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L’opéra italien, un monstre étranger ?

Opera and british nationalism, 1700-1711

L’opéra et le nationalisme britannique, 1700-1711
Thomas McGeary
p. 5-19


L’opéra italien chanté de bout en bout apparut pour la première fois en Grande-Bretagne en 1705 et rencontra rapidement des détracteurs du fait de son caractère prétendument irrationnel, sensuel, efféminé, et de la menace qu’il constituait pour le théâtre anglais. Cette étude analyse le discours des premiers critiques de l’opéra, Richard Steele, John Dennis et le Comte de Shaftesbury, et suggère la possibilité d’inscrire leur polémique contre l’opéra dans la tradition de l’humanisme citoyen et du républicanisme classique. Ces écrivains ont utilisé la confrontation avec cet « Autre » étranger comme moyen de définir et valoriser, en créant un système d’oppositions binaires, les vertus qu’on s’accordait à considérer comme constitutive de l’identité politique, religieuse et sociale de la Grande-Bretagne. Ils semblent qu’ils aient imaginé ce royaume comme ce que Benedict Anderson a appelé « une communauté politique imaginée ». Le royaume, impliqué dans une guerre continentale avec la France, était à un « moment machiavélien » de son histoire, quand sa survie était compromise par l’influence néfaste de cette forme d’art étrangère.

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Index by keywords :

British nationalism, opera

Index chronologique :

18th century, XVIIIe siècle
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1Opera can serve to help forge a national identity in several ways. In the most direct way, national or ethnic ideals, historic or mythic heroes and stories, or agendas for national liberation can be expressed literally or represented in the librettos and action of the opera. More obliquely, the choice of a musical styles, folk melodies, genre, or language may affirm or valorize a national or ethnic group. For example, at certain times or places, rejecting the prevailing genre of Italian opera is clearly a “nationalist” gesture.

2This essay will explore another method, arising from discourse about Italian opera in Britain in the early part of the eighteenth century. In this mode, Italian opera as a genre was reified by its early eighteenth-century English critics into an active historical-social agent, with supposed effects on listeners, their moral character, and the temporal fate of Britain. Opera was an exotic “other” that by its inherent nature (all-sung in Italian), supposed effeminacy, and irrationality, affected the public spirit of Britons. Confrontation with the foreign “other” served as an occasion for opera’s critics to construct binaries that had the effect of articulating the valorized features of British political, social, and cultural identity. In the discourse of its critics, Britain – in the midst of a continental war with France―was at a perilous moment: her liberty and national identity hung in the balance, and embracing or rejecting Italian opera would determine Britain’s fate.

3In 1688, an Anglican nation violated the principles of divine right, non-resistance, and passive obedience by declaring that its Catholic king, James II, had vacated the throne and by inviting over a Calvinist Dutch prince and his wife to rule as king and queen. The Glorious Revolution would seem to have resolved the issue of the nature of the British constitution as a limited monarchy resting on Whig principles and parliamentary authority and granting toleration to religious dissent. Yet the nation was torn between, on the one hand, its traditional, Tory Country principles based on wealth and authority based on landed wealth with stability arising from the established church, aristocracy and monarch, and, on the other hand, a newer identity based on power arising from new financial and commercial prosperity, promoted by the Whig institutions of the Bank of England, management of the national debt, and new forms of financial speculation. The Church of England was split between its Low Church factions; and the coming Hanoverian succession was still contested by a monarchist, Jacobite sentiment that wanted to restore the Catholic House of Stuart. Many Britons still resisted French and Italian cultural influences; and many moralists (led by Jeremy Collier) believed Britain’s character was threatened by the immorality of the theater.

4It was in the course of the War of the Spanish Succession (1702-1711), when Britain was engaged in a continental war against France (which was invariably seen as a double threat to English liberty and religion) that Britain faced a corrupting, foreign import that threatened native arts and the public spirit of the private citizen that was needed to prosecute a war. This foreign threat was Italian-style opera and the castrato singer.

  • 1  On Clayton’s role in introducing Italian opera, see Thomas McGeary, “Thomas Clayton and Italian Op (...)

