Several aspects account for the success of John Gay’s ballad opera The beggar’s opera when it premiered in London in 1728.
Gay’s skillful transformations of well-known songs contained many witty references to the originals, adding a rich subtext that his audience would have understood fully.
His audience would also have appreciated his caricatures of grand opera, which included references to recent London productions—particularly Händel’s Floridante (1721) and Alessandro (1726)—and to the highly public rivalry of the local operatic sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni (1696–1778) and Faustina Bordoni (1697–1781).
Gay’s facility as a writer was also a factor; he created clever, well-wrought lyrics and dialogue, vivid characters, and an irresistible ironic tone. An accomplished musician, Gay was certainly the musical arranger—not Pepusch, as some have argued.
This according to “The beggar’s opera” by Bertrand Harris Bronson, an essay included in Studies in the comic (Berkely: University of California Press, 1941, pp. 197–231).
Above, William Hogarth’s 1729 painting of a scene from the work (click to enlarge); below, a gallant and dashing excerpt from Peter Brook’s 1953 film, courtesy of our friend Allan Janus.
An anonymous pamphlet from around 1733 titled Do you know what you are about? or, A Protestant alarm to Great Britain rails against the egregious inroads that Roman Catholic degeneracy, not least in the form of Italian opera, were making in England.
Händel and Senesino are particularly singled out for “playing at the dog and bear, exactly like the two kings of Poland contending for the Empire of Doremifa” in contrast to the humble, hardworking John Gay, whose praiseworthy Beggar’s opera reached the stage only through his own admirable toil and steadfastness.
This according to William Charles Smith’s “Do you know what you are about?: A rare Handelian pamphlet”, an article in The music review no. 98 (2 April 1964, pp. 114–19); the issue, which honors the 70th birthday of the English librarian, bibliographer, and honorary curator of the Royal Music Library Cecil Bernard Oldman (1894–1969), is covered in our recently published Liber Amicorum: Festschriften for music scholars and nonmusicians, 1840–1966.
Above, a satirical depiction by John Vanderbank from around 1723 of Senesino, Francesca Cuzzoni, and Gaetano Berenstadt performing in a Händel opera (probably Flavio, re di Longobardi).