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Costume worn in private court performances, mid 18th century, Museum no. S.792-1982

Costume worn in private court performances, mid 18th century, Museum no. S.792-1982.

The 18th century saw an explosion of opera across Europe. Opera houses were built in all the major European cities and new operas were commissioned for each season. The King's Theatre became the home of opera in the 18th and 19th centuries where operas were the main offering in the evening's entertainment, usually interspersed with dances and sometimes a short play or farce as an afterpiece.

The one permanent opera company at the Royal Academy of Music lasted only eight years and played to the nobility. This was financed by artistocratic patrons but this bore little comparison to the wealth of court patronage that financed opera abroad. In the public theatres, opera was usually presented for short seasons with star foreign singers.

It was the music of Frederick Handel that really established the popularity of opera in London. Handel was sent abroad by the Royal Academy of Music to attract the best available singers to London. Senesino the famous castrato was offered the vast sum of £2,000 a year to perform in London in 1710.

Operas were composed for individual singers who were the great stars. The composer's job was to produce music to show off the star's voice and many composers could write an opera in just two or three weeks. These star singers had considerable freedom to improvise within the music. Indeed certain passages of ornamentation were left to the singer's own inclination and would change from night to night.

William Hogarth, The Bad Taste of the Town, February 1724

William Hogarth, The Bad Taste of the Town, February 1724

In the early 18th century opera was dominated by castratos. The most famous castrato was Farinelli who could hold a note for a whole minute and sing over three octaves. Castratos were treated like pop stars today. Women were attracted to them for their youthful good looks and smooth complexions. They appeared all over Europe and were paid vast fees.

This is a caricature on the public taste of the 1720s when Londoners flocked to popular entertainment and the fashionable opera rather than legitimate drama. At the right, crowds queue for the pantomime while masqueraders pour into the theatre on the left, overlooked by J.J.Heidegger, who devised this lucrative craze. The sign above is based on a caricature of the singers Senesino, Cuzzoni and Berenstadt. In the foreground, a woman wheels a barrow marked ‘waste paper’ - the works of Shakespeare, Congreve, Dryden and Otway. The caricature was the first independent work of William Hogarth, one of the greatest of English painters and satirists, and a shrewd commentator on the fashions and foibles of his age.

High Committee, or Operatical Contest, Haymarket Theatre, London, late 18th to early 19th century, coloured print

High Committee, or Operatical Contest, Haymarket Theatre, London, late 18th to early 19th century, coloured print

This caricature shows Robert O'Reilly and William Taylor, the rival managers of the Pantheon and the King's Theatre preparing to do battle, backed by their supporters. William Taylor, Manager of the King's Theatre, is supported by the Prince of Wales and the playwright Sheridan. Robert O'Reilly, manager of the Pantheon, has on his side the Lord Chamberlain and King George III. The dispute arose after the King's Theatre in the Haymarket burnt down in 1789. It was rebuilt by 1791, but in the meantime O'Reilly transformed the Pantheon into a theatre, obtained the necessary licence to perform and got permission from the King to call itself the King's Theatre. This meant the 'other' King's Theatre could open for music and dancing but not for dramatic performances. Matters were resolved when the Pantheon itself burnt down in 1792. Rumour held that the rival management was to blame, but nothing was ever proved. In 1940, the events became the subject of a ballet by Ninette de Valois.

The Riot during the Opera Artaxerxes, lithograph, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 1763

The Riot during the Opera Artaxerxes, lithograph, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 1763

18th-century audiences were lively. There are occasional reports of riots among the cheap seats (the 'footman´s gallery'). Traditionally people could come for half price toward the end of the evening, to see the short after-pieces that followed the main play. In 1763 the management announced on the playbills that only full price tickets would be available. The response was an organised riot which destroyed the interior of the theatre and forced the reinstitution of the half price concession.

Artaxerxes was Arne's most ambitious opera in the Italian style, and was first performed in 1762. The plot revolved around the complicated events following the assassination of Xerxes, King of Persia and the revenge of his son, Artaxerxes. The singers are dressed in conventional opera costume of the period.

The men wear generalised Eastern rather than archaeologically correct costume, while the female singer wears a version of fashionable 18th-century dress. Arne was more successful writing light operas and  incidental music for Shakespeare's plays. He is best remembered as the composer of 'Rule Britannia', which comes from his opera Alfred.

