Just as the operas of composers like Handel soon became an important part of London’s musical scene, similar music could be heard in Norwich, often performed by the same famous singers. Here you might hear many of the operatic arias so popular at the time, if not the opera itself complete.
Amongst the songs and instrumental pieces (the Norwich cathedral organist clearly found many ways to supplement his stipend), you could also sometimes listen to famous Italian opera stars from London, especially during the summer months when the London opera houses were shut. Those 100 miles between the two cities were no barrier to their desire to increase their earnings and bolster their ‘super star’ status.
Just how much the ‘opera mania’ gripped England at the time may be judged by this satirical letter to the editor of Mist’s Weekly Journal in 1726:
28 May 1726
I am young, and a very fashionable Lady, therefore think my self in the unfortunatest circumstances imaginable, and don’t believe I shall be able, with a good air, to appear either in an Assembly, Drawing-Room, Park, Kensington Gardens again this Season.
The case is thus; you know what impatience the town has been in for the arrival of the celebrated Faustina, that is, the well-dress’d, well-bred part of it; for as for the readers, writers, prudes, demures or stupids, we can tell nothing about them, since, poor creatures, they seldom fall into our company; but, as I was saying, Mr. Mist, charming Faustina sang last Thursday, and I would not have fail’d the Opera for my next Birth-Day gown, when, as if fortune had a mind utterly to disgrace me, (will you believe me?) I could not get in, though I had my ticket in my hand; the fellow who opens the door, had the impudence to tell me, there was no room, which I found true, to my great disappointment, but went away in hopes to repair the loss on Saturday, and, comforted my self pretty tolerably till then; but, dear Sir, I met with no better success, and was again dismiss’d with half a thousand more: I am quite out of Countenance about it; and tho’ I am resolved to pin both my tickets to my breast, to convince the world of my taste and good intentions, I don’t think I shall be able to venture in publick this month: I need not tell you, that the opera is become the very touchstone of sense and breeding, and no one can pretend to either who don’t frequent it, without making themselves ridiculous; for my part, I have taken my bed upon it, and hear most of the others are in as bad a way: Some of the men, I am told, had courage enough to go to Rosamond’s Pond on purpose to get rid of themselves, not being able to support such a misfortune, but fate has design’d ’em for greater uses; perhaps to make a considerable figure in case of a war, or to shine at the opera house for years to come.
I beg you will, in the name of us all, make our Excuses to Madam Faustina, and tell her how mortified we are that we had’nt the happiness to hear her; and if you can prevail with Mr. Hed—r to let us in at his convenient back door, we should be infinitely obliged, since it will enable us to hear Faustina, which certainly must be the wisest thing on earth, for very good reasons. If I don’t die with vexation before I hear of you, believe me to be, with all fashionable reality,
Sir, Your most humble
Most faithful servant,
P.S. I desire you’d mention that there was abundance of Ladies who go in gratis, that is, by the interest they have with fine gentlemen. These figure it at every expensive place at the same rate. I only tell you this, that Faustina may know she’s more obliged to us since the tribute we pay her fine voice comes out of our own pockets; and let such Ladies, who have neither spouses nor fortunes able to support them thro’ their expences, when they are censuring or ridiculing others, remember that they are obliged to the very husbands, and brothers, of the others, for half a guinea.
I won’t enter into the returns those Ladies must make upon being frequently presented, &c.
Whether the good people of Norwich were quite so obsessed by opera as this suggests, the local newspapers show many performances, such as this one.
AT the Theatre Royal, his Majefty’s Servants, on Monday, April the 28th, 1783, will be presented an Opera, call’d The CASTLE of ANDALUSIA. Now performing at Covent-Garden Theatre with universal Applause. Written by Mr. O’Keefe, Author of the Son-in-Law, Agreeable Surprise, &c. — The Music by many capital Composers.
Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 19 April 1783
Many of the operas listed in the paper are labelled as Comic Operas, which may suggest that provincial tastes were not quite as refined as those in the capital! Note that this one has a female librettist.
THEATRE-ROYAL. BY – his Majesty’s Servants, this present Evening, Saturday, August 12, 1786, will be performed a Comic Opera (never acted here), call’d, The PERUVIAN. Written by a LADY.—Composed by Mr. HOOK.
Norfolk Chronicle – Saturday 12 August 1786.
Fun post! I’d love to hear some of these operas. I was in the orchestra once for a performance of The Beggar’s Opera, which predates this period by about 50 years; I’ve never heard of productions of any of these other comic or ballad operas. Do you know of any recordings or printed music?
No, and I doubt there are any recordings. there might be printed music in a suitable academic library. Good luck finding it!