'The Assemblage of every female Folly': Lavinia Fenton, Kitty Clive and the Genesis of Ballad Opera

Joncus, Berta. 2012. 'The Assemblage of every female Folly': Lavinia Fenton, Kitty Clive and the Genesis of Ballad Opera. In: Tiffany Potter, ed. Women of Fashion: Popular Culture in the Eighteenth Century and the eighteenth century in popular culture. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, pp. 25-51. ISBN 9781442641815 [Book Section]

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Abstract or Description

This article traces the history of ballad opera and Kitty Clive's role in helping to shape this genre. By commercializing popular airs and a natural style of singing, ballad opera created an early modern 'pop' song industry. This industry was initially led by Lavinia Fenton, the singer-actress, who by performing Polly in the first ballad opera, John Gay's _The Beggar's Opera_, shot to fame. As Gay ruefully observed, Fenton's success seemed to outstrip that of his 'Opera'. Through her publicity across media, she became the first modern star of popular song. After her early 'retirement' in 1728 - she was in fact whisked off the stage by her lover the Duke of Bolton - Kitty Clive inherited her mantle. By casting Clive to lead practically every ballad opera produced, Drury Lane groomed her to take over Fenton's place as London's premiere singer of English ballads. London's print industry ably supported Clive's promotion, most crucially in portraits that conflated her image with that of Fenton.

As the genre developed, Clive's own peculiar gifts came to guide how she represented herself in popular song, and how her ballad operas were designed in her image. Ballad opera was to a large extent dedicated to disciplining females. A burlesque of the genre, _The Fashionable Lady_ by James Ralph, illustrates the strategies by which this was achieved. Reprehensible female stereotypes were displayed in the plot and commented on in airs; the airs' verses and its musical associations articulated for spectators the nature of women and suggested how this nature might be controlled. As Ralph's 'Opera' shows, ballad operas were not only watched and read but also performed at home, becoming thereby a potentially powerful educational tool.

Clive was, however, able to turn this didacticism to her advantage. Interpolated airs gave Clive a medium through which she could subvert authorial intention behind a ballad opera to ‘turn it & wind it & play it’ – her description of her own strategy – to create her stage persona. The process began in _The Devil to Pay_ (1731), in which Clive transformed the opera’s character Nell from a cowed, abused cobbler’s wife into a pert, sympathetic heroine. Due to Clive’s popularity as Nell, _The Devil to Pay_ was revised to showcase Clive; it became a London stage staple that, in translation, was later the source work for both the opéra comique and Singspiel. Feistiness, bordering on insolence, became a Clive trademark that Henry Fielding was hired to support, generating some of London’s most celebrated ballad operas, such as _The Intriguing Chambermaid_. Clive embellished musically both the genre and her stage persona by cultivating a unique brand of ‘Mock Italian song’ that attacked the taste of the privileged. These improvised musical numbers allowed her to display her vocal talent while she disciplined prime donne and their followers. Clive’s stage practices show how a female player could manipulate anti-female biases and stage conventions to popularize through music a persona that challenged both.

Item Type:

Book Section


ballad opera, celebrity, feminine studies, Lavina Fenton, Kitty Clive

Departments, Centres and Research Units:

Research Office > REF2014



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Date Deposited:

08 Nov 2012 23:08

Last Modified:

30 Jun 2017 09:44



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