Acis and Galatea music sheet cover, printed by Jefferys and Nelson, Drury Lane Theatre, London, mid 19th to late 19th century

Acis and Galatea music sheet cover, printed by Jefferys and Nelson, Drury Lane Theatre, London, mid 19th to late 19th century

Handel and opera seria

The German composer George Frederick Handel, who settled in London with his patron George I, introduced opera seria to London when his Italian opera Rinaldo which was first performed in 1711. Opera seria literally translates as ‘serious opera'. The characters were all noble or mythological and the plots about political intrigue or history. The story was told in recitatives, while sung arias expressed the emotions.

Rinaldo played for 15 performances and was considered a great success. The opera was staged with dramatic settings: an enchanted palace with blazing battlements; a black cloud filled with monsters spitting fire and smoke. The manager of the theatre, Aaron Hill, took the spectacular elements of semi-opera and melded them with Italian style music.

Handel's operas were vocally elaborate, with long arias designed to display the virtuosity of the castrato stars. His works were full of complicated arias that thrilled English audiences.

This music sheet cover is for one of the songs from Handel's opera Acis and Galatea as arranged for a production at Drury Lane in 1842.

It was part of a policy by the management to ‘establish upon the English stage the works of the greatest composers of the English school of music’, although they gave just as much, if not more, prominence to the engagement of Clarkson Stanfield to design the sets.

The story was taken from Greek mythology. The sea nymph Galatea is loved by a shepherd Acis, who is murdered by his jealous rival, the giant Polyphemus. Galatea makes Acis immortal by transforming him into a fountain.

The first performance took place in the gardens at Cannons, the great house built by the Handel’s patron, the Duke of Chandos. It was first performed publicly in 1731 and became one of Handel's most popular operas. Some of the words were written by John Gay who later satirised Italian opera conventions in The Beggar's Opera.

This elaborate title page is from the published libretto for Handel’s opera Rinaldo.

Music score cover for Handel's opera Rinaldo, London, 1711

Music score cover for Handel's opera Rinaldo, London, 1711

When Rinaldo was produced in London in 1711, Handel was, as the title page says, Kapellmeister (in charge of music, literally – master of the chapel) at the court of the Elector of Hanover in Germany. This was the first Italian opera seria to be performed in England and its success started the fashionable vogue for opera in a foreign language sung by glamorous foreign singers. Legend says that Handel composed the opera in only 14 days, using mostly arias and music he had already written. It had a typical convoluted plot of the period, with the enchantress Armida trying to keep the Christian hero Rinaldo and his love Almirena apart. In the original ending, the pagan forces were converted to Christianity, but Handel later wrote a theatrically more spectacular version where they descend into hell in a chariot.

In the below Libretto for Handel's Radamisto the text is marked in the manuscript as a prompt book for its first performance on 27 April, 1720 at the King's Theatre, London. Radamisto was Handel’s first opera for the newly formed Royal Academy of Music and the Academy’s second production. The libretto bears the composer’s own dedication to King George I.

The manuscript markings note the performers' moves and calls and cue sound effects. It is a parallel text with Italian on one side of the leaf facing the English translation on the opposite page. As the auditorium was lit by candles, which could not be dimmed during the action on stage, the audience would have been able to read the text during the performance.

George Frideric Hadel & Nicola Francesco Haym, libretto for Handel's Radamisto, printed by Thomas Wood, London, 1720. Museum no. S.501-1985

George Frideric Handel & Nicola Francesco Haym, libretto for Handel's Radamisto, printed by Thomas Wood, London, 1720. Museum no. S.501-1985


Handel also developed the oratorio. An oratorio sets to music a sacred or biblical story. Like opera, it is split into arias, choruses and musical interludes, but there is more emphasis on the chorus. Oratorios are usually performed in a concert hall with no scenery or costumes. Handel's most famous oratorio was The Messiah, first performed in Dublin, Ireland in 1741.

At the first performance in England in the presence of George I, the King was so moved at the opening bars of the great Hallelujah Chorus that he spontaneously stood up and the audience followed his lead. He started a tradition, and for centuries afterwards, audiences would stand up at the first bars of the chorus.

Oratorio, rather than opera, was to become the English vocal form.

In the 19th century a network of large choirs were established, many, like the Huddersfield Choral Society, are still in existence. These choirs commissioned music from the greatest composers of the day, including Mendelssohn and Elgar, and established an important musical tradition in England. They helped produce experienced singers when permanent opera companies were eventually set up in England in the 20th century.