5In 1704, John Vanbrugh was just completing a new theatre, and planned to open it with two operas sung in English, one of them Thomas Clayton’s Arsinoe.1 Vanbrugh’s theatre was not finished in time, and the opera was in the meantime premiered on 16 January 1705, by John Rich’s rival company at Drury Lane. This first opera, Arsinoe, sung in English, aroused no comment at all. Vanbrugh followed on 9 April 1705, with a hastily mounted production - not one of the planned English operas, but Gli amori d’Ergasto, sung in Italian probably by an imported company.

6Exactly two weeks after this opera’s first performance, in the epilogue to his comedy The Tender Husband, Richard Steele roundly denounced the Italian opera and called on Britons to save their stage from the “Foreign Insult” of “th’ Italian squaling Tribe.” Steele thus got off the first salvo against Italian opera.

7I will look at the discourse by early critics of opera―Richard Steele, John Dennis, and the Earl of Shaftesbury―and suggest that their polemics against opera, instead of being rabid xenophobic jeremiads, can be seen as grounded in the tradition of civic humanism or classical republicanism. They are deeply involved with the issue of emerging British nationalism, with the question, as Howard Weinbrot phrases it, “How does a great nation determine its identities?” We will see, moreover, that the effeminate features and effects attributed to opera and the eunuch, or castrato singer, were used to define and valorize―by the creation of binary oppositions - those virtues that were thought to constitute the British political, religious, and social identity.

  • 2  Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revi (...)
  • 3  Anderson, Imagined Communities, 23, 27.

8Benedict Anderson has suggested one definition of a nation as “an imagined political community”2. Nations are invented out of prior cultural systems and are imagined as a “deep, horizontal comradeship” or “fraternity.” Two predominant cultural systems invoked usually are the religious community and the dynastic realm. In Anderson’s account, a condition for the invention of nations is abandonment of the medieval, cosmic-universal conceptions of temporality where cosmology and history were indistinguishable; necessary is a “conception of history as an endless chain of cause and effect [and] of radical separations between past and present,” and of a community “moving onward through calendrical time.”3

  • 4  Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).  
  • 5  From the large literature on nationalism, studies of British nationalism relevant to the eighteent (...)

9Britain’s Glorious Revolution had shattered the myth of divinely sanctioned, uninterrupted dynastic continuity in Britain; but (barring an unlikely Jacobite restoration) Britain’s political culture was firmly established on Whig principles of a limited monarchy and balanced constitution committed to protecting liberty and property. Indeed, in the political culture of the day, liberty was the Whig catchword. Religiously, as Linda Colley has shown, British nationhood was profoundly based on Protestantism.4 If Britain was imagined as a Protestant nation, with a limited constitution committed to defending liberty and property, a foreign cultural import from Catholic nations under the sway of absolute monarchs or popes was a dagger pointed directly at the heart of British national identity.5

10We will see that Steele, Dennis, and Shaftesbury share a conception of Britain’s fragile temporal contingency. They see Britain to be at what J. G. A. Pocock calls a Machiavellian Moment: a recurring point in history when a virtuous republic confronts the risk of dissolution in the face of historical forces. The republic is caught at a moment in time when the fate of the republic hangs suspended between the power of virtue and public spirit of its citizens to resist the historical forces of corruption that can destroy it. Confronted by Italian opera, Britain’s identity and liberty hung in the balance.

  • 6  J. G. A. Pocock, Politics, Language and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (London: Met (...)

11The source for these ideas underlying the critique of opera and the Machiavellian Moment is the long tradition of secular political thought often called civic humanism or classical republicanism. Its origins are ideas in various Roman historians and rhetoricians, passed on to England through Machiavelli and adopted by James Harrington, Algernon Sidney, and others. This strain of republican thought held that “the development of the individual toward self-fulfillment is possible only when the individual acts as a citizen, that is, as a conscious and autonomous participant in an autonomous [...] polis or republic”6. All human history repeated endless cycles: the model for republics was that of Rome.

  • 7  René Aubert de Abbé Vertot, Histoire des révolutions arrivées dans le gouvernement de la républic (...)

