Historical Perspectives: The Opera House “Size Myth” Part I

I think this is the point to discuss changes in vocal technique in the first quarter of the 19th century. There is no doubt that it represents a watershed, a dividing line between the old style and the new. I also think that the causes of the change have been greatly misunderstood.

“To begin with, opera houses were built to seat more people, thus considerably increasing the space to be filled with sound.” New Groves Dictionary of Music, 17, page 343.

If we are going to use this position as part of the explanation for the drastic changes in vocal emission which began in the early 19th century, we ought to make sure it’s correct.

It isn’t. (Despite Berlioz’s belief that it was a factor in changing the singing technique.)

Like much information written about vocal emission by non-specialists, this is based on faulty research and misunderstanding of the basic facts of acoustics and vocal sound.

If we look at the principal opera houses of the period 1790-1850, we see very little “new” construction. What we DO see is the continued use of very large houses built in the second half of the 18th century. This table summarizes principal opera houses in Paris, London, and Milan at the end of the 18th century. Almost all of them were still in use in 1825 or later, so the size of the house did not change. Nor were they SMALL opera houses.

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My point is a simple one: Old theaters, mostly large theaters. When new theaters were built, they rarely exceed 2000 seats in capacity, with the exception of the San Carlos in Naples (1816), 3500, and the Metropolitan in New York (1883), 3045; new building (1966), 4000.

There was one theater in Paris at the end of the 18th century with a capacity of 8000, and of course the very EARLY productions had been, in some cases, in halls and theaters holding up to 5000.  (Let’s bear in mind that 3000 seat theater in the Palazzo Barberini in Rome.)

The “increase in the size of theaters” is not only a myth, it displays an amazing ignorance of the laws of acoustics.

Foreman, Edward. Authentic Singing: The history of singing. Vol. 10. Pro Musica Press, 2001.

So what DID happen?

Stay tuned for the second part in an upcoming blog post.

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