John Gay and the Origin of the Ballad Opera
Ballad Opera is an English genre that grew to great prominence from 1728 through 1750. It is recognizable for its satirical and comedic parody of the popular Italian opera that dominated European theatre companies at the time. While this particular style of play did utilize traditional conventions of opera, it was different in its use of loosely written prose interspersed with mainstream songs that were prominent among the London masses. The songs in general were typically folk songs from England, Scotland, and Ireland with new lyrics specific to the play replacing the original words. In contrast to the dramatic and grandiose themes that characterized the Italian opera seria, the ballad opera gave the townspeople in the city streets popular music and common topics of conversation with which they could identify. The main characters of ballad operas were typically commoners and rogues, contrasting with the aristocratic heroes of Italian opera.
A celebrated poet and playwright of his time, John Gay (1685-1732) wrote many plays and poems of widely variable popularity. After an initial rejection of the play by Drury Lane, on June 29, 1728 Lincoln’s Inn Fields staged a performance of Gay’s Beggar’s Opera, the first ballad opera written and the first performed on the English stage. This theatre performance ran for sixty-two consecutive performances, which was the longest run in theatrical history at the time.
The Beggar’s Opera had a significant effect on English theatre after its initial run. Firstly, it signalled an end of the popularity of Italian opera in England. Secondly, the success of The Beggar’s Opera influenced many playwrights to pen their own ballad operas, establishing ballad opera as a viable genre.