12Every schoolboy knew the lesson of Roman history. A typical statement of the rise and fall of the Republic is summarized in the Abbé Vertot’s widely known Histoire des révolutions arrivées dans le gouvernement de la république romaine (1720).7 The early Romans, Vertot explains, thought that abhorrence of luxury and adherence to the poverty of their ancestors was “the surest Guardian of Liberty” (A4r). In the Republic’s youth, all the Romans were husbandmen and soldiers.

By means of this voluntary Poverty, and a laborious Life, the Republic bred in her Bosom no men but what were strong, robust, full of Valour, and who expecting nothing from one another, did by a mutual Independence, preserve the Liberty of their Country. [...]
But after the Destruction of that Rival of Rome [Carthage], the Romans, invincible abroad, sunk beneath the Weight of their own Greatness. [...] Luxury and the Love of Riches came into Rome with the Treasures of the conquered Provinces; and that Poverty and Temperance, which had form’d so many great Captains, fell into contempt. (a1r-v; a1v)

13Vertot summarized the effects of the luxury caused by wealth:

14After the Conquest of Asia, they began to introduce Women-Singers and Dancers into their Entertainments.

The young Men chose Them for the Objects of their foolish Passion. They curled their Hair after Their Manner, affected to imitate the very Sound of their Voice, and their lascivious Gate [sic], and excell’d those infamous Women in nothing but Vice and Effeminacy. (a4r)

15For the civic humanist and classical republican, the arts were absolutely fundamental to shaping the nature, values, and political spirit of a nation, and their health could affect a nation’s very survival. As Pocock further points out, “the arts [...] could flourish only under conditions of public liberty and must decline under tyranny or corruption.” If arts rise and fall with liberty, the state of the arts is a measure of the health of the republic.

16The survival of the republic required an ethos of extreme personal integrity and autonomy: a citizen devoted to universal ideals and civic virtues and preferring the good of the republic to private goods, satisfactions, or luxuries. Each republic, though, once it reached stability faced decay and corruption. The presence and cultivation of opera within England―the most visible, spectacular, and elite art form patronized by Britain’s political and social leadership―was obviously of great concern. It was both a symptom of corruption and luxury and, because of its effeminizing tendencies, a cause of moral corruption.

17Armed with this civic humanist master trope, early eighteenth-century critics of opera imagined England as a fragile republic caught at a point in cyclical time when its liberty hung in the balance between its native virtue and public spirit and foreign corruption. England could succumb to the influence of Italian opera (as did ancient Rome to the luxury of the East) or reject it and maintain its liberty.


18The structure of these ideas about Italian opera, British national identity, and the Machiavellian Moment developed even before all-sung opera had actually arrived in London. As early as the prologue to his Iphigenia (1699), John Dennis saw the corrupting influence of Italy, its effeminate arts, and opera (represented by the singing eunuch) on the British spirit. He is already using the contrast between British liberty with its native arts and enslavement to effeminate Italian music.

19In the Prologue, the Genius of England reports Tragedy has fled England, and she repeats Tragedy’s lament. Tragedy had wandered from Greece, Rome, Spain, and France and found a welcome home in Britain. She is dismayed that her sons have taken up Italian song and French dance. Tragedy addresses the Genius of England:

Oh is my Brittain faln to that degree,
As for effeminate Arts t’ abandon me?
I left the enslav’d Italian with disdain,
And servile Gallia, and dejected Spain:
Grew proud to be confin’d to Brittain’s shore,
Here [in Britain] Song and Dance, and ev’ry Trifle reigns,
And leaves no room for my exalted strains.
Those Arts now rule that soften’d foreign Braves,
And sunk the Southern Nations into Slaves.
To which the Genius of England replies:
Oh what wou’d my magnanimous Henry say,
Or Edward’s Soul returning to the day;
To see a Bearded more than Female throng
Dissolv’d and dying by an Eunuchs Song.

20Britannia urges Britons to leave “Sound and Show” to her soft neighbors and attend to the great voices of Tragedy and Britannia.

Richard Steele

  • 8 Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), esp. 1-7.

