Opera Audiences in Early Georgian London

By Taylor, Carole | Musical Opinion, March/April 2007 | Go to article overview

Opera Audiences in Early Georgian London


Taylor, Carole, Musical Opinion


Carole Taylor anticipates the Royal Opera's latest revival of Handel's Orlando by looking back to Georgian times

Italian-style opera was introduced to the London stage in 1705 and gained popularity with the production of Nicola Haym's arrangement of Giovanni Bononcini's Camilla at Drury Lane Theatre on 30 March 1706. It became the springboard for Handel's greatest Italian operas, written during the 1720s and 1730s. His then new opera Orlando, which opened at London's King's Theatre on 27 January 1733, was the only new opera during that season and had 10 stagings. The Royal Family attended seven of these performances and we might be tempted to think they attended for the love of music alone. In fact, after one Season Orlando sank into oblivion until it was revived two centuries later in Halle on 28 May 1922. The first British revival was at the Unicorn Theatre in Abingdon on 6 May 1959.

Yes, the music was appreciated in 1733 but Italian opera-going at the time was a complex mix of musical, social and political motives. Orlando was also a tactical manoeuvre by Handel to beat down the opposition of a rival opera company led by a coterie of wealthy Season subscribers who had tired of the composer's musical dominion of Italian opera. The attendance of the Royal Family at seven out of ten performances of Orlando in 1733 was as much a statement of their support for Handel in this operatic war, as their appreciation of Orlando with its magic scenes and gripping depictions of love in all its guises.

Many, perhaps most, of the opera's subscribers in early Georgian London were members of the ruling Whig aristocracy and its Parliamentary supporters and friends, some still recognisable to us today, including the Earl of Burlington, "the architecture Earl", at whose Burlington House Handel was a guest at his second London visit in 1712. Other important dignitaries included the 1st Duke of Chandos, effectively England's first millionaire, memoirists Horace Walpole and Lord Hervey and such political notables as the Prime Minister, Sir Robert Walpole. A significant number of upper class women became subscribers in their own right, one of the earliest examples of cultural leadership in English history in which women were a notable part.

By inference, we also know which groups were not likely to have become subscribers to the Italian Opera, although they lived in London and could probably have afforded to have joined. These include City merchants and other more well-off tradesmen, lawyers and many, although not all members of the Tory political opposition.

In some respects, the prominence of these groups as opera subscribers is curious, since they were avowedly English patriots and strong Protestants. Yet the Italian Opera was Continental and strongly Catholic and often filled with characters and performers, such as the castrate singers who might seem an anathema to patriotic sensibilities. Yet many Whig grandees had made the Grand Tour and were very familiar with Continental cultural modes, while the presence of Handel, a great Protestant and English patriot at the centre of opera composition in London, perhaps helped to make the Italian Opera acceptable to the cream of Whig High Society. …

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