Noise levels astonished diarists from abroad, nobility arrived with servants who cooked whole meals, talked, played [at cards], and relieved themselves in the antechambers that stood in back of each lavish box. (II, 174)
It would be natural to assume that the scenario above refers to a sporting event. One can picture a gaggle of the privileged gossiping away about which noblewoman is in bed with which nobleman, noshing on treats, sharing the latest dirty joke, sipping wine and laughing. It’s like a baseball game today: you go for the camaraderie over hot dogs and beer and when you hear a sharp “crack,” you look down onto the field to see what just happened. It’s all about the socializing; the ostensible reason for the event is secondary.
Of course, there was no baseball in 17th/18th century Italy; instead, the landed classes amused themselves in the opera house. The passage above comes from Martha Feldman’s article “Magic Mirrors and the Seria Stage,” which meticulously describes the fascinating social milieu that existed around opera seria performances in the early 18th century. The performance halls were fully lit, giving spectators just as good a view of the other spectators than of the stage. People came to see and be seen, to chat amongst themselves, and to eat. (Indeed, a standard item in the seria opera was the “sherbet aria,” a tune sung while audience members devoured their dessert.) The music was entirely incidental to the partying, which makes sense when one learns that patrons typically rented their opera boxes for the whole season, and a season consisted of only a few operas, each performed 20-30 times. After the first couple of performances, audiences would be familiar enough with the plot and the music to mentally check out and still know what’s going on. When the virtuoso castrato onstage begin belting his signature tune, audiences would stop their conversations to enjoy a moment of music.
Taruskin comments that there is nothing in today’s world of classical music similar to this sort of socio-musical event. (One would have to go to a bar with a bad cover band for something resembling the opera seria culture.) Indeed, he likens it more to today’s TV set, which passively lights up the background to so many peoples’ lives (II, 175). It is used less for concentrated recreation than it is for distracted ambiance. To the modern person, steeped as we are in the 19th century idea of darkened concert halls, sublimity and transport, and the private contemplation of musical art, the opera seria can seem more like circus than Kultur. The carnivalesque element is perhaps what makes seria such a marginal player in today’s repertory, but it also makes it queerly fascinating.
Prof. Mitchell Morris likes to tell his undergrads that one reason why the 20th century has so few fantastic operas is that, to write an opera that truly “works,” the composer has to “have the courage to be boring.” When you’re dealing with a musical form that can easily stretch for 3 or more hours, a composer needs to “let the audience go,” to free them up for staring blankly at the ceiling, checking their iPhones, and people watching. One does not have the cognitive capacity to deal with hours straight of concentrated brilliance; they need some mental downtime. In the 20th century, only the courageous composer has the guts to be boring.
It might be easy to forget this today, but distracted listening has a long and distinguished history in the western art music tradition (not to mention all the rest of human musical cultures out there). You could receive a dirty look for coughing in some esteemed concert halls today, but throughout most of music history, the coughing, distracted, socializing audience member was the norm, not the decorum-destroying exception. This is perhaps what makes opera seria so interesting – it is so utterly different from what we think of opera now. Taruskin lowers the curtain: “.. it is just those aspects of bygone art that are most bygone from which we can learn the most about ourselves and our present world, and the place of art within it” (II, 176).