Manners And Customs At The London Opera Half A Century Since


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


"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


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.


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


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.