Informational Site NetworkInformational Site Network
Privacy
 
     Home - All Operas - Opera Stories - Opera History - Opera Physiology

Donizetti And Bellini
French Opera From Lulli To The Death Of Rameau
General View Of The Opera In Europe In The Eighteenth Century Until The Appearance Of Gluck
Gluck And Piccinni In Paris
Introduction And Progress Of The Ballet
Introduction Of Italian Opera Into England
Introduction Of The Opera Into France And England
Manners And Customs At The London Opera Half A Century Since
On The Nature Of The Opera And Its Merits As Compared With Other Forms Of The Drama
Opera In France After The Departure Of Gluck
Opera In France Under The Consulate Empire And Restoration
Opera In Italy Germany And Russia During And In Connection With The Republican And Napoleonic Wars
Rossini And His Period
Rossini Spohr Beethoven Weber And Hoffmann
Rousseau As A Critic And As A Composer Of Music
The French Opera Before And After The Revolution
The Italian Opera Under Handel
The Opera In England At The End Of The Eighteenth And Beginning Of The Nineteenth Century
The Origin Of The Opera In Italy And Its Introduction Into Germany


History Of The Opera From Its Origin In Italy To The Present Tim




Manners And Customs At The London Opera Half A Century Since








[Sidenote: A MANAGER IN THE BENCH.]

A complete History of the Opera would include a history of operatic
music, a history of operatic dancing, a history of the chief operatic
theatres, and a history of operatic society. I have made no attempt to
treat the subject on such a grand scale; but though I shall have little
to say about the principal lyrical theatres of Europe, or of the habits
of opera-goers as a European class, there is one great musical dramatic
establishment, to whose fortunes I must pay some special attention, and
concerning whose audiences much may be said that will at least interest
an English reader. After several divided reigns at the Lincoln's Inn
Theatre, at Covent Garden, at the Pantheon, and at the King's Theatre,
Italian Opera found itself, in 1793, established solely and majestically
at the last of these houses, which I need hardly remind the reader was
its first home in England. The management was now exercised by Mr.
Taylor, the proprietor. This gentleman, who was originally a banker's
clerk, appears to have had no qualification for his more exalted
position, beyond the somewhat questionable one of a taste for
speculation. He is described as having had "all Sheridan's deficiency of
financial arrangement, without that extraordinary man's resources."
Nevertheless he was no bad hand at borrowing money. All the advances,
however, made to him by his friends, to enable him to undertake the
management of the Opera, are said to have been repaid. Mr. Ebers, his
not unfriendly biographer, finds it difficult to account for this, and
can only explain it by the excellent support the Opera received at the
period. Mr. Taylor was what in the last century was called "a humorist."
Not that he possessed much humour, but he was a queer, eccentric man,
and given to practical jokes, which, in the present day, would not be
thought amusing even by the friends of those injured by them. On one
occasion, Taylor having been prevailed upon to invite a number of
persons to breakfast, spread a report that he intended to set them down
to empty plates. He, moreover, recommended each of the guests, in an
anonymous letter, to turn the tables on the would-be ingenious Taylor,
by taking to the déjeuner a supply of suitable provisions, so that the
inhospitable inviter might be shamed and the invited enabled to feast in
company, notwithstanding his machinations to the contrary. The manager
enjoyed such a reputation for liberality that no one doubted the
statement contained in the anonymous letter.

Each of the guests sent or took in his carriage a certain quantity of
eatables, and when all had arrived, the happy Taylor found his room
filled with all the materials for a monster picnic. Breakfast had been
prepared, the guests sat down to table, some amused, others disgusted at
the hoax which had been practised upon them, and Taylor ordered the
game, preserved meats, lobsters, champagne, &c., into his own larder and
wine cellar.

Even while directing the affairs of the Opera, Taylor passed a
considerable portion of his time in the King's Bench, or within its
"rules."

"How can you conduct the management of the King's Theatre," a friend
asked him one day, "perpetually in durance as you are?"

