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Pantheon Redux: Situating Opera in the Regency Development of London's West End, 1811-12

Tuesday 16 November 2021, 4.30PM

Speaker(s): Rachel Cowgill, University of York

Importation of Italian opera to London over the course of the eighteenth century catered for elite tastes that were formed and developed on the Grand Tour, yet even Handel’s presence failed to find a secure footing for this exotic genre in the English capital. Eventually the authority to produce Italian operas in London settled uneasily on the King’s Theatre in the Haymarket. Despite its name, the King’s Theatre was run commercially, without direct royal or aristocratic subventions, and Debtor’s Prison and bankruptcy were the fates of several impresarios dazzled into taking the opera lease in the belief there were fortunes to be made.

Extensive opera-related papers discovered by Price, Milhouse, Hume and Dideriksen at the Bedford Estates Office in the 1980s and 90s revealed a surprising twist in this troubled history – an attempt to establish a de facto court opera for the Prince of Wales at the Pantheon, Oxford Street, in direct competition with the beleaguered King's Theatre (1989; 2000). The Pantheon venture (1789–91) was short-lived, however, ending in conflagration (likely arson) and the return of the monopoly on performing Italian opera to the King's Theatre, along with the Pantheon’s debts.

As this paper will explore, the Prince was implicated again when opera was revived at the Pantheon in 1811, arguably as part of a renewed programme of self-fashioning commensurate with his elevation to Regent. With the Lord Chamberlain’s support, the Pantheon was refitted by speculators and ‘burlettas’ were produced there; but grander ambitions are evident in the programming of Mozart's Le nozze di Figaro in 1812 (the first production in London), which provoked the King’s Theatre to protest that the Pantheon was exceeding its licence. Surviving archival documents, including previously overlooked solicitors’ files at the Bedford Estates Office, enable us to trace behind-the-scenes machinations that led first to the reestablishment of the Pantheon as an opera house, apparently at the Prince Regent's own behest, and then to its systematic undermining and dismantlement amid lost fortunes and ethical concerns that would be debated in Parliament for years.

Making sense of these chaotic events, I argue that the fate of the second Pantheon opera company needs to be understood in relation to the geopolitical transformation of London's West End at that time, specifically the laying out of Regent Street as a north-south axis of fashion, culture, and modernity – brainchild of the Prince’s architect, John Nash. The paper supplies a crucial missing perspective on Nash’s project, connecting with recent scholarship by Leanne Langley (2013) and Michael Burden (2019), and in turn, on the Prince’s patronage of the arts and culture, subject of a major exhibition last year to celebrate the bicentenary of his ascent to the throne as George IV.

Location: K/G07, King’s Manor