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 in London 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.
It was the music of Frederick Handel that really established the popularity of opera in London. 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.
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.
Here is a scene from my novel Sinclair which is based on the programme of an actual show in 1787.
“Frank Greenwood joined Sinclair and Bowman at the Sadler’s Wells theatre, buoyed up by the eight guineas in his pocket he had earned from Lord Wroxeter. The atmosphere was vibrant and expectant as the fashionably dressed audience took their seats. A pair of red velvet curtains hung across the gilded proscenium, hiding the delights to come, and in the pit there were two enormous A frames supporting a slack line that ran front to back, high above the audience’s heads, ready for a display of rope-walking.
“Goodness, I haven’t been to the theatre for years,” Greenwood gushed, taking his seat. “I’ve spent far too long in barracks or in the country chasing foxes. This is wonderful,” he rejoiced, gazing at the tiers of ornately gilded boxes opposite and admiring the young women playing coyly with their fans.
“As a married man I have no interest in the ladies,” said Bowman with happy resignation. “One woman is more than enough for me.”
“But looking is permitted,” said Sinclair, “and from what I can see is positively encouraged. I prefer it that way if I’m honest. I find that admiration from afar is often preferable to an actual encounter with the female of the species.”
“In your situation, Sinclair, it would be wise to stay well out of Cupid’s range. Wives have many delights and great benefits, but they’re fearfully expensive creatures to keep and you, my dear friend, are broke.” Bowman turned to Greenwood. “I blame Sinclair for my addiction to the theatre; he drags me out whenever he’s in town.”
“Aye,” Sinclair chuckled. “I’m making up for all those years of misery in Scotland.”
The drums rolled, and the Master of Ceremonies stepped in front of the curtain. “Tonight for your delight and delectation, ladies and gentlemen, we have a show featuring breathtaking rope-walking from Naples; death-defying tumbling, acrobats from China and the music of an angel, the virtuoso Madame de Chanson with her timeless songs of amour.” The three men roared their approval with the rest of the audience, the red curtains opened and the show began.
The friends watched open mouthed as Signor Romeo and Adriani walked the rope at the same time as they juggled with batons and hoops. The act finished with Signor Romeo performing the splits above the heads of the audience, who thundered their applause. The Joseph Brothers somersaulted and rotated across the stage at amazing heights in their yellow and red costumes, and the Chinese acrobats made a tower of human flesh ten men high. Finally, Madam de Chanson, a buxom woman dressed in white with flowers in her hair, played a golden harp and sang French songs with an exquisite and lilting voice that moved the audience so much that even the hardest hearted of them were forced to wipe a tear from their eyes.
When the performances were over, the friends made their way to the lobby feeling happy and relaxed, enjoying the jostling crowd with its smell of perfume and powder and the opportunities for surreptitious bodily contact with the ladies and girls as they made their way out onto the crowded street. Bowman managed to attract the attention of a driver with an empty cab, and soon they were on their way to Bread Street. “I’m sorry I can’t ask you in at the moment,” he apologised. “It’s just that Emma has banned Sinclair from the house for stealing one of her father’s patients.”
Julia Herdman writes historical fiction that puts women to the fore. Her latest book Sinclair, Tales of Tooley Street Vol. 1. is Available on Amazon – Paperback £10.99 Kindle £2.29 Also available on: