The Beggar's Opera: world's first satirical opera in a new Festival production

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credit: Patrick Berger

John Gay's 18th century cultural landmark is brought into the present day, but the social problems it exposes are timeless

As Théâtre des Bouffes du Nord's new Beggar's Opera limbers up for five shows at the King's Theatre, it scores as the opera production receiving most performances at this year's Edinburgh International Festival. Although it may be a lot compared to the programme's one-offs of Siegfried or Hansel & Gretel, it rather pales in the face of what has gone before.

Following the London premiere in 1728, John Gay's ballad opera ran for an astonishing 62 nights. When put on at the Lyric Theatre in Hammersmith in 1920, there were 1463 performances, possibly the longest run of any opera ever. It inspired Brecht / Weill's Die Dreigroschenoper (Threepenny Opera) yet it's not even in the top ten of operas performed now.

All of which, em, beggars the question, what is it about this piece that made it so popular in the past? When Gay was writing it, the demand for Italian style opera, made familiar in London by Handel, was declining. Plots were too unrealistic, the language wasn't understood and people were getting fed up with the overpaid and diva-like Italian singers. Spotting his chance, Gay, working with producer John Rich (it was said that Beggar's Opera made Rich gay and Gay rich) opted not just for the more popular ballad opera style but approached it as satire.

This was meant to be an opera that would appeal to everyone, of all classes, and it did. Gone were the Italian recitatives and embellished arias, and in their place were popular tunes (including Scottish ones) that people would know and leave the theatre singing. Ancient heroes of battles and crusades were cast aside and in came criminals, thieves and prostitutes in a story which wouldn't be a tragedy, but instead have a happy ending. Opera's sung recitatives were out and in their place was spoken dialogue in English.

But Gay's satire didn't stop at making fun of Italian opera. His quarrelling leading ladies Polly Peachum and Lucy Lockit represented more than a nod to London prima donnas Cuzzoni and Bordoni whose rivalry resulted in on-stage fighting and pulling each other's hair out. His main male characters, modelled on notorious criminals Jack Sheppard and Jonathan Wild, lampooned contemporary English society, political corruption and the government of Sir Robert Walpole, Britain's de facto first Prime Minister. Walpole was widely accused of abusing his position, as well as adultery, and was the subject of much common gossip.

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The Beggar's Opera / credit: Patrick Berger
Beggar's Opera is a comedy burlesque which turns on its head a society where class is all, and its instant popularity owes as much to this satirical take as it does to poking fun at Italian opera. In Gay's play, the lower classes (the beggars) can be found looking down on the higher, more privileged classes. 'All professions be-rogue one another', sings Mr Peachum, the smart-ass gangmaster who turns criminals over to the courts, while personally benefitting from the proceeds of their crimes.

What he is singing about are the upper-class professions of law and politics having rather a lot in common with thieves and crooks, pursuing whatever is necessary for their own ends in becoming wealthy and powerful. Love and marriage don't escape Gay's savage pen either. When her parents discover that their daughter, Polly, has secretly married seriously big-time villain and adulterer, Macheath, for love and not money, they are horrified. Marriage is portrayed as something that boils down to a financial contract which, of course, the upper classes had been doing for years with couplings arranged to build financial capital and status.

When Walpole went to see Beggar's Opera, apparently, and not surprisingly, he hated it. It seems, however, that he was alone in his dislike. The combination of commenting on cultural trends and events that people would recognise, along with exposing problems in society that are timeless, was what gripped audiences in these first performances of Beggar's Opera. For this August, director Robert Carsen and dramaturg Ian Burton set their production in modern-day London with 21st century dialogue. After almost 300 years, it's time for contemporary audiences to be gripped by Beggar's Opera once again.

The Beggar's Opera

Swarming with highwaymen, thieves, jailors, pimps and prostitutes, John Gay’s savagely satirical and wildly entertaining ‘ballad opera’ invites you into a world of greed, crime, poverty, inequality – and outrageous comedy. Where politicians and officials are just as corrupt as the lowlife below them. And where, if you…

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