"My dear fellow," he replied, "how could I possibly conduct it if I were
at liberty? I should be eaten up, sir--devoured. Here comes a
dancer,--'Mr. Taylor, I want such a dress;' another, 'I want such and
such ornaments.' One singer demands to sing in a part not allotted to
him; another, to have an addition to his appointments. No, let me be
shut up and they go to Masterson (Taylor's secretary); he, they are
aware, cannot go beyond his line; but if they get at me--pshaw! no man
at large can manage that theatre; and in faith," he added, "no man that
undertakes it ought to go at large."

Though Mr. Taylor lived within the "rules," the "rules" in no way
governed him. He would frequently go away for days together into the
country and amuse himself with fishing, of which he appears to have
been particularly fond. At one time, while living within the "rules," he
inherited a large sum of money, which he took care not to devote to the
payment of his debts. He preferred investing it in land, bought an
estate in the country (with good fishing), and lived for some months the
quiet, peaceable life of an ardent, enthusiastic angler, until at last
the sheriffs broke in upon his repose and carried him back captive to
prison.

But the most extraordinary exploit performed by Taylor during the period
of his supposed incarceration, was of a political nature. He went down
to Hull at the time of an election and actually stood for the borough.
He was not returned--or rather he was returned to prison.

[Sidenote: THE PANTHEON.]

One way and another Mr. Taylor seems to have made a great deal of money
out of the Opera; and at one time he hit upon a plan which looked at
first as if it had only to be pursued with boldness to increase his
income to an indefinite amount. This simple expedient consisted in
raising the price of the subscribers' boxes. For the one hundred and
eighty pound boxes he charged three hundred pounds, and so in proportion
with all the others. A meeting of subscribers having been held, at
which, although the expensive Catalani was engaged, it was decided that
the proposed augmentation was not justified by the rate of the receipts
and disbursements, and this decision having been communicated to Taylor,
he replied, that if the subscribers resisted his just demands he would
shut up their boxes. In consequence of this defiant conduct on the part
of the manager, many of the subscribers withdrew from the theatre and
prevailed upon Caldas, a Portuguese wine merchant, to re-open the
Pantheon for the performance of concerts and all such music as could be
executed without infringing the licence of the King's Theatre. The
Pantheon speculation prospered at first, but the seceders from the
King's Theatre missed their operas, and doubtless also their ballets. A
sort of compromise was effected between them and Taylor, who persisted,
however, in keeping up the price of his boxes; and the unfortunate
Caldas, utterly deserted by those who had dragged him from his
wine-cellars to expose him to the perils of musical speculation, became
a bankrupt.

Taylor was now in his turn brought to account. Waters, his partner in
the proprietorship of the King's Theatre, had been proceeding against
him in Chancery, and it was ordered that the partnership should be
dissolved and the house sold. To the great annoyance of the public, the
first step taken in the affair was to close the theatre,--the
chancellor, who is said to have had no ear for music, having refused to
appoint a manager.

It was proposed by private friends that Taylor should cede his interest
in the theatre to Waters; but it was difficult to bring them to any
understanding on the subject, or even to arrange an interview between
them. Waters prided himself on the decorum of his conduct, while Taylor
appears to have aimed at quite a contrary reputation. All business
transactions, prior to Taylor's arrest, had been rendered nearly
impossible between them; because one would attend to no affairs on
Sunday, while the other, with a just fear of writs before him, objected
to show himself in London on any other day. The sight of Waters,
moreover, is said to have rendered Taylor "passionate and scurrilous;"
and while the negociations were being carried on, through
intermediaries, between himself and his partner, he entered into a
treaty with the lessee of the Pantheon, with the view of opening it in
opposition to the King's Theatre.

Ultimately, the management of the theatre was confided, under certain
restrictions, to Mr. Waters; but even now possession was not given up to
him without a struggle.

[Sidenote: WITHIN THE "RULES."]

