I was reading A History of Opera by Abbate and Parker. On page 19, they say

And although its financial basis has gradually broadened...opera in its primary form, theatrical form has typically been the province of elite groups, only becoming more broadly popular when technologies of various kinds allowed it to spread from the opera house into the streets and into people's homes.

Is this accurate? I was under the impression opera was quite popular amongst much of European society during the time of Mozart and Beethoven. Can someone offer a more substantially supported answer than this offhand comment by Abbate and Parker?

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    I'd suggest this is more for musicfans.stackexchange.com, though now Wheat has gone it may not be answered anytime soon there! May 18, 2016 at 7:13
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    @topomorto - what has happened to Wheat?
    – Tim
    May 18, 2016 at 11:04
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    @Tim I think he just got a bit fed up of some of the Stack Exchanginess - chat.stackexchange.com/search?q=wheat&room=440. Not sure if he deleted all his SE accounts but he is gone from here and from musicfans. Even more of a blow for musicfans as he was one of the few substantial contributors. May 18, 2016 at 11:53
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    @topomorto - thanks for the info. A great shame, as he contributed a heck of a lot of good stuff, and was one of the more knowledgeable members. Be interesting to see what and who upset him specifically. Bet this conversation gets deleted!
    – Tim
    May 18, 2016 at 12:39
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    Define "the masses". The truly poor probably couldn't afford to go to the opera houses even back in the day. The middle classes were more likely to go (after all, live performance was the only entertainment available then). This changed with the advent of recorded media - people no longer needed to be in the presence of a live orchestra to enjoy orchestral music, but of course that's much later. May 18, 2016 at 13:42

3 Answers 3


I can't answer specifically for Mozart and Beethoven, but Handel's operas were the great public sensation of their day; this article from the London Victoria & Albert Museum gives a little flavour of the 'opera fever' of the 1720s. 18th Century Opera


Hearing lectures from prof. Robert Greenberg from Berkeley. He explained in the time J.S. Bach it was the clergy or the nobility that the financial means to hold musicians on their payroll. In the later years of Bach he made some works (profane) that were for the coffee houses and that was the begin of bringing music to the masses. I listened to the great courses J.S.Bach from professor R.Greenberg.

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    Hard to see the relevance, as Bach did not write opera.
    – user207421
    May 18, 2016 at 11:05
  • It wasn't opera but it was songs with word. You could say the dawn of the opera.
    – Nachmen
    May 18, 2016 at 14:31
  • Monteverdi's Orfeo of 1607 is generally held to be the first work that encompassed all the major elements that subsequently came to be regarded as 'opera'. Bach could no doubt have turned his hand to opera if the right opportunity had presented itself, but by the time he was active the genre of opera was already distinct from other mass vocal/orchestral works such as oratorios. May 19, 2016 at 8:46

Some data points:

  • Die Zauberflote filled a public theatre six nights a week for weeks on end in 1790 or 1791.
  • Verdi used to collect his entire fee in gold on or before the opening night, and had the right to withdraw his score at any time before that.
  • Madama Butterfly played Melbourne, Australia, six nights a week for over a month in about 1906.

No technology there, but plenty of entrepeneurial dash. Opera has been a very profitable business at various times, including those of Handel, Paris in the C19, Verdi, and Puccini. Giulio Ricordi had Puccini on the payroll for several years before he produced Egdardo, and he wasn't in the business for his health.

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    This doesn't address the question at hand. May 18, 2016 at 11:28
  • @CarlWitthoft Certainly it does. You can't play six nights a week only to aristocrats, and the date precludes technological assistance. Verdi's contracts only make sense if the entrepreneur stands to make a lot of money, and so can entertain the risk, which again is only possible with mass audiences. I'm surprised any of this needs stating.
    – user207421
    Jun 13, 2016 at 21:28

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