Several aspects account for the success of John Gay’s ballad opera The beggar’s opera when it premiered in London in 1728.
Gay’s skillful transformations of well-known songs contained many witty references to the originals, adding a rich subtext that his audience would have understood fully.
His audience would also have appreciated his caricatures of grand opera, which included references to recent London productions—particularly Händel’s Floridante (1721) and Alessandro (1726)—and to the highly public rivalry of the local operatic sopranos Francesca Cuzzoni (1696–1778) and Faustina Bordoni (1697–1781).
Gay’s facility as a writer was also a factor; he created clever, well-wrought lyrics and dialogue, vivid characters, and an irresistible ironic tone. An accomplished musician, Gay was certainly the musical arranger—not Pepusch, as some have argued.
This according to “The beggar’s opera” by Bertrand Harris Bronson, an essay included in Studies in the comic (Berkely: University of California Press, 1941, pp. 197–231).
Above, William Hogarth’s 1729 painting of a scene from the work (click to enlarge); below, a gallant and dashing excerpt from Peter Brook’s 1953 film.