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The term ballad opera is used to refer to a genre of English stage entertainment originating in the 18th century and continuing to develop in the following century and later. This article describes the principal subgenres. Like the earlier comédie en vaudeville and the later Singspiel, its distinguishing characteristic is the use of tunes in a popular style (either pre-existing or newly composed) with spoken dialogue. These English plays were 'operas' mainly insofar as they satirized the conventions of the imported opera seria.
Ballad opera has been called an "eighteenth-century protest against the Italian conquest of the London operatic scene" It consists of racy and often satirical spoken (English) dialogue, interspersed with songs that are deliberately kept very short (mostly a single short stanza and refrain) to minimize disruptions to the flow of the story, which involves lower class, often criminal, characters, and typically shows a suspension (or inversion) of the high moral values of the Italian opera of the period.
It is generally accepted that the first ballad opera, and the one that was to prove the most successful, was The Beggar's Opera of 1728. It had a libretto by John Gay and music arranged by Johann Christoph Pepusch, both of whom probably experienced vaudeville theatre in Paris, and may have been motivated to reproduce it in an English form. They were also probably influenced by the burlesques and musical plays of Thomas D'Urfey (1653–1723) who had a reputation for fitting new words to existing songs; a popular anthology of these settings was published in 1700 and frequently re-issued. A number of the tunes from this anthology were recycled in The Beggar's Opera.
Gay produced further works in this style, including a sequel to The Beggar's Opera, Polly. Henry Fielding, Colley Cibber, Arne, Dibdin, Arnold, Shield, Jackson of Exeter, Hook and many others produced ballad operas that enjoyed great popularity. By the middle of the century, however, the genre was already in decline.
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