Saturday, May 02, 2015

The Beggar's Opera


I'm going to write about The Beggar's Opera by John Gay without actually saying anything.

Opera from the very beginning was an entertainment for the upper classes.  One of the first operas written provided the entertainment for a Medici wedding and was presented in the inner courtyard of the Pitti Palace.  The first commercial opera was presented in Venice where there were a lot of very rich people at that time.

Opera was the entertainment for the moneyed classes.  The opera house comes with a Royal Box.  These rich people want the opera to make them seem well educated and cultured.  It is not a coincidence that the era of new opera creation in Italy and the Italian monarchy ended at the same time.

London, by contrast, has had a popular theater tradition since before Shakespeare, so the surprising thing is that Italian opera, like those written by Handel, would ever have been popular there.  Italian opera is populated by gods, mythological figures and people from Italian history.  Why would the British care about this when they have a perfectly good theater tradition of their own?

The sudden appearance of The Beggar's Opera in 1728 is generally blamed for dealing the death blow to Handel's opera career.  This work is populated by pickpockets and highwaymen and their girlfriends and was a raging hit in its day.  It was parodied 2 centuries later by Bertolt Brecht and Kurt Weill in Die Dreigroschenoper

The Beggar's Opera is supposed to be a parody of opera with "familiar songs."  Well.  When I saw this work presented at Sac State last night--done in a realization by Benjamin Britten-- none of the simple tunes were at all familiar to me.  

The most serious flaw in this performance was its length.  Chop about an hour out of it.  Emphasize the spoken dialog for your ax.  I like opera so I'm perhaps not the best judge.


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