Opera on the Stage of London - 1700-1800

Michael Burden

New College, Oxford

The course `Opera on the Stage in London - 1700-1800' deals with the staging of English and Continental opera in 18th-century London theatres, both in the playhouses and in the opera houses. It takes directions from late 17th-century theatre, and makes reference to the first half of the 19th century, up to the remodelling of the Covent Garden theatre as an Italian opera house in 1847. The course combines a number of theoretical disciplines essential for the understanding of opera in London, including architecture, lighting, scene painting, costume design, theatrical dance, and theatre orchestras, with practical aspects of staging opera, such as staging of arias and the marking up of a libretto, aspects which are addressed in specific tasks. Although centering on London, the city offering the greatest variety of operatic activity in Europe, it will also require study of Continental techniques, many of which were imported into England.

The purpose of the course is threefold. Firstly, it is intended to develop basic research skills in handling the multitude of sources relevant to opera history - libretti, scores, dance, music, and acting treatises, separately published music, theatre accounts, and architectural, scenic, and costume designs. Secondly, it requires the application of the knowledge thus gained to practical exercises in historical staging. And thirdly, it offers a basis for `reading' opera that goes beyond, but also compliments, the study of the artefact on one hand, and the examination of reception history on the other. It will enable the opera analyst to ask what the audience
and the critics actually saw and heard. Among the multifarious questions the course addresses are: what was distance between the audience and the performers?; what influence did the changing stage space have on the acoustics?; what role, if any, did gesture play in performance?; at what point can the performance be described as a `production' rather than just a `staging'?; and, what implications are there for opera in the development of staging techniques? Throughout the course, the candidates are required to examine what might be described as the `aesthetics of performance'. By examining how opera libretti and scores were adapted, rehearsed, and `received', they must answer the question what did London audiences demand?

Course Description

The course, which requires good literary and visual skills as well as an understanding of operatic music, is designed to fit into an Oxford term of eight weeks, with a paper to be taken in the Final Honour School Examination in June, the last examination of the Oxford undergraduate degree. The months between the first part of the course - Weeks 1-4 - and the second part - Weeks 5-8 - are designed for the candidates to read all outstanding material, and to familiarise themselves with the sources, both theoretical - the treatises, criticism, and so on - and the practical - the libretti and musical sources.

Course Plan

The course falls into two parts. Part I will involve four 2 hour lectures in Michaelmas Term (usually the first four weeks of October), while Part II will involve three 2 hour practical classes and one 2 hour revision class in Trinity Term (usually the first four weeks of May).

Part I

Week 1/1 - I: Bibliography and issues of libretto.
Week 2/2 - II: Theatre design and staging implications.
Week 3/3 - III: Set and costume design.
Week 4/4 - IV: Evidence for performance.

Part II

Week 5/1 - Preparing a libretto.
Week 6/2 - Plotting an aria.
Week 7/3 - The use of gesture.
Week 8/4 - Revision.


A volume of extracts from original sources will be made available, but candidates should be aware that all original sources required for the course are available in the Bodleian Library. As well, much of the secondary bibliography of this subject is source based, and should not be ignored because it is secondary or because it is `old'. It is also vast, and the week by week reading should be honed as the candidate's interests develop. Below is a list of compulsory background reading, knowledge of which will be assumed in the second part of the course, and in the examination.
Dean Barnett, The Art of Gesture: the practices and principles of 18th century Acting (Heidlberg, 1987); Lorenzo Bianconi and Giorgio Pestelli, eds., Opera Production and its Resources (Chicago, 1998); Jean-Jacques Nouverre, Letters on Dancing and Ballet, trans. C. W. Beaumont (London, 1930); Reinhard G.
Pauly, `Benedetto Marcello's Il Teatro alla Moda', Musical Quarterly, xxiv (1948), 222-233; 371-403, and xxv (1949), 85-105; Curtis Price, Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, The Impresario's Ten Commandments (London, 1992); John Roselli, The Opera Industry in Italy from Cimarosa to Verdi (Cambridge, 1984); Roger Savage, `The Staging of Opera' in The Oxford Illustrated History of Opera, ed. Roger Parker (Oxford, 1994),

Part I

Week 1/1 - I: Bibliography and issues of libretto
The first seminar will consist of discussion of the available literature, how and what to read, and suggestions about how to focus study on certain areas of the repertoire - Handel, for instance, or operas in the 1740s, or Italian opera at the King's Theatre. Recommendations will also be made for listening, depending on a candidate's preferences for different repertories. The seminar will also deal with issues relating to the contemporary opera libretto, the separately published text of the work. It will include questions of stability, and its relationship to the musical and theatrical sources. Special attention will be paid to prompter's copies, libretti which were marked up by the prompter, who was often in charge of recording the production for performance purposes and for future reference. Given that much of the opera seen and heard in London was imported from the Continent, it will also look at structural aspects of the libretto in different operatic traditions. Sources discussed here will include Handel libretti, material from the Larpent collection of plays and opera libretti, and some from the Walter N. Harding collection in the Bodleian Library.
Bibliography: Michael Burden, Garrick, Arne and the Masque of Alfred (Lewiston, 1994), appendices I, II, 129-147; Robert Freeman, `Apostolo Zeno's reform of the libretto', JAMS, xxi (1968), 321-41; Daniel Heartz, `The Poet as Stage designer: Metastasio, Goldoni, and da Ponte', in Mozart's Operas, Thomas Bauman ed. (Berkeley, 1990), 89-105; William C. Holmes, Opera Observed: views of a Florentine Impresario in the Early Eighteenth Century (Chicago, 1993), Chapter 3, `Librettos Revised'; J. D. Lindberg, The German Baroque Opera Libretto', in The German Baroque: literature, music, art (Austin, 1972), 89-122; Marita McClymonds, `Mattia Verazi and the Opera at Mannheim, Stuttgart and Ludwigsburg,' in Studies in Music for the University of Western Ontario, vii/2 (1982), 99-136; Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, `A prompt copy of Handel's Radamisto', Musical Times, cxxvii (1986), 316-21; Nino Pirotta, `Metastasio and the Demands of his Literary Environment', Studies in Music for the University of Western Ontario, vii/2 (1982), 10-27; Michael F. Robinson, Naples and Neapolitan Opera (Oxford, 1972), chapters 2 and 5, Heroic opera - the texts', and `Comic opera - the texts'; Ellen Rosand, `In defense of the Venetian libretto', Studi Musicali, ix (1980), 271-85; Patrick J. Smith, The Tenth Muse, a historical study of the opera libretto (New York, 1970); Fabrizio della Seta, `The Librettist', in Lorenzo Bianconi and Giorgio Pestelli, eds., Opera Production and its Resources (Chicago, 1998), 229-290; Reinhard Strohm, Essays on Handel and the Italian Opera (Cambridge, 1985), pp 34-79 - `Handel and his Italian Opera Texts'; Charles Troy, The Comic Intermezzo (Ann Arbor, 1979); P. Weiss, Carlo Goldoni, librettist: the early years (diss., Columbia U, 1970); , `Venetian Comedia dell'arte `operas' in the Age of Vivaldi', Musical Quarterly, lxx (1984), 195-217.

