The Earliest Ballad Operas
Ballad opera has been called an "eighteenth-century protest against the Italian conquest of the London operatic scene" It consists of racy and often satirical spoken (English) dialogue, interspersed with songs that are deliberately kept very short (mostly a single short stanza and refrain) to minimize disruptions to the flow of the story, which involves lower class, often criminal, characters, and typically shows a suspension (or inversion) of the high moral values of the Italian opera of the period.
It is generally accepted that the first ballad opera, and the one that was to prove the most successful, was The Beggar's Opera of 1728. It had a libretto by John Gay and music arranged by John Christopher Pepusch, both of whom probably experienced vaudeville theatre in Paris, and may have been motivated to reproduce it in an English form. They were also probably influenced by the burlesques and musical plays of Thomas D'Urfey (1653–1723) who had a reputation for fitting new words to existing songs; a popular anthology of these settings was published in 1700 and frequently re-issued. A number of the tunes from this anthology were recycled in The Beggar's Opera.
Gay produced further works in this style, including a sequel to The Beggar's Opera, Polly. Henry Fielding, Colley Cibber, Arne, Dibdin, Arnold, Shield, Jackson of Exeter, Hook and many others produced ballad operas that enjoyed great popularity. By the middle of the century, however, the genre was already in decline.
Although they featured the lower reaches of society, the audiences for these works were typically the London bourgeois. As a reaction to serious opera (at this time almost invariably sung in Italian), the music, for these audiences, was as satirical in its way as the words of the play. The plays themselves contained references to contemporary politics — in The Beggar's Opera the character Peachum was a lampoon of Sir Robert Walpole. This satirical element meant that many of them risked censorship and banning — as was the case with Gay's successor to The Beggar's Opera, Polly.
The tunes of the original ballad operas were almost all pre-existing (somewhat in the manner of a modern "jukebox musical"): however they were taken from a wide variety of contemporary sources, including folk melodies, popular airs by classical composers (such as Purcell) and even children's nursery rhymes. A significant source from which the music was drawn was the fund of popular airs to which 18th century London broadside ballads are set. It is from this connection that the term "ballad opera" is drawn. This ragbag of "pre-loved" music is a good test for distinguishing between the original type of ballad opera and its later forms.
The Disappointment (1762) represents an early American attempt at such a ballad opera.
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