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. There are many types of ballad opera. This article describes the principal sub-genres.
Historian Mark Lubbock claims that the first "ballad opera" was Handel's Rinaldo in 1712. The most popular ballad opera, however, and the only one still regularly revived, is The Beggar's Opera of 1728, with a libretto by John Gay and music arranged by John Christopher 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.
Although they featured the lower reaches of society, the audiences for these works were typically the London bourgeois. As a reaction to serious opera (at this time almost invariably sung in Italian), the music, for these audiences, was as satirical in its way as the words of the play. The plays themselves contained references to contemporary politics — in The Beggar's Opera the character Peachum was a lampoon of Sir Robert Walpole. This satirical element meant that many of them risked censorship and banning — as was the case with Gay's successor to The Beggar's Opera, Polly.
The tunes of the original ballad operas were almost all pre-existing (somewhat in the manner of a modern "jukebox musical"): however they were taken from a wide variety of contemporary sources, including folk melodies, popular airs by classical composers (such as Purcell) and even children's nursery rhymes. A significant source from which the music was drawn was the fund of popular airs to which 18th century London broadside ballads are set. It is from this connection that the term "ballad opera" is drawn. This ragbag of "pre-loved" music is a good test for distinguishing between the original type of ballad opera and its later forms.
The Disappointment (1762) represents an early American attempt at such a ballad opera.
Later in the century broader comedies such as Richard Brinsley Sheridan's The Duenna and the innumerable works of Charles Dibdin moved the balance back towards the original style, but there was little remaining of the impetus of the satirical ballad opera.
In a completely different vein, Hugh the Drover, an opera in two acts by Ralph Vaughan Williams first staged in 1924, is also sometimes referred to as a "ballad opera". It is plainly much closer to Shield's Rosina than to The Beggar's Opera.
In the twentieth century folk singers have produced musical plays with folk or folk-like songs called "ballad operas". Alan Lomax, Pete Seeger, Burl Ives, and others recorded The Martins and the Coys in 1944, and Peter Bellamy and others recorded The Transports in 1977. The first of these is in some ways connected to the "pastoral" form of the ballad opera, and the latter to the satiric Beggar's Opera type, but in all they represent yet further reinterpretations of the term.
Ironically, it is in the musicals of Kander & Ebb —especially Chicago and Cabaret— that the kind of satire embodied in The Beggar's Opera and its immediate successors is probably best preserved, although here, as in Weill's version, the music is specially composed, unlike the first ballad operas of the 18th century.