21Taking up the refrain once all-sung Italian opera had arrived in London, Richard Steele enjoined Britons to save their stage from the “Foreign Insult” of “th’ Italian squaling Tribe.” The rhetorical strategy employed here by Steele is an exemplary illustration of how, as Edward Said has shown in his discussion of orientalism, European culture has gained a sense of definition and strength by contrasting itself to an “Other.”8 For Steele, this “Other” is opera and the castrato from Italy, by contrast to which he defines Britain’s national identity.

22Steele carefully balances the vices associated with Italy and the virtues associated with Britain. The result is an inventory of the proper virtues that would constitute the British political, cultural, and social identity. Steele begins by raising the banner of British nationalism and the Whig ideals of Liberty and the Protestant religion. He urges:

Britons, who constant War, with factious Rage,
For Liberty against each other wage,
From Foreign Insult save this English Stage.
No more th’Italian squaling Tribe admit,
In Tongues unknown; ’tis Popery in Wit. [lines 1-5]
He then indulges in some hyperbolic anti-Catholicism:
The Songs (their selves confess) from Rome they bring;
And ’tis High-Mass, for ought you know, they Sing.
Husbands take Care, the Danger may come nigher,
The Women say their Eunuch is a Friar. [lines 6-9]

  • 9  See, for example, G. Gregory Smith, Elizabethan Critical Essays, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, (...)

23Fear of Catholic conspiracy, treachery, sedition, and invasion (stemming from France or Spain) had, of course, been part of English social and political life since the sixteenth century and on into the eighteenth as well.9

24Steele censures his countrymen for their indolent attention to an effeminate foreign entertainment instead of to British wit, tragedy, and comedy.

But is it not a serious Ill to see
Europe’s great Arbiters so mean can be;
Passive, with an affected Joy to sit,
Suspend their native Taste of Manly Wit;
Neglect their Comic Humour, Tragic Rage,
For known Defects of Nature [castratos], and of Age.

25If Britons must dote on foreign literature, let it be the Roman classics that preach the honor of civic virtue, not products of modern Italy sunk deep in papist superstition.

Arise for shame, ye Conqu’ring Britons, rise,
Such unadorn’d Effeminacy despise;
Admire (if you will doat on Foreign Wit)
Not what Italians Sing, but Romans Writ. [lines 10-19]

26Steele’s patriotic peroration is prophetic of his later efforts to encourage English dramatic music and of his Censorium project.

Let Anna’s Soil be known for all its Charms;
As Fam’d for Lib’ral Sciences, as Arms:
Let those Derision meet, who would Advance
Manners, or Speech, from Italy or France;
Let them learn [from] You, who wou’d your Favour find,
And English be the Language of Mankind. [lines 25-30]

27Steele’s response to Italian opera would be English dramatic entertainments that would exemplify those features that affirm proper British identity.

28In 1712 when the famous castrato Nicolini left England, Steele gleefully responded in “On Nicolini’s leaving the Stage,” almost as if sending him home in shame, taking luxury with him, and leaving Britain with her liberty intact:

  • 10  “On Nicolini’s leaving the Stage,” published by Steele in Poetical Miscellanies (1714), 44-45.

Begon, our Nation’s Pleasure and Reproach!
Britain no more with idle Trills debauch;
Back to thy own unmanly Venice sail,
Where Luxury and loose Desires prevail;
There thy Emasculating Voice employ,
And raise the Triumphs of the wanton Boy.
Long, ah! too long the soft Enchantment reign’d,
Seduc’d the Wise, and ev’n the Brave enchain’d;
Hence with thy Curst deluding Song! away!
Shall British Freedom thus become thy Prey?
Freedom, which we so dearly us’d to Prize,
We scorn’d to yield it --But to British Eyes.
Assist ye, Gales; with expeditious Care
Waft this prepost’rous Idol of the Fair;
Consent, ye Fair, and let the Trifler go,
Nor bribe with Wishes adverse Winds to blow:
Nonsense grew pleasing by his Syren Arts,
And stole from Shakespear’s self our easie Hearts.10

29From these several sources, it is already not difficult to recognize the positive, defining virtues of British national identity, represented by the following binary oppositions:

British VirtuesForeign “Other” Vices
northern hardinesssouthern softness, passivity, idleness, loose desires
spoken word (comedy,unintelligible pure melody (singing tragedy) opera in Italian)
libertyslavery/enchantment to luxury
manly wit, comic humor,effeminate fashions from Italy
tragic rageand France
clear gender roles corruption of sexual norms by the eunuchs
classic Roman literatureItalian song

John Dennis

30Within a year after Steele began his campaign against Italian opera, he was joined by the prominent Whig critic John Dennis, who raises many of the same objections to Italian opera. Throughout his polemical tracts, Dennis’s confrontation with opera answers the question: “What sort of nation do we want?” Dennis’s notorious pamphlet is no doubt the most hostile and vituperative attack on opera, the tone of which is well captured in its full title: Essay on the Opera’s after the Italian Manner, Which are About to be Establish’d on the English Stage: With some Reflections on the Damage which they may Bring to the Publick, published in March 1706.

31That Dennis’s principal concern in his Essay on the Operas is political is clear by the title-page epigram taken from Cicero, De Legibus, II, but in fact going back to Plato’s Republic:

Negat enim Mutari posse Musicas Leges sine Mutatione
Legum Publicarum
(There can be no change in the laws of music without a
resulting change in the laws of the State.)

32Dennis’s agenda is to retrieve and preserve “Publick Spirit,” which is necessary to preserve “National Liberty” and his Whig vision of a British constitutional monarchy. “Publick Spirit” is the love of one’s country, which equates with the love of a nation’s customs and manners (2-3); for Dennis, “of all the Fashions that have been introduc’d among us from abroad, none shews so deplorable a want of Publick Spirit as the Italian Opera. (18)”

33Dennis’s critique begins with opera’s essential nature (and this is an important and often over-looked point): it is all-sung. Dennis limits his critique to “those Opera’s which are entirely Musical; for those which are drammatical may be partly defended by the Examples of the Ancients” (Preface). Dennis thus excepts from his polemic the native English forms of the masque, the dramatic opera (such as Dryden and Purcell’s King Arthur or Dennis’s own Rinaldo and Armida), and the spoken play with interpolated song―and hinting at once at the patriotic stance he was to take throughout the Essay.

34Without the rational component of spoken poetry, Italian opera is “soft and Effeminate” and “a meer sensual delight” “utterly incapable of informing the understanding or reforming the will.” Dennis offers several arguments based on civic humanist principles to show how Italian opera destroys the Publick Spirit that is essential to maintaining the “Interest and Reputation of England” (6). Italian opera drives out poetry wherever it arrives. The decline of poetry in Greece and Rome preceded the decline of those civilizations. In England, Dennis associates the establishment of drama with the Reformation and rise of liberty, and the three have flourished together (11). In England of 1706, when “Liberty, and the Reformation are in the utmost Danger” (12) Dennis sees opera driving out drama and poetry. Ironically, Britain is embracing those very luxurious Diversions of the very nations (France and Italy) that are putting Liberty and the Protestant religion in danger.

35A principal tenet of civic humanism was that the pursuit of private, interests and luxury should be subordinated to civic virtues and the public good. But all-sung opera is empty sounds and harmonious trifles and gives only sensual delight. While reason takes man out into the world, sensual delight focuses and confines a person inward, “making a Man too much in Love with himself and too little fond of the publick” (9). Thus music emasculates and dissolves the mind, weakening fortitude and destroying public spirit.

36In 1711, at a period of heightened domestic conflict between Tory and Whig over concluding the war with France, Dennis renewed his attack on opera’s threat to the integrity of the British identity in a pamphlet titled An Essay upon Publick Spirit; Being a Satyr in Prose upon the Manners and Luxury of the Times, The Chief Sources of our present Parties and Divisions. The terms publick spirit, parties, and divisions clearly suggest the pamphlet’s concern with current politics. In this polemical tract, Dennis again argued the need to restrain luxury, resist of foreign Manners, and restore public spirit to preserve public liberty.