Week 2/2 - II: Theatre design and staging implications

The material in the second seminar will deal with the design of the London theatres, in particular the issue of the forestage. Unlike Continental theatres, those in London possessed a forestage, a large stage which protruded beyond the proscenium arch. This feature was altered several times in the 18th century, and had a profound influence on staging, acoustics, and the orchestra. It will also touch on the issue of the on-stage audience, and the growing division between the stage and auditorium. Sources discussed here include architectural plans of the King's, Pantheon, Drury Lane and Covent Garden theatres.
Bibliography: Barbara Coeyman, `Theatres for Opera and Balletdd during the reign of Louis XIV and Louis XV', Early Music, xxviii/1 (1990), 22-37; and on the Dorset Garden Theatre: R. D. Hume, `The Dorset Garden Theatre: a review of facts and problems', Theatre Notebook, xxxiii/2 (1979), 4-17; Edward A. Langhans, `A Conjectural Reconstruction of the Dorset Garden Theatre', Theatre Survey, xxiii (1972), 74-93; John R. Spring, `The Dorset Garden Theatre: Playhouse or Opera House?', Theatre Notebook, xxxiv/2 (1980), 60-9; Colin Visser, `French opera and the making of Dorset Garden Theatre', Theatre
Research International, vi (1981), 163-71; Gustavian Opera: Swedish opera, dance and theatre 1771-1809 (Royal Swedish Academy of Music, 1991), The Theatres, 47-122; G. Hilleström, The Drottningholm Theatre, then and now (Stockholm, 1956); William Kendall, `Did the apron-stage retreat?', Theatre Notebook, lxvii/2 (1993), 76-79; R. Leacroft, The Development of the English Playhouse (London, 2/1988); Lee J. Martin, `From forestage to proscenium: a study of Restoration staging techniques', Theatre Survey, iv (1963), 3-28; D. C. Mullin, `Theatre Structure and its effect on the Production', in The Stage and The Page, ed. Geo. Winchester Stone, jnr (Berkeley, 1981), 73-89.

Week 3/3 - III: Set and costume design

The third seminar will deal with the history of stage design as it relates to London, touching on moveable scenery, the move from formality to informality, changes in attitude to costuming, and the development of the concept of `production'. No complete sets of designs survives for London, but material which will be used to re-construct the picture will include the Thornhill drawings for Arsinoe, Queen of Cyprus, material by de Loutherbourg, and designs by Clarkson Stanfield.
Bibliography: C. Ault, `The "Scene per Angolo" at the Teatro della Fortuna', Theatre History Studies, viii (1988), 206-210; P. Bjurström, Giocomo Torelli and Baroque Stage Design (Stockholm, 1961); E. Carrick, `Theatre Machines in Italy 1400-1800', Architectural Review, lxx/416 (1931), 9-14, 34-6; C. Durand, `The apogee of perspective in the theatre: Ferdinand Bibiena's "Scena per angolo"', Theatre Research International, xiii (1988), 21-9; Jérôme de la Gorce, `Lully's first opera', Early Music, xv/3 (1987), 308-314; J. Hawley, and A Jackson, `Scene changing at the Palais Royale 1770-1781', The Ohio State University Theatre Collection Bulletin, vii (1961), 9-23; Sybil Rosenfeld, Georgian Scene Painters (Cambridge, 1984); Richard Southern, Changeable Scenery (London, 1952).

Week 4/4 - IV: Evidence for performance

The fourth seminar will address what material we have which gives us clues to contemporary performance. Among the issues that will be discussed are rehearsal techniques, gesture used by the singers, and musical ornamentation in arias. It will also consider to what extent the changing styles of acting - the more fluid style of the 1730s, the subsequent style of Garrick, and a later more `natural' style - influenced opera performance and repertoire. Source material here includes Gilbert Austin's Chironomia, and London arias, including those with ornaments by Mozart.
Bibliography: Antonia Banducci, `Staging a tragédie en musique: a 1748 promptbook of Campra's Tancrède', Early Music, xxi/2 (1993), 180-90; David Charlton, `"A maître d'orchestre... conducts"; new and old evidence on French practice', Early Music, xxi/3 (1993), 340-53; Mary Cyr, `The dramatic role of the chorus in French Opera: evidence for the use of gesture, 1670-1770' in Thomas Bauman ed., Opera and the Enlightenment (Cambridge; CUP, 1995), 105-118; Daniel E. Freeman, `An 18th-century singer's commission of "baggage" arias', Early Music, xx/3 (1992), 427-33; Wendy Hilton, Dance and Dance Music of court and theater (New York: Pendragon, 1981); L. Lindgren, `The Staging of Handel's Operas in London', Handel Tercentenary Essays, ed. Stanley Sadie and Antony Hicks (Oxford, 1987), 93-199; Sarah McCleave, `Researching English dance of the first half of the 18th century: a bibliography and commentary in Michael Burden and Irena Cholij eds., A Handbook for Studies in 18th-Century English Music III (Edinburgh, 1993), 1-34; Patricia Ranum, `Audible rhetoric and mute rhetoric: the 17th-century sarabande', Early Music, xiv/1 (1986), 22-40; Lois Rosow, `French baroque recitative as an expression of tragic declamation', Early Music, xi/4 (1983), 468-79; John Spitzer, `Improvised ornamentation in Handel aria with obbligato wind accompaniment', Early Music, xvi/4 (1988), 514-22.

