New bums on opera seats

The transition from feudalism to liberal society mirrored in European opera houses 1750–1825

Opera has gone from a cherished vehicle for royal and aristocratic socializing to a forum for cultural experiences open to everybody. At least for those of us who can afford a ticket. This paper presents findings regarding the transition of audience revenues from the renting out of boxes and seats for all performances during one season to the aristocracy to a much larger share of tickets sold for single performances to a more general audience. Although it was a long, drawn-out process, it seems that the French Revolution was a tipping point not only for the French opera houses, but for those in other European countries as well. Possible pull factors for the much increased bourgeoisie demand are discussed. They include the general economic growth, stable ticket prices, technological evolution, changes in repertoire, the social identification factor, conspicuous consumption, and the new ‘celebrity industry’.

This story is told based on primary data collected in the archives belonging to the Opéra National de Paris, Kungliga Operan in Stockholm, Théâtre de la Monnaie in Brussels, Teatro Regio in Turin and Königliche Preussische Hofoper in Berlin. Secondary sources are used to describe what occurred in opera venues in London. The paper also includes information on how seats were sold, who rented boxes annually, box office revenues and on the share of these revenues in the opera revenues. The study ranges from 1750 to 1824.

Keywords: business history; economic history; opera; cultural economics.


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