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John Watts: Kingpin of Ballad Opera Publishing

Woodcut Printing Press

Woodcut Printing Press


John Watts made his career as a publisher during the 18th century in England. While he most likely was successful before and after the rise and fall of ballad opera, during its heyday, he held an unquestioned monopoly in the printing of ballad operas. The reasons for this are up for speculation but they most likely stemmed from his willingness to print the operas with their musical scores and his expertise in doing so. 

A large part of the success of ballad operas hinged upon the likability, recognizability, and, for lack of a better word, singability of the accompanying songs. Playwrights tried to use already popular songs or already successful songs, and composers and lyricists, when used, attempted to make the simplest, catchiest songs possible in an attempt to make the act of singing along as easy and as inclusive as possible. 

Therefore, also of paramount importance to the success of the play was getting the lyrics and the score printed along with the actual script. These published versions were often circulated before the show was played and occasionally allowed playwrights to build fan bases for plays that were, for one reason or another, held back by either the government or reluctant theater managers. Of the publishers enthusiastically publishing plays with their original scores and lyrics, John Watts soon rose to the forefront and siezed control of the industry through a combination of aesthetically pleasing woodcut type and clever placement of the lyrics and score that allowed both to be easily perused at the same time.

As critical as songs were to a play's success, they were also critical to the publisher's pocketbook. Due to this consideration, Watts refused to publish plays that took musical risks and those that did not seem to have a chance with the big theaters. In this way, Watts inadvertently influenced the genre of ballad opera, helping force the genre even closer to mainstream musical tastes while simultaneously limiting the amount of creativity allowed in and associated with the genre. No doubt several excellent plays failed because of the disfavor of Watts and the large theaters and no doubt the favor of John Watts gave several other plays a decided boost.