Entrepreneurialism, celebrity, scandal, extravagance and risk-taking and are all words that could immediately be associated with London and its cultural scene today. However, they’re also equally relevant to the London of the early eighteenth century, which provides the context for so much of Handel’s operatic career. Indeed, Handel’s London was a time of important social and cultural change, making possible a style and quality of opera and musical theatre that had not been seen in England for decades.
During the late seventeenth century wealthy families had been gradually moving to newly developed properties in London’s West End. The role of the court as the central point of everyday life was diminishing, and this position was taken over by the large numbers of West End coffee houses, clubs, public houses and, of course, theatres.
This led to the growth of a new social class at the beginning of the eighteenth century, which incorporated not only the nobility and extremely wealthy but also those whose occupations meant that they spent time with the aristocracy, including doctors, lawyers, financial advisors and high-level artists or musicians. Alongside the rising of the upper/middle classes came the competitive desire to be seen at the right places with the right people. This obsession with public consumption extended to the cultural sphere, meaning that to be seen at the most exclusive events and performances became a vital part of everyday life.
As the middle/upper class grew, so came the simultaneous diminishing of the importance of court and the monarchy. Although opera began as a courtly entertainment, reliant on wealthy patrons and court commissions, Charles II (1630-1685) and his successors could not afford to pay for a court theatre or to put money into the arts on a lavish scale comparable to the first half of the seventeenth century. Queen Anne (1665-1714) allegedly preferred to play cards than to attend the opera, and there was no formal royal subsidy before the foundation of the Royal Academy of Music in 1719.
The focus shifted, then, to a commercial theatre where the ticket sales to the public (and particularly to this rising middle/upper class) became vital in sustaining such a famously expensive art form. The importance of the public, and of making productions attractive and exciting, became paramount and theatres competed viciously with each other to try to get the best singers and most elaborate and impressive set and costume designs.
The fights and scandals of some of the most famous opera singers filled the papers of the time, with the contention between the ‘rival Queens’ (Italian sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni and Faustina Bordoni) resulting, in 1727, in a physical fight on the stage of the King’s Theatre in front of the Princess of Wales. Cuzzoni also refused to sing an aria that Handel had written as it had not been composed specifically for her, and Susannah Cibber, Handel’s favourite soprano, was sued by her cuckolded husband after details emerged into the public sphere concerning her scandalous affair with a younger man.
All this only emphasises how key the public was in the production and publicity of opera in Handel’s London. The fact that Handel kept Cuzzoni and Bordoni on as sopranos after their infamous onstage fight (all publicity is good publicity!) demonstrates how important the entertainment and titillation of the contemporary audience was in ensuring that the production of opera came as close to a sustainable business model as possible.
Despite such publicity, the finances remained complicated to balance. To avoid draining both singers and audiences opera was usually not performed on more than two nights a week across a seven or eight month season. It proved a difficult business to run – Aaron Hill, the first manager Handel worked with in London, was fired after just the second performance of Rinaldo, and Hill’s successor, Owen Swiney, then fled the country in 1713 unable to pay off his debts.
So, we see that Handel’s London was one where a growing upper/middle class had become more demanding of their theatre. If they were to pay for a ticket, they required a truly entertaining experience, with spectacular sets and star singers. As theatres fought for the public’s attention and patronage, the expensive nature of opera meant that it often became an inevitable casualty. However, the passion and entrepreneurial spirit of those who were putting it on stage, Handel himself included, meant that even when it seemed impossible and impractical to continue, somehow they continued to find a way. Handel’s operatic compositions are inseparable from this exciting and risky theatrical context.
ENO's new production of Handel's Rodelinda opens on 28 February.