting influence is confirmed by the fact that it remains the most famous ballad opera in existence today, and some believe it is the only notable one as well.