37We can also see both Steele and Dennis writing as if Britain were at a Machiavellian Moment: at a crucial historical point, Britain is confronted by the external threat of Italian opera: Britain is caught between succumbing to luxury and corruption or maintaining her liberty and national identity.

Earl of Shaftesbury

  • 11  The full text of Shaftesbury’s letter in printed in Thomas McGeary, “Shaftesbury on Liberty and Sp (...)

38A more thorough sketch of the civic humanist theory of art, politics, and society, and one giving a more serious rationale for the opposition to all-sung Italian opera, is provided by the Third Earl of Shaftesbury in a letter written in 1709 to the French Huguenot minister and belle-lettrist Pierre Coste. Shaftesbury’s letter was prompted by Coste’s sending him a copy of François Raguenet’s pamphlet Parallèle des Italiens et des Français (1702), in which a Frenchman proclaims the superiority of Italian opera.11 Shaftesbury compares French and Italian opera (he tends to favor Italian opera), but extends the discussion into the political realm by examining the effect of operatic spectacle on liberty and freedom. Shaftesbury’s principal objection is to the “Machines and Decorations of the Theatre” - a practice that is “vulgar, miserable, barbarouse” and which “corrupted the Roman Stage or rather made it impossible for ’em to succeed in their Tragedy or Opera.”

39To support his objections to spectacle in opera, Shaftesbury cites Horace’s Epistle to Augustus. Shaftesbury finds in Horace the arc of a rise and fall of dramatic poetry in Latium, which parallels the rise and fall of the Republic: in a primitive period, the rural Roman countryside was the birthplace of Roman drama; the conquest of Greece introduced the fine arts to Rome, and Roman poets―with a natural bent toward tragedy― successfully studied and adapted the Greek tragedians. After the Punic Wars instead of cultivating the tragic―appealing to the ear, rational― Roman poets gave in to spectacle―appealing to the eye, sensuous―to attract and entertain an audience (lines 182-210). Shaftesbury had earlier quoted Horace’s lines describing the giving-in to spectacle:

Migravit ab aure voluptas
Omnis ad incertos oculos et gaudia vana.
(lines 187-8)
(All pleasure migrated away from the ear [i.e., tragedy] to the unreliable eyes and empty joys [spectacle]).

40For Shaftesbury, though, the consequences of dramatists giving in to spectacle to please the taste of their audience goes far beyond the mere decline in dramatic standards in the playhouse―for opera or drama corrupted by spectacle may harm a nation politically.

41In the “Advice to an Author” of 1710, Shaftesbury briefly sketches a theory about the relation between the arts and society. He concludes that freedom is a necessary condition for the development of the arts; tragedy is the natural expression of a free people and an art inherently suited to maintaining a republican form of government. And he can bluntly assert: “The high spirit of tragedy can ill subsist where the spirit of liberty is wanting.” Tragedy teaches the people to be content and to enjoy a life of republican liberty because they see the misery suffered by tyrants and kings. Conversely, spectacles help keep the populace amused and content in slavery. Shaftesbury objects to Raguenet condoning operatic spectacle (even in Italian opera) because spectacle on the modern European opera stage could only indicate lack of, or lead to loss of liberty.

42Shaftesbury had repeated Horace’s brief (though somewhat faulty) history of Roman letters to draw a parallel of England repeating the phases of Roman political history. With the Glorious Revolution of 1688, when Britain replaced the Catholic James II with the Protestant William and Mary, Britain had achieved a balanced and mixed government that firmly secured liberty, settled the constitution, and removed the further threat of civil strife. The Britain of William and later Anne parallels the phase of the Roman Republic. In England’s continental war with France, Shaftesbury sees a parallel to Rome’s Punic Wars. Because of the war, “the British Muses, in this din of arms, may well lie abject and obscure.”

43Shaftesbury repeats the commonplace of Roman historians that it was precisely at this point after the Punic Wars - when removal of the Carthaginian threat and the wealth that followed into Rome following her conquests in the Near East fostered internal corruption and the growth of refinement and luxury. At this point, “the Romans miscarried”: “When [their genius] should have been refin’d, it grew rather wors by running into the marvellouse, the outrageous, the extream of things.” England is at a Machiavellian Moment, and the task is to break the parallel with Rome by avoiding running after spectacle on the stage, which is “direcly that which corrupted the Roman Stage or rather made it impossible for ’em to succeed in their Tragedy or Opera.”