When Mr. Waters' people were refused admittance by Mr. Taylor's people,
words led to blows. The adherents of the former partners, and actual
enemies and rivals, fought valiantly on both sides, but luck had now
turned against Taylor, and his party were defeated and ejected. That
night, however, when the Watersites fancied themselves secure in their
stronghold, the Taylorites attacked them; effected a breach in the stage
door, stormed the passage, gained admittance to the stage, and finally
drove their enemies out into the Haymarket. The unmusical chancellor,
whose opinion of the Opera could scarcely have been improved by the
lawless proceeding of those connected with it, was again appealed to;
and Waters established himself in the theatre by virtue of an order from
the court.

The series of battles at the King's Theatre terminated with the European
war. Napoleon was at Elba, Mr. Taylor still in the Bench, when Mr.
Waters opened the Opera, and, during the great season which followed the
peace of 1814, gained seven thousand pounds.

Taylor appears to have ended his days in prison; profiting freely by the
"rules," and when at head quarters enjoying the society of Sir John and
Lady Ladd. The trio seem, on the whole, to have led a very agreeable
prison life (and, though strictly forbidden to wander from the jail
beyond their appointed tether, appear in many respects to have been
remarkably free.) Taylor's great natural animal spirits increased with
the wine he consumed; and occasionally his behaviour was such as would
certainly have shocked Waters. On one occasion, his elation is said to
have carried him so beyond bounds, that Lady Ladd found it expedient to
empty the tea-kettle over him.

[Sidenote: MR. EBERS' MANAGEMENT.]

In 1816 the Opera, by direction of the Chancellor, (it was a fortunate
thing that this time he did not order it to be pulled down,) was again
put up for sale, and purchased out and out by Waters for seven thousand
one hundred and fifty pounds. As the now sole proprietor was unable to
pay into court even the first instalment of the purchase money,[78] he
mortgaged the theatre, with a number of houses belonging to him, to
Chambers the banker. Taylor, who had no longer any sort of connection
with the Opera, at present amused himself by writing anonymous letters
to Mr. Chambers, prophesying the ruin of Waters, and giving dismal but
grotesque pictures of the manager's penniless and bailiff-persecuted
position. Mr. Ebers, who was a great deal mixed up with operatic affairs
before assuming the absolute direction of the Opera, also came in for
his share of these epistles, which every one seems to have instantly
recognised as the production of Taylor. "If Waters is with you at
Brompton," he once wrote to Mr. Ebers, "for God's sake send him away
instantly, for the bailiffs (alias bloodhounds) are out after him in all
directions; and tell Chambers not to let him stay at Enfield, because
that is a suspected place; and so is Lee's in York Street, Westminster,
and Di Giovanni, in Smith Street, and Reed's in Flask Lane--both in
Chelsea. It was reported he was seen in the lane near your house an
evening or two ago, with his eye blacked, and in the great coat and hat
of a Chelsea pensioner." At another time, Mr. Chambers was informed that
Michael Kelly, the singer, was at an hotel at Brighton, on the point of
death, and desirous while he yet lived to communicate something very
important respecting Waters. The holder of Waters' mortgage took a post
chaise and four and hurried in great alarm to Brighton, where he found
Michael Kelly sitting in his balcony, with a pine apple and a bottle of
claret before him.

Taylor's prophecies concerning Waters, after all, came true. His
embarrassments increased year by year, and in 1820 an execution was put
into the theatre at the suit of Chambers. Ten performances were yet due
to the subscribers, when, on the evening of the 15th of August, bills
were posted on the walls of the theatre, announcing that the Opera was
closed. Mr. Waters did not join his former partner in the Bench, but
retired to Calais.

Mr. Ebers's management commenced in 1821. He formed an excellent
company, of which several singers, still under engagement to Mr. Waters,
formed part, and which included among the singers, Madame Camporese,
Madame Vestris, Madame Ronzi de Begnis; and M. M. Ambrogetti, Angrisani,
Begrez, and Curioni. The chief dancers (as already mentioned in the
previous chapter), were Noblet, Fanny Bias, and Albert. The season was a
short one, it was considered successful, though the manager but lost
money by it. The selection of operas was admirable, and consisted of
Paer's Agnese, Rossini's Gazza Ladra, Tancredi and Turco in
Italia, with Mozart's Clemenza di Tito, Don Giovanni, and Nozze
di Figaro. The manager's losses were already seven thousand pounds. By
way of encouraging him, Mr. Chambers increased his rent the following
year from three thousand one hundred and eighty pounds to ten thousand.
It is right to add, that in the meanwhile Mr. Chambers had bought up
Waters's entire interest in the Opera for eighty thousand pounds.
Altogether, by buying and selling the theatre, Waters had cleared no
less than seventy-three thousand pounds. Not contented with this, he no
sooner heard of the excellent terms on which Mr. Chambers had let the
house, than he made an application (a fruitless one), to the
ever-to-be-tormented Chancellor, to have the deed of sale declared
invalid.

During Mr. Ebers's management, from the beginning of 1821 to the end of
1827, he lost money regularly every year; the smallest deficit in the
budget of any one season being that of the last, when the manager
thought himself fortunate to be minus only three thousand pounds (within
a few sovereigns).

After Mr. Ebers's retirement, the management of the Opera was undertaken
by Messrs. Laporte and Laurent. Mr. Laporte was succeeded by Mr. Lumley,
the history of whose management belongs to a much later period than that
treated of in the present chapter.

* * * * *

[Sidenote: THE KING'S THEATRE IN 1789.]

During the early part of the last century, the character of the London
Opera House, as a fashionable place of entertainment, and in some other
respects, appears to have considerably changed. Before the fire in
1789, the subscription to a box for fifty representations was at the
rate of twenty guineas a seat. The charge for pit tickets was at this
time ten shillings and sixpence; so that a subscriber who meant to be a
true habitué, and visited the Opera every night, saved five guineas by
becoming a subscriber. At this time, too, the theatre was differently
constructed, and there were only thirty-six private boxes, eighteen
arranged in three rows on each side of the house. "The boxes," says Lord
Mount Edgcumbe, in his "Musical Reminiscences," "were then much larger
and more commodious than they are now, and could contain with ease more
than their allotted subscribers; far different from the miserable
pigeon-holes of the present theatre, into which six persons can scarcely
be squeezed, whom, in most situations, two-thirds can never see the
stage. The front," continues Lord Mount Edgcumbe, "was then occupied by
open public boxes, or amphitheatre (as it is called in French
theatres), communicating with the pit. Both of these were filled,
exclusively, with the highest classes of society; all, without
exception, in full dress, then universally worn. The audiences thus
assembled were considered as indisputably presenting a finer spectacle
than any other theatre in Europe, and absolutely astonished the foreign
performers, to whom such a sight was entirely new. At the end of the
performance, the company of the pit and boxes repaired to the
coffee-room, which was then the best assembly in London; private ones
being rarely given on opera nights; and all the first society was
regularly to be seen there. Over the front box was the five shilling
gallery; then resorted to by respectable persons not in full dress: and
above that an upper gallery, to which the admission was three shillings.
Subsequently the house was encircled with private boxes; yet still the
prices remained the same, and the pit preserved its respectability, and
even grandeur, till the old house was burnt down in 1789."

* * * * *

[Sidenote: THE KING'S THEATRE IN 1789.]

When the Opera was rebuilt, the number of representations for the
season, was increased to sixty, and the subscription was at the same
time raised to thirty guineas, so that the admission to a box still did
not exceed the price of a pit ticket. During the second year of
Catalani's engagement, however, when she obtained a larger salary than
had ever been paid to a singer before, the subscription for a whole box
with accommodation for six persons, was raised from one hundred and
eighty to three hundred guineas. This, it will, perhaps, be remembered,
was to some extent a cunning device of Taylor's; at least, it was
considered so at the time by the subscribers, though the expenses of the
theatre had much increased, and the terms on which Catalani was engaged,
were really enormous.[79] Dr. Veron, in his interesting memoirs (to
which, by the way, I may refer all those who desire full particulars
respecting the management of the French Opera during the commencement of
the Meyerbeer period) tells us that, at the end of the continental war,
the price of the demi-tasse in the cafés of Paris was raised from six
to eight sous, and that it has never been lowered. So it is in
taxation. An impost once established, unless the people absolutely
refuse to pay it, is never taken off; and so it has been with the boxes
at the London Opera House. The price of the best boxes once raised from
one hundred and eighty to three hundred guineas, was never, to any
considerable extent, diminished, and hence the custom arose of halving
and sub-dividing the subscriptions, so that very few persons have now
the sole ownership of a box. Hence, too, that of letting them for the
night, and selling the tickets when the proprietor does not want them.
This latter practice must have had the effect of lessening considerably
the profits directly resulting from the high sums charged for the boxes.
The price of admission to the pit being ten shillings and six-pence, the
subscribers, through the librarians, and the librarians, who had
themselves speculated in boxes, found it necessary in order to get rid
of the box-tickets singly, to sell them at a reduced price. This
explains why, for many years past, the ordinary price of pit tickets at
the libraries and at shops of all kinds in the vicinity of the Opera,
has been only eight shillings and six-pence. No one but a foreigner or a
countryman, inexperienced in the ways of London, would think of paying
ten shillings and six-pence at the theatre for admission to the pit;
indeed, it is a species of deception to continue that charge at all,
though it certainly does happen once or twice in a great many years that
the public profit by the establishment of a fixed official price for pit
tickets. Thus, during the great popularity of Jenny Lind, the box
tickets giving the right of entry to the pit, were sold for a guinea,
and even thirty shillings, and thousands of persons were imbecile enough
to purchase them, whereas, at the theatre itself, anyone could, as
usual, go into the pit by paying ten shillings and six-pence.

[Sidenote: THE KING'S THEATRE IN 1789.]

"Formerly," to go back to Lord Mount Edgcumbe's interesting remarks on
this subject, "every lady possessing an opera box, considered it as much
her home as her house, and was as sure to be found there, few missing
any of the performances. If prevented from going, the loan of her box
and the gratuitous use of the tickets was a favour always cheerfully
offered and thankfully received, as a matter of course, without any idea
of payment. Then, too, it was a favour to ask gentlemen to belong to a
box, when subscribing to one was actually advantageous. Now, no lady can
propose to them to give her more than double the price of the admission
at the door, so that having paid so exorbitantly, every one is glad to
be re-imbursed a part, at least, of the great expense which she must
often support alone. Boxes and tickets, therefore, are no longer given;
they are let for what can be got; for which traffic the circulating
libraries afford an easy accommodation. Many, too, which are not taken
for the season, are disposed of in the same manner, and are almost put
up to auction. Their price varying from three to eight, or even ten
guineas, according to the performance of the evening, and other
accidental circumstances." From these causes the whole style of the
opera house, as regards the audience, has become changed. "The pit has
long ceased to be the resort of ladies of fashion, and, latterly, by the
innovations introduced, is no longer agreeable to the former male
frequenters of it." This state of things, however, has been altered, if
not remedied, from the opera-goers' point of view, by the introduction
of stalls where the manager compensates himself for the slightly reduced
price of pit tickets, by charging exactly double what was paid for
admission to the pit under the old system.

[Sidenote: OPERA COSTUME IN 1861.]

On the whole, the Opera has become less aristocratic, less respectable,
and far more expensive than of old. Those who, under the ancient system,
paid ten shillings and six-pence to go to the pit, must now, to obtain
the same amount of comfort, give a guinea for a stall, while "most
improper company is sometimes to be seen even in the principal tiers;
and tickets bearing the names of ladies of the highest class have been
presented by those of the lowest, such as used to be admitted only to
the hindmost rows of the gallery." The last remark belongs to Lord Mount
Edgcumbe, but it is, at least, as true now as it was thirty years ago.
Numbers of objectionable persons go to the Opera as to all other public
places, and I do not think it would be fair to the respectable lovers of
music who cannot afford to pay more than a few shillings for their
evening's entertainment, that they should be all collected in the
gallery. It would, moreover, be placing too much power in the hands of
the operatic officials, who already show themselves sufficiently severe
censors in the article of dress. I do not know whether it is chiefly a
disgrace to the English public or to the English system of operatic
management; but it certainly is disgraceful, that a check-taker at a
theatre should be allowed to exercise any supervision, or make the
slightest remark concerning the costume of a gentleman choosing to
attend that theatre, and conforming generally in his conduct and by his
appearance to the usages of decent society. It is not found necessary to
enforce any regulation as to dress at other opera houses, not even in
St. Petersburgh and Moscow, where, as the theatres are directed by the
Imperial Government, one might expect to find a more despotic code of
laws in force than in a country like England. When an Englishman goes to
a morning or evening concert, he does not present himself in the attire
of a scavenger, and there is no reason for supposing that he would
appear in any unbecoming garb, if liberty of dress were permitted to him
at the Opera. The absurdity of the present system is that, whereas, a
gentleman who has come to London only for a day or two, and does not
happen to have a dress-coat in his portmanteau; who happens even to be
dressed in exact accordance with the notions of the operatic
check-takers, except as to his cravat, which we will suppose through the
eccentricity of the wearer, to be black, with the smallest sprig, or
spray, or spot of some colour on it; while such a one would be regarded
as unworthy to enter the pit of the Opera, a waiter from an oyster-shop,
in his inevitable black and white, reeking with the drippings of
shell-fish, and the fumes of bad tobacco, or a drunken undertaker, fresh
from a funeral, coming with the required number of shillings in his
dirty hands, could not be refused admission. If the check-takers are
empowered to inspect and decide as to the propriety of the cut and
colour of clothes, why should they not also be allowed to examine the
texture? On the same principle, too, the cleanliness of opera goers
ought to be enquired into. No one, whose hair is not properly brushed,
should be permitted to enter the stalls, and visitors to the pit should
be compelled to show their nails.

I will conclude this chapter with an extract from an epistle from a
gentleman, who, during Mr. Ebers's management of the King's Theatre, was
a victim to the despotic (and, in the main, unnecessary) regulations of
which I have been speaking. I cannot say I feel any sympathy for this
particular sufferer; but his letter is amusing. "I was dressed," he
says, in his protest forwarded to the manager the next morning, "in a
superfine blue coat, with gold buttons, a white waistcoat,
fashionable tight drab pantaloons, white silk stockings, and dress
shoes; all worn but once a few days before at a dress concert at the
Crown and Anchor Tavern!" The italics, and mark of admiration, are the
property of the gentleman in the superfine blue coat, who next proceeds
to express his natural indignation at the idea of the manager presuming
to "enact sumptuary laws without the intervention of the legislature,"
and threatens him with legal proceedings, and an appeal to British jury.
"I have mixed," he continues, "too much in genteel society, not to know
that black breeches, or pantaloons, with black silk stockings, is a very
prevailing full dress; and why is it so? Because it is convenient and
economical, for you can wear a pair of white silk stockings but once
without washing, and a pair of black is frequently worn for weeks
without ablution. P. S. I have no objection to submit an inspection of
my dress of the evening in question to you, or any competent person you
may appoint."

[Sidenote: OPERA COSTUME IN 1861.]

If this gentleman, instead of being excluded, had been admitted into the
theatre, the silent ridicule to which his costume would have exposed
him, would have effectually prevented him from making his appearance
there in any such guise again. It might also have acted as a terrible
warning to others inclined to sin in a similar manner.





Next: Rossini And His Period

Previous: Opera In Italy Germany And Russia During And In Connection With The Republican And Napoleonic Wars



Add to del.icio.us Add to Reddit Add to Digg Add to Del.icio.us Add to Google Add to Twitter Add to Stumble Upon
Add to Informational Site Network
Report
Privacy
SHAREADD TO EBOOK


Viewed 834