On a recent visit to London, I visited Sir John Soane’s Museum—not exactly a household name. Located near the British Museum, it is the smallest of England’s national museums, and a unique gem. Sir John was a prominent and wealthy British architect in the neo-classical style who lived from 1753 to 1837. Among his many commissions were the Bank of England and the Dulwich Picture Gallery. In keeping with the spirit of the Enlightenment era in which he lived, Sir John was also a voracious collector of original statues and paintings, historical replicas, architectural models, and antiquities—including a magnificent Egyptian sarcophagus—which he displayed at his personal residence in London. One of the most famous rooms in the museum is the Picture Room, which is densely packed with pictures from ceiling to floor; these include a large painting by Canaletto of a scene in Venice reputed to be worth 65 million pounds (the painting, not the scene). Also displayed in this room are two masterpieces of the mid-18th century: William Hogarth’s sets of paintings The Rake’s Progress (1733) and An Election (1754-1755).
William Hogarth (1697-1764) satirized many contemporary events in his work as a painter, engraver and editorial cartoonist, and showcased the gritty side of life in eighteenth-century London, full of poverty, prostitution, marital infidelity, syphilis and madness. Hogarth’s other favorite themes included corruption, greed and hypocrisy. Early in Hogarth’s life, his father had been imprisoned for debt, which left a lifelong mark on the artist. Since his father could not afford to fund Hogarth’s education, or to apprentice him to an established painter, William Hogarth was apprenticed instead to an engraver—which, as it turned out, gave him a rock-solid foundation for his future career.
Hogarth completed the six paintings entitled The Harlot’s Progress in 1730. This series begins by depicting a young woman being recruited into prostitution by a persuasive madam. In her new life, the young woman is supported for a time by a wealthy businessman, but she cheats on him with a young lover. Evicted by her patron, she becomes a common prostitute, and is arrested and imprisoned. Released from prison, she dies of syphilis. Her funeral is a sad event, attended by her fellow prostitutes, who miss no opportunity to promote their services to the undertaker and the parson. How operatic! I should note that the arc of this story has many resonances with familiar 19th-century French and Italian operas including Verdi’s La Traviata, Massenet’s Manon and Puccini’s Manon Lescaut, although consumption takes over from syphilis as a plot device in the 19th century.
Having completed the paintings for The Harlot’s Progress, Hogarth produced a set of engravings based on these works which he sold extremely successfully on subscription. Despite the existence of many pirated versions of the engravings, Hogarth made so much money that he was inspired to complete a second series based on another “modern moral subject”: The Rake’s Progress. In this series (you can see a slideshow of the eight plates above), Hogarth tells the story in eight paintings of a young man from the country named Tom Rakewell who inherits a fortune and abandons his pregnant fiancée, Sarah Young, for the debaucheries of London. Once in London, Tom loses his fortune, indulges in orgies where he contracts syphilis, and is about to be sent to debtor’s prison when Sarah ransoms him. Afterwards, Tom spurns her in order to marry a rich, elderly widow, but soon loses his new wealth to gambling. Tom is sent to debtor’s prison; however, when his mental health declines he is transferred to a madhouse. Sick with syphilis, he dies in the notorious London insane asylum, Bedlam (actually, the Royal Bethlehem Hospital—where fashionable ladies used to spend afternoons watching the inmates for entertainment). This is another very operatic story, albeit one as dark and as relentlessly morbid as Alban Berg’s Wozzeck (based on the equally dark play by Georg Büchner).
Fast forward over 200 years, when the great Russian composer Igor Stravinsky found himself strongly attracted to the narrative power of these paintings. Looking for a storyline to set for a “neo-classical” opera, Stravinsky assembled an operatic “Dream Team”: W.H. Auden and Chester Kallman wrote the libretto based on the Hogarth Engravings—but with a Faustian