44It may seem paradoxical to invoke Shaftesbury here to corroborate Steele and Dennis in their opposition to all-sung Italian opera (the type that Shaftesbury is praising above the French tragédie lyrique). But it is precisely Shaftesbury’s sketch of a causal connection between features of opera (spectacle and sound) and their effect on the audience and society - in this case, the maintenance of liberty and freedom - that suggest why Steele and Dennis could be so shrill in their denunciation of Italian opera. While Shaftesbury, Steele, and Dennis may disagree about the particular case of Italian-style opera, they share a Whig’s political concern for opera’s effects on British liberty and national identity.


45We can certainly doubt whether the effects of opera on an audience member or the nation was as great and catastrophic as Steele, Dennis, and Shaftesbury claimed. It is worth noting their critiques are based on the politics and ideology of opera as a genre, rather than aesthetic consideration of individual works. Likewise, we can doubt whether Britain would have become so masculine, rational, free, and patriotic had Italian opera been driven from its shores.

  • 12   For continuation of criticism of opera later in the century, see Theodore Fenner, Opera in London (...)

46Although only a minority view, these shrill objections about opera continued unabated throughout the century and beyond.12 Britons quickly embraced the genre as the most prestigious and elite form of musical entertainment. Throughout the rest of the century, with only short gaps, London produced Italian operas (sometimes by rival companies), importing the continent’s best singers, musicians, and composers. Patronage of Italian opera became a sign of connoisseurship, elite social status, and a testament that London had become a great cultural center of Europe.

  • 13  Jean Marie Hoover, Constructions of National Identities: Opera and Nationalism in the British Isle (...)
  • 14  On dramatic music sung in English, Roger Fiske, English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century. S (...)

47With the foreign import safely domesticated into British social and musical life, the issue of opera and national identity was addressed in other ways.13 Attempts to foster Italian-style opera sung in English are represented by a variety of English dramatic productions, including Joseph Addison and Thomas Clayton’s Rosamond (1707); John Hughes and John Galliard’s Calypso and Telemachus (1712); a variety of masques in the 1730s; Handel’s oratorios; David Mallet, James Thomson, and Thomas Arne’s masque Alfred (1740); and Arne’s Artaxerxes (1762). Another more successful effort was the unique English form, the ballad opera, inaugurated in 1728 by John Gay and John Pepusch’s The Beggar’s Opera.14

48Other ways opera contributes to framing British national identity in the works of Henry Purcell, Frederick Delius, Ralph Vaughan Williams, Benjamin Britten, and Harrison Birtwistle are explored in the following essays in this volume.

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1  On Clayton’s role in introducing Italian opera, see Thomas McGeary, “Thomas Clayton and Italian Opera in London,” Philological Quarterly, 77 (1999), 171-86.

2  Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism. Revised edition (London: Verso, 1991), 6.

3  Anderson, Imagined Communities, 23, 27.

4  Linda Colley, Britons: Forging the Nation 1707-1837 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1992).  

5  From the large literature on nationalism, studies of British nationalism relevant to the eighteenth century include, Colley, ibid and “Whose Nation? Class and National Consciousness in Britain 1750-1830,” Past and Present, no. 113 (Nov. 1986), 97-117; Gerald Newman, The Rise of English Nationalism: A Cultural History 1740-1830 (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1987); Tony Linsell, An English Nationalism (Norfolk, England: Athelney, 2001); Colin Kidd, Subverting Scotland’s Past: Scottish Whig Historians and the Creation of an Anglo-British Identity (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1993); Hans Kohn, “The Genesis and Character of English Nationalism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 1 (1940), 69-94; Kemp Malone, “The Rise of English Nationalism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 1 (1940), 504-5; R. M. Lumiansky, “Beginnings of English Nationalism,” Journal of the History of Ideas, 1 (1940), 248-9; Rosemary Sweet, “Antiquaries and Antiquities in Eighteenth-Century England,” Eighteenth-Century Studies, 34 (2001), 181-206; Paul Odney, “Thomas Gray’s ‘Daring Spirit’: Forging the Poetics of an Alternative Nationalism,” Clio 28 (1999), 245-60; Stephen Heathorn, “(Re)Discovering the National Character: Some Recent Work on the History of English Nationalism and Its Influence on the Construction of British National Identity,” Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, 23 (1996), 9-18; Margot C. Finn, “An Elect Nation? Nation, State, and Class in Modern British History,” Journal of British Studies, 28 (1989), 181-91; and Walter R. Johnson, “A Historiographical Sketch of English Nationalism, 1789-1837,” Canadian Review of Studies in Nationalism, 19(1992), 1-8.

