The Opera in Jane Austen’s London

The Opera in Jane Austen’s London

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Covent Garden Theatre

Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, 1806

I think you judge very wisely in putting off your London visit, and I am mistaken if it be not put off for some time. You speak with such noble resignation of Mrs. Jordan and the Opera House, that it would be an insult to suppose consolation required… Jane Austen to her sister Cassandra, 8 January1801

The opera, as we know it, was and was not performed separately during Jane Austen’s time. Many evening performances had more than one type of entertainment  on a night’s billing, meaning a lighter piece in the form of a comedy or even an opera would follow a more “classic” production. 

From what we know of her life, Jane Austen attended the opera often, especially when she spent time with her brother Henry in London. We can only assume she was privy to many of the great performances and performers of her time.  In 1814, she wrote to Cassandra that, “We are to see “The Devil to Pay” to-night. I expect to be very much amused. Excepting Miss Stephens, I daresay “Artexerxes” will be very tiresome.”

Also known by the longer title The Devil to Pay: Or, The Wives Metamorphos’d, it was part of a group of ballad operas produced in the wake of the success of John Gay’s The Beggar’s Opera. It was first performed at the Royal Theatre on 6 August 1731. 

According to Jane Austen World“This [meaning Jane Austen’s opinion] was an unusual position on a play that was, “one of the most successful and influential English operas of the eighteenth century”. The story, adapted from the 1729 Italian opera, was written by Thomas Arne, in English, thus appealing to both English Music lovers and Opera fans alike. It was performed over and over again after its premiere in 1762. Mozart attended a performance in 1765 as did Hayden, who exclaimed, “I had no idea we had such an opera in the English language.” Despite her profession that she was, “very tired of “Artexerxes,” highly amused with the farce, and, in an inferior way, with the pantomime that followed”, Jane nevertheless copied out the score of the overature of the opera into one her music books. These handwritten books give an insightful glimpse into the musical taste of the Austen family. They are held by the Jane Austen Memorial Trust, at Chawton Cottage, and contain selections from Handel, Mozart, Gay, Gluck, Clementti, and Haydn, as well as popular songs of the day. The aria, ‘The Soldier Tir’d of War’, from Artexerxes remains a popular showpiece to this day.

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There is a book about the opera in London entitled Fashionable Acts: Opera and Elite Culture in London 1780-1880 by Jennifer Hall-Witt that I would recommend.

Book Blurb: In a brilliant reassessment of British aristocratic culture Hall-Witt demonstrates how the transformation of audience behavior at London’s Italian opera–from the sociable, interactive spectatorship of the 1780s to the quiet, polite listening of the 1870s–served as a sensitive barometer of the aristocracy’s changing authority. She explores how the opera participated in the patronage culture and urban sociability of the British elite prior to the Reform Act of 1832 when the opera served as the central meeting place for the ruling class during the parliamentary session. The vertical tiers of boxes at the opera highlighted not only the gendered nature of elite political culture, but also those features of aristocratic society most vulnerable to critique by political and moral reformers.

Hall-Witt shows how the elite adjusted its behavior in public venues, like the opera, partly in response to such criticisms. Offering a revised chronology for the decline of the British aristocracy based on such cultural compromises, Hall-Witt reveals how the very adaptations that helped the landed elite to survive as the ruling class into the Victorian period also undermined its ability to maintain its power in the long run.

One function of the opera was for the audience to see and be seen.  It took time for  the audience to come and listen to the music and see the drama. Most of the book is concerned with the time to 1840 and less afterwards.

“The Covent Garden Theatre, the original theatre on the site, was opened (1732) by John Rich and served for plays, pantomimes, and opera. During the 1730s, when George Frideric Handel was associated with the theatre, opera was emphasized, but later the focus shifted to plays. Managers in the late 18th and early 19th centuries included the noted actors George Colman the Elder, John Philip Kemble, and Charles Kemble. The structure burned in 1808 and was rebuilt in 1809. In 1847 it became the Royal Italian Opera House under the noted conductor Michael Costa and, later, Frederick Gye. The building burned in 1856, and a new building was opened in 1858. The Royal Italian Opera failed in 1884 and was replaced in 1888 by what came to be called the Royal Opera Company under Augustus Harris and, later, Maurice Grau; the repertoire was largely Italian opera.” [Britannica]

For more information on the type of people who attended the theatre, I would recommend Rachel Knowles’s piece found HERE.

“According to Feltham’s The Picture of London for 1807 the numbers of people that could be accommodated in the theatre and the prices for each type of seat were:

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“The doors opened at 5.30pm and the performance started at 6.30pm. People could be admitted for half price at the end of the third act of the play which, according to the The Picture of London (1809), was ‘generally a little after eight o’clock.’3 The Picture of London (1813) went into a little more detail, specifying that half-price began at the end of the third act of a five-act play but at the end of the second of a three-act play.”

In the early 19th century, box subscribers received a reduced price for the season in exchange for payment up front. They were supposed to let the management know when the box was not being used so the tickets could be sold again by the theater. Since the members of the ton were notoriously lax about this, at times theaters actually hired people to question servants and find out what people were doing. I am guessing that if the box holder provided use of the box to a party that did not include anyone on the subscriber list (the box holder provided the theater with a list and families quite often shared a box) they had to inform management.

I am fairly certain that by 1864 things had changed dramatically. There were a greater numbers of rich people in London by then and I assume the opera house had no problem selling out on a regular basis without the subscription method of financing the season. You could check the Annals of Covent Garden (available on Google Books) and see if it says anything about when things changed in that manner.  Most of my information comes from a compilation of newspaper clippings about the King’s Theatre in the British Library, plus various other theatrical histories.

If one is planning to include an opera scene in a book, etc., I would suggest he/she conducted research on individual theaters. There were a limited number of theaters and not all of them preformed operas (or even dramas). They also had set seasons when they were open and performing, which might affect a particular story line.

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Some possible sources include:

Plays About the Theatre in England, 1737-1800 or, The Self-conscious Stage from Foote to Sheridan by Dane Farnsworth Smith and M. L. Lawhon

The Cambridge Companion to British Theatre 1730-1830, Edited by Jane Moody and Daniel O’Quinn

A good basic bit of info is here:

http://main.thebeaumonde.com/archives/5171 Most who liked the theater or opera would keep a box subscription. This would be kept up in several of the theaters (for the rich, cost wasn’t a problem). It would be unlikely that anyone would let their box to another–but they might offer its use to friends and/or relatives if it was not in use. Otherwise, it would be left vacant for that performance.

For a reference book on opera – http://www.pickeringchatto.com/titles/1092-9781848931657-london-opera-observed-1711-1844

12 Responses to The Opera in Jane Austen’s London

    • If you decide to go, I would suggest seeing one of the “comedies” first. Ease into the dramas. LOL! When I first began writing, I would play operas in the background. I also played baroque music. There are brain studies that say both increases creativity.

  1. This is one of my other passions. I adore opera, and for a while very seriously considered doing my PhD in opera history, although I can’t sing a note that anyone wants to hear. I’ve performed in the orchestra pit for a few, though, including The Beggar’s Opera. That was my first gig on period instruments… it was not my finest moment. LOL

    Thanks for so much interesting information.

    • I took a music appreciation class in college. We had to analyze several opera performances/musical scores. That is when I developed my taste for such pieces.

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