Part II

Week 5/1 - Preparing a libretto.

The first practical seminar will require the preparation by the participants of a marked up libretto, as though recorded by an 18th-century London prompter. The knowledge required for this task includes an understanding of 18th-century plots, an ability to read and interpret stage directions, knowledge of scenic requirements, and in particular, extra cast members not specified by the libretto. Candidates should consult Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, `A prompt copy of Handel's Radamisto', Musical Times, cxxvii (1986), 316-21.

Week 6/2 - Plotting an aria.

The second practical seminar will require the selection of an aria from an opera performed in London, and the preparation of a plot to show how it might have been staged. Knowledge required for this task includes the conventions of staging such as entries and exits, the positioning on stage of the singer, and historical background material including theatre design, positioning of the audience, and the relationship of the performers both physically and musically to the orchestra.

Week 7/3 - The use of gesture.

The third practical seminar will deal with the application of the theories of gesture to the musical text of an aria. This requires the selection of an aria, and the preparation of a set of gestures which might have been used in its performance. The candidates are free to develop their own notation for gesture, provided that a key is supplied with the exercise, but it is suggested that a set of figures similar to those used by Gilbert Austin, in his Chironomia... (London, 1806) are employed.

Week 8/4 - Revision.

The final session will cover bibliography revision, further preparation for the technical questions to be answered on the final paper, and the discussion of sample examination papers in the subject. Candidates will be required to prepare a mock Final Honour School Examination paper for group discussion.

Examination requirements

Candidates for this paper will be required to produce exercises for three 2 hour practical classes. The examination will consist of one 3 hour paper, on which candidates will be required to answer two compulsory questions, and a further essay selected from a number of questions on a theoretical topic. In the first compulsory question, the candidate will be presented with an unseen facsimile of an 18th-century London libretto, with the original parallel translation where appropriate. They will be required to plan a contemporary production. In the second question, the candidate will be given an unseen facsimile of an 18th-century published aria, and be asked to prepare a stage plot for performance, to include musical ornamentation and gesture.

Examination Paper sat at Oxford 2000


Final Honours School in Music


Answer question ONE, question TWO, and one other. Significant duplication of material should be avoided.

Candidates are advised to allot their time carefully.

1. Attached is Act II from the libretto of Handel's Amadigi. Make suggestions as to what you think will be required in the way of scenery, stage machinery, and other production details for a 18th-century staging. You should also mark up the libretto to make a prompt copy to show what singing and acting forces you might employ.

2. Attached is the music for a section of Act II of Handel's Amadigi. Using the translation and copy of the libretto supplied for Question 1, prepare a staging plot with commentary, showing clearly - using a stage plan - how you would plot the aria, and cue these moves into the musical score. You should include a brief discussion of the position of this music in the history of staging.

3. `Staging, as a collaborator in the total [operatic] event, must do nothing to hinder musical synchronization'.

Roger Savage


4. Consider how the changes in dance style meshed with developments in opera.

5. `He must always be interesting, even when silent; and even in a difficult role, if he drops the character to become merely a singer, he is just a musician on stage and no longer an actor.'


What are the performance issues Rousseau is addressing?

6. To what extent can the impresario be said to be a `producer'?

7. The theatre in the via della Pergola in Florence listed in its scene inventory `Tents of different sizes enough to make an encampment', `A seaside with a port', `One Pyramid and some tombs', `A courtyard', and so on. What do such descriptions tell us about how the production and management of scenery was organised?


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