6  J. G. A. Pocock, Politics, Language and Time: Essays on Political Thought and History (London: Methuen, 1971), 85. The idea is most fully developed in his magisterial The Machiavellian Moment: Florentine Political Thought and the Atlantic Republican Tradition (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1975); see also his Virtue, Commerce, and History: Essays on Political Thought and History, Chiefly in the Eighteenth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985).

7  René Aubert de Abbé Vertot, Histoire des révolutions arrivées dans le gouvernement de la républic romaine (1720). Quotations from the Introductory Discourse, “The Foundation of the Roman Common-wealth and the chief Causes of its Decay” in The History of the Revolutions That happened in the Government of the Roman Republic. Trans. by Mr. Ozell and others. Third edition (1724).

8 Orientalism (New York: Pantheon, 1978), esp. 1-7.

9  See, for example, G. Gregory Smith, Elizabethan Critical Essays, 2 vols. (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1904), I:xvii-xviii.

10  “On Nicolini’s leaving the Stage,” published by Steele in Poetical Miscellanies (1714), 44-45.

11  The full text of Shaftesbury’s letter in printed in Thomas McGeary, “Shaftesbury on Liberty and Spectacle in Italian Opera,” Music and Letters, 74 (1993), 530-41.

12   For continuation of criticism of opera later in the century, see Theodore Fenner, Opera in London: Views of the Press, 1785-1830  (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1994).

13  Jean Marie Hoover, Constructions of National Identities: Opera and Nationalism in the British Isles (Ph. D. dissertation, Indiana University, 1999); Suzanne E. Aspden, “Ballads and Britons: Imagined Community and the Continuity of  ‘English’ Opera,” Journal of the Royal Musical Association 122 (1997), 24-51, and Opera and Nationalism in Mid-eighteenth-century Britain  (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Oxford, 1999).

14  On dramatic music sung in English, Roger Fiske, English Theatre Music in the Eighteenth Century. Second edition (Oxford: Oxford University, 1986); Eric Walter White, A History of English Opera (London: Faber and Faber, 1983); Phillip Lord, “The English-Italian Opera Companies, 1732-3,” Music and Letters, 45 (1964), 239-51; and Judith Milhous and Robert D. Hume, “J. F. Lampe and English Opera at the Little Haymarket in 1732-3,” Music and Letters, 78 (1997), 502-531.

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Thomas McGeary, « Opera and british nationalism, 1700-1711 », Revue LISA/LISA e-journal [En ligne], Vol. IV - n°2 | 2006, mis en ligne le 22 octobre 2009, consulté le 18 septembre 2020. URL : ; DOI :

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Thomas McGeary

(University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign)
Thomas McGeary a été reçu docteur en musicologie de l’université d’Illinois de Urbana-Champaign (Etats-Unis) en 1985, après des études de philosophie et d’esthétique. Il a beaucoup écrit sur l’opéra, la musique, et l’art dans la Grande Bretagne du XVIIIe siècle. Une étude des archives sur la réception de Farinelli par les anglais, “Farinelli chez les Anglais: Dieu ou démon?”/ “Farinelli and the English: ‘One God’ or the Devil?”, est parue dans La Revue LISA/LISA e-journal, Vol. II, no. 3 (2004). Il termine actuellement un ouvrage sur l’opéra, la satire, et la politique à l’époque de Haendel, Pope et Horace Walpole.

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