Ballad opera: Definition, Meaning and Examples

Ballad opera is a theatrical entertainment consisting of folk melodies and popular airs with new texts interspersed with spoken dialogue. It combines dialogue in dramatic prose (which is spoken rather than ‘sung’ or chanted in any way) with music and songs, usually set to traditional and contemporary melodies.

It was virtually invented by John Gay when he composed The Beggar’s Opera (1728), a play with music and songs interpolated (the music was arranged by J. C. Pepusch). This has remained a regular favorite with amateur and professional theatre companies (cf. Alan Ayckbourn’s Chorus of Disapproval, 1987).

There were many imitations of Gay’s work in the 18th c. and ballad opera was very popular for some twenty years. Gay wrote a sequel, Polly, to The Beggar’s Opera, and this was eventually produced in 1777. Other 18th c. works of note which are very like ballad opera were Arne and Bickerstaffe’s Thomas and Sally (1760) and Love in a Village (1762). R.B.Sheridan also made a contribution to this form with The Duenna (1775). In the 20th c. Bertolt Brecht experimented with the form and produced one outstanding example in the shape of The Threepenny Opera (1928), a reworking of Gay’s theme and story.

Thereafter the main practitioner was Ewan MacColl (1915-89), who wrote several. His Johnny Noble (1945) was particularly fine.

Also read: Prose poem; Definition and famous examples