Monday, October 15, 2012

A Glimpse at Opera during Jane Austen's Lifetime. by Maggi Andersen

I take my characters in A Baron in Her Bed - The Spies of Mayfair Book One to the opera, and found it fascinating to research. Here's a taste of what I discovered.

Maggi Andersen

Drury Lane 1808

Opera and drama could only be found in London at limited venues. Drury Lane and Covent Garden had the monopoly on plays and opera in English, explicitly granted by royal patent. The Kings theatre, Haymarket  which had no special royal connection or license, remained the dominant presenter of opera throughout Austen’s lifetime, though it’s supremacy was challenged in the 1790s by the more conveniently located Pantheon.
The Kings Theatre and Opera House, Haymarket

The audience was composed mostly of the aristocracy, the gentry and the people of means for the ticket prices were far higher than at the theatres. Boxes, which held four to six people, were reserved, but seats in the orchestra were not, and those in line got the best seats; wealthier patrons often sent their footmen ahead to hold seats for them.
While waiting for the opera to start, people could visit the coffee room, talk w3ith friends, scan the audience for famous faces, or buy a book from the “Fruit Woman” for 1s. 6d. which contained the cast and the libretto. Once the opera commenced all activity was meant to cease, but many continued to move about and indulge in conversation. Few patrons could speak Italian and the King’s Theatre could not present its performances in English.

Opera was only performed during the winter when members of the ton were in town. During summer the wealthy repaired to their country homes and the seaside. Singers then toured the country performing in provincial towns.

Dorothea Jordan

Female performers were seen as glorified prostitutes and shunned by society, which had some basis in fact:
Dorothea Jordan, had a long-running and much-publicized affair with the duke of Clarence, bearing him ten children. (Jane Austen saw her perform at Covent Garden in 1814. One satirical cartoon shows her in her bedroom, gazing adoringly at a duchess’ coronet, which she hopes someday to wear by marrying her lover. A map on the wall purports to show the route from “Strolling Lane” (i.e. prostitution) through “Old Drury Common” all the way to “Derbyshire Peak.” A genealogical chart of the nobility lies on her dressing table, and her bed-hangings are crowned by a Phrygian cap, symbol of the French Revolution. The latter is intended to ridicule her pretensions to nobility; as a common woman, let alone an actress, she should know her place.

Sarah Siddons by Thomas Gainsborough
Some actresses of sterling talent who resisted the temptation to climb to the top of the social scale were exempted from the popular prejudice against performing women. Sarah Siddons, who was generally well respected, is a notable example, but those who seemed to be using their visibility as a means to wealth and comfort were strongly stigmatized. The situation was worse for those without stardom to protect them, and it was worst of all for the “opera girls.”

Source: All Things Austen - An Encyclopedia of Austen's World Volume II 


Cassandra Samuels said...

Great post Maggi. Such a large part of the entertainment side of life at that time.

Maggi Andersen said...

Yes, for those that could afford it, Cass, but then there were many other forms of entertainment for the lower classes.

Allison Butler said...

Hi Maggi,

Thanks for a great post. It's always interesting to know what forms of entertainment were available to people in the past:)

Maggi Andersen said...

Thanks Allison, I'm glad you enjoyed it.

Suzi said...

Great post. Loved all the information about the opera.
Suzi Love

Cheryl Leigh said...

I have a scene at the opera in my last book so this was interesting to read. Thanks, Maggi!