Playbill for Commemoration Concert, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 

Playbill for Commemoration Concert, Covent Garden Theatre, London, 1820

The Commemoration Concert, an evening of choral works, was part of a season at Covent Garden following the death of George III in 1820. It includes a performance of Handel’s great oratorio the Messiah, which had first been performed in 1742. Mozart reorchestrated the oratorio in 1789, one of several Handel works that he rearranged, including Acis and Galatea.

Oratorio was the predominant form of English music during the 19th century. Although English singers were thought to be unsuited to grand opera, this did not mean that they were unmusical. Thousands throughout the country attended concerts and were involved in amateur music-making. Many sang in choirs and, as can be seen from this programme, the Grand Battle Sinfonia called for a choir of 200, few of whom would have been professional singers. Many large choirs were formed in the 19th century, usually performing oratorio (with Messiah as the cornerstone of their programming) and giving employment to generations of professional British singers who came to sing the solo roles.

A trip to the opera

James Gillray, A Bravura Air, caricature of Elizabeth Billington, 1801. TM Collection

James Gillray, A Bravura Air, caricature of Elizabeth Billington, 1801. TM Collection

Going to the opera was a social occasion in the 18th and 19th centuries. The rise in the popularity of theatre and opera reflected the growing leisure time and wealth of the upper middle classes.

Theatres were noisy, chaotic places and the aim was to see and be seen. The stage and the auditorium were lit from great chandeliers that hung from the ceiling and the audience was as visible as the performers. Audiences would chat, walk around and play games. It wasn't unknown for ladies to have a card table in the box for a game of cards during the performance.

The aisles in the pit were known as ‘Fops Alley' and young men would cruise up and down flirting with the ladies. In addition there was standing room on stage for audience members which provided another distraction from the focus of the performance.

Audiences stopped talking to listen to the aria which was the great show piece that everyone recognised. Then they would resume their conversation, card game or perusal of other members of the audience.

This caricature by the famous cartoonist James Gillray shows the opera singer Elizabeth Billington in 1801. It satirises her mannerism of pressing her hands to her ample bosom 'in passages that require exertion. It never fails to communicate ideas of labour, struggle, and pain'. Gillray drew her with comic effect more than once.

James Gillray, The Bulstrode Siren, print of Elizabeth Billington, 1803

James Gillray, The Bulstrode Siren, print of Elizabeth Billington, 1803

Billington was born in England of German parents, so the prejudice about English singers not being suited to opera did not apply to her. Her voice was sweet and captivating with an extraordinary range of three octaves. She was only 18 when she married the virtuoso double-bass player, James Billington, and 21 when she made her debut in Love in a Village. In 1794 she was performing in Naples when Vesuvius erupted. The Catholic audience took this to be a mark of God's displeasure at the appearance of the protestant Mrs Billington on the stage of a Catholic city, so her performance was hardly judged a success. It was a double tragedy for her, as her husband died suddenly after her first performance there.

Like A Bravura Air, this cartoon by James Gillray of 1803 caricatures the opera singer Elizabeth Billington, this time with one of her admirers, the Duke of Portland. The title refers to Bulstrode, the Duke's country house in Buckinghamshire. In Greek mythology, none could resist the beautiful song of the sirens, who lured sailors to their deaths on the rocks that surrounded their islands. According to rumour, the Duke paid Elizabeth Billington lavishly for her private appearances at Bulstrode. She was always news and in the public eye, not only for her singing and the huge sums she was paid, but, following the publication of the scurrilous Memoirs of Mrs Billington in 1792, for her private life.

The caricaturist contrasts the title, with its implications of beautiful enchantresses, with the substantial frame and homely face that hold the old Duke enthralled. In performance Mrs Billington's looks were unimportant. The brilliance of her voice dazzled everyone and one reviewer declared 'nothing but envy or apathy can hear her without delight'.


Castratos were male singers who had been castrated (had their testicles removed) to prevent their voices breaking (becoming deeper) as they went through puberty. They had truly beautiful voices which combined the clarity and purity of a boy soprano with the power of the mature male voice. Understandably the fashion for castratos died out some time ago and there is only one very poor recording of such a voice available.

Bickham (engraver), sheet of printed music for the Ladies Lamentation for the Loss of Sensesino, 1737-1738. Musuem no. S.1137-1986

Bickham (engraver), sheet of printed music for the Ladies Lamentation for the Loss of Sensesino, 1737-1738. Musuem no. S.1137-1986

Castrato singers were very popular in the 18th century, even though castration was illegal. In Italy poor families keen for their sons to make good money in opera, would have their sons castrated. The usual age for castration was between seven and nine years of age. Some surgeons would do the operation but often the village barber was called upon. Because castration was illegal in Italy many excuses were given for the sudden 'accidents' that befell these young boys. Being struck by a wild boar was a frequently used excuse.

The first Italian castrato stars to visit England were Valentini and Nicolini. Nicolini sang the title role of Handel's Rinaldo in 1711. Other major stars included Senesino and Farinelli.

The hysteria aroused when the great castrato, Senesino, (Francesco Bernardi, 1680-1750) left London in 1730 is commemorated by this songsheet. The great castrati were feted like rock stars. Women fainted or became hysterical with admiration during their performances. Many wore several miniature portraits of their heroes, like fans wearing the badges of their favourite group today. Not everyone succumbed, however. As early as 1702, in Tunbridge Walks at Drury Lane, a character exclaims ‘And pray what are your Town Diversions? To hear a parcel of Italian eunuchs like so many cats, squawl.'

In the engraving, two servants carry a barrow labelled ‘Ready Money’, containing the huge sums he earned for his performances. Singers earned more in London than anywhere else in Europe. Senesino built a fine house in Italy and inscribed over the door ‘twas the folly of the English had laid the foundation of it’. The huge success of the castrati set the fashion in London for opera sung in Italian by foreign stars.

The Castrati, engraved print, 1726

The Castrati, engraved print, 1726

This caricature captures the physical characteristics of the castrati. They developed broad chests (which gave them great breath control), were inclined to run to fat, and body and limbs often developed disproportionally. As suggested by the relative size of the figures, the female singers were not as popular. This was unfair, as Francesca Cuzzoni was one of the most brilliant singers of her day. She developed a great rivalry with another soprano, Faustina Bordoni, and in 1727 they actually came to  blows during a performance. The rivalry and fight between Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit in The Beggar's Opera is a reference to this undignified affair.

Although ‘Farinelli’ is written under the right-hand figure, most scholars think that it is actually Gaetano Berenstadt. An additional complication is that, while most agree that the performance is Handel’s Flavio, some think it shows a scene in Ariosti’s Coriolano. The costumes are no guide to the subject as the singers wear conventional 18th-century opera costume. The men wear a version of Roman armour, which was considered suitable for heroic and serious characters, while Cuzzoni wears a version of fashionable 18th-century dress.


Playbill for Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Drury Lane Theatre, London, May 1841

Playbill for Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro, Drury Lane Theatre, London, May 1841

Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart was one of the greatest composers of all time. Born in Salzburg, Austria in 1756, he started writing music before he was four years old. He was a child prodigy and toured the Courts of Europe playing his own compositions to adoring audiences. Like most child prodigies, his audience lost interest once he grew up and despite his genius he had to work hard throughout his life to earn a living. He died almost penniless.

Mozart, like other composers had to find patrons to sponsor his work. Composers were hired servants who were expected to write music to order. They had to write masses for church, chamber music for whatever combination of instruments were available and pieces to celebrate birthdays or anniversaries.

Mozart was not just a great composer but a great dramatist. At the beginning of his career, he wrote operas like Idomeneo, based on classical subjects, but his later works were concerned with people and emotions. He adopted the form of the opera seria, using recitatives and arias to move the plot forward whilst exploring the character's emotions.

This playbill for Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro is for a performance at Drury Lane in 1841. This was part of a three month opera season given by a German company gathered from theatres across Germany and Vienna. With a chorus of 80 and an orchestra conducted by, among others, the distinguished composer Meyerbeer, it was a feast of opera going such as London had rarely experienced. Audiences then were used to most operas being heavily cut or ‘rearranged’. The Marriage of Figaro was usually performed in a version ‘translated, altered and arranged … and the whole adapted to the English stage’ by Henry Rowley Bishop. He simplified the plot, replaced recitative with spoken dialogue, added his own arias as well as miscellaneous music by Mozart and even some by Rossini, and made the Count a non-singing role. The 1841 performances were London’s first chance to hear the opera as Mozart had written it and it certainly  killed off the Bishop version. Other Mozart operas performed during the season included The Magic Flute and, for the first time in London, Il Seraglio.

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