In the earliest centuries of its creation, opera and its grand theatrical setting was the milieu where the aristocracy and nobles of Europe were expected to flaunt the extent of their wealth and power through fashion and socially elite associations. The tradition of displaying ones high status through pomp and the blatant flaunting of riches was the social and cultural norm for opera goers in England, Italy, Germany, Cuba, Brazil, and France and had successfully crossed the ocean to America flourishing well into the antebellum era:
“Opéra had again acquired the aura of wealth and prestige that had enveloped the institution for most of the 18th century.” (James Johnson Listening in Paris, 168)
In 16th Century England, royalty and members of high society secured the best boxes at the Queen’s Theater. The pit was where other, lower members of society mingled with the middle class, while the gallery was up a set of stairs and reserved for those members of the world who could not afford a box or a pit ticket. In Italy, the pit with its great view of the female dancers on stage, is where men participated in unruly behavior, catcalling and boldly commenting on the female performers’ bodies. In the 16th century it was perfectly suitable for audience members to be seated on stage.
During the French revolution, the Opéra had been seen as a vehicle for aristocratic principles and had been reformed in the image of the evolving state. This “aura of wealth” had been revived by the new bourgeoisie of the post-revolution. Their aim was to imitate nobility, but not to replace it: they desired to create a world as luxurious as that of the aristocracy, with the morals and ethics of the bourgeois. And so the Opéra became a social tool of the bourgeois.
Opéra was an undoubtedly social event: people went to see other people, and to discuss the day’s gossip and news. Few, if any, went for the music or drama. Indeed, in his book Listening in Paris, James Johnson states that, “to the majority of spectators at the Opéra … the chief difference between a chorus and a solo was how loudly they could talk.” (170) ne’s social status was seen in where one sat in the building. The true music lovers sat directly behind the orchestra, the wealthy had boxes, or loges, to themselves, and dandies and diletantes sat in the balconies, in the cheaper seats. Social status also influenced the theatres one attended. The “theatre-going was socially structured: popular audiences flocked to the popular, or “boulevard” theatres, while the aristocracy and the intelligensia supported the Comédie-Français, the Odéon, the Opera, and the Comic Opera.” (Daniels 8)(From The Opéra and Social Status http://www.mtholyoke.edu)
Fashionable Acts, Opera and Elite Culture in London, 1780-1880, Jennifer Hal-Witt