Robert Greenberg

Historian, Composer, Pianist, Speaker, Author

Music History Monday: Handel Ripped Off

George Frederick Handel circa 1720, “The Chandos portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel” by James Thornhill
George Frederick Handel (1685-1759) circa 1720, “The Chandos portrait of Georg Friedrich Händel” by James Thornhill

We mark the premiere on January 10, 1713 – 309 years ago today – of George Frederick Handel’s opera Teseo at the King’s/Queen’s Theater (also-known-as the “Italian Opera Theater”) on Haymarket, in London. It was the still 27-year-old Handel’s third opera composed for the London stage and it was a great success. However, its success was marred by a potentially catastrophic backstage incident after its second performance.

We quote the London journal the Opera Register, which ran the following article on January 15, 1713, five days after Teseo opened. Here is the article as it originally appeared; I’ll translate the passage into contemporary English after we’ve read the original. (The punctuation, capitalization, and spelling below are all as in the original.)

“Mr O. Swiny ye Manager of ye Theatre was now setting out a New Opera, Heroick. all ye Habits new & richer than ye former with 4 New Scenes, & other Decorations & Machines. Ye Tragick Opera was called Theseus. Ye Musick composed by Mr. Handel. Ye Opera being thus prepared Mr Swiny then did give out Tickets at half a Guinea each, for two Nights ye Boxes lay’d open to ye Pit. Ye House was very full these two Nights.

after these Two Nights Mr Swiny Brakes & runs away & leaves ye Singers unpaid ye Scenes and Habits also unpaid for. The Singers were in Some confusion but at last concluded to go on with ye operas on their own accounts, & divide ye Gain amongst them.”

That’s like listening to Yoda perform Shakespeare’s Lear.

Owen Swiney
Owen Swiney (1676-1754)

Translation. The theater manager Mr. Owen Swiney [his name is spelled both as “S-W-I-N-Y” and “S-W-I-N-E-Y” in the literature] has produced a new, heroic and tragic opera called Theseus [“Teseo” in Italian]. With music by Handel, it is a lavish production, filled with special effects. The first two performances were sold out. Following the second performance, Mr. Swiney absconded with the box office receipts, leaving the singers, stage designer, composer, and librettist unpaid and the scenery and costumes unpaid for. After some discussion, the singers – bless their hearts – decided to continue preforming the opera and to divide the box office proceeds amongst themselves. 

Translation complete.

(For our information, the singers also cut Handel in for a share and gave the 13th and final performance of the run – on May 16, 1713 – as a benefit for Handel himself.) 

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