What is a Ballad Opera?

For the purposes of this project, ‘ballad opera’ is defined as any British stage production from 1728 to 1760 that combines a comic or sentimental play with musical numbers that re-used ‘common Tunes’, i.e. airs whose broad circulation allowed them to be recalled by title only.

The term ‘ballad opera’ is misleading because eighteenth-century titles and advertisements classified these works diversely; the term ‘ballad opera’ only took hold after 1731, and the designation ‘Opera’ was more commonly used in volume titles until 1737. Although their ‘Old Ballad Tunes’ were advertised, ballad operas actually contained a very limited number of broadside ballads (see ‘Music’).

Ballad operas may usefully be divided into three categories: works performed and published, works performed but never published, and works published but never performed. As stage works they were usually afterpieces; most mainpiece ballad operas were, after the first season, cut down to make an afterpiece.

Ballad opera editions typically contained a title page (Fig. 1), a cast list, a ‘Table of the Songs’ (Fig. 2), a dedication, an introduction, prologue and epilogue, in addition to the music and dialogue of the work.

Fig. 1: M. Adds. 108 e. 103 (2). Titlepage. John Hippisley, Flora; an Opera. As it is now acting at the Theatre Royal in Lincoln's-Inn-Fields. Being the Farce of The Country-wake, alter'd after the manner of The Beggar's Opera. To which is added, the Musick engrav'd on Copper-plates. Written by a Gentleman (London: printed for T. Wood, and sold by most of the booksellers of London and Westminster, 1729). © The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Fig 2: Harding D. 632, sig. A3v. A Table of the Songs. Charles Coffey, The Devil to Pay; or, The Wives Metamorphos'd. An Opera. As it is perform'd at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, by His Majesty's Servants. Written by the Author of The Beggars Wedding. With the Musick prefix'd to each Song (London: printed for J. Watts, 1731). © The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Editions also contained cast lists (Fig. 3) and sometimes frontispieces (Fig. 4) and publishers’ advertisements. All of these components are richly informative about practices and taste of the period, and most may be viewed on Eighteenth-Century Collections Online.

Please see the other pages of this website for details about, and illustrations of, the music, star singers, print practices and iconography of ballad operas.

Fig. 3: Harding D. 632, sig. A4v. Dramatis Personæ. Charles Coffey, The Devil to Pay; or, The Wives Metamorphos'd. An Opera. As it is perform'd at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, by His Majesty's Servants. Written by the Author of The Beggars Wedding. With the Musick prefix'd to each Song (London: printed for J. Watts, 1731). © The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.

Fig. 4: Harding D. 637. Frontispiece. Charles Coffey, The Devil to Pay: or, The Wives Metamorphos'd. An Opera. As it is perform'd at the Theatre-Royal in Drury-Lane, by His Majesty's Servants. With the Musick prefix'd to each Song (London: printed for J. Watts at the Printing-Office in Wild-Court, 1748). © The Bodleian Library, University of Oxford.