Stars of Ballad Operas
Ballad opera was the first genre that allowed players to establish and commercialize a star persona by performing low-style song. Besides the four singers listed below are others who deserve study. We would like to expand the data on performers to capture their contributions.
Lavinia Fenton premiered the lead female role of Polly in The Beggar’s Opera (1728) by John Gay. Her popularity, according to Gay, ‘outstripped that of the play itself’. During her first season, the Duke of Bolton – depicted in William Hogarth’s painting of The Beggar’s Opera – fell in love with her and whisked her off the stage to make her his mistress. The craze for Fenton generated memoirs, poems, souvenirs, and portraits to a degree unprecedented for a female player.
After working initially with Handel, John Beard was engaged in 1737 by Drury Lane to join Kitty Clive in performing ballad operas. He sang with her in practically every one of her stage hits, becoming one of the earliest star tenors in Europe. Once he became manager of Covent Garden in 1761, Beard adapted earlier ballad operas to create vehicles featuring himself and the new star soprano, Charlotte Brent.
The flamboyant Charlotte Charke – actress, transvestite, author, puppeteer and adventuress – reached the zenith of her stage popularity through Henry Fielding’s ballad operas. Impersonating men, including her father, Charke brilliantly exploited her talent in travesty roles to enrich Fielding’s satire. Her experience in ballad opera was formative for her writing and her own stage productions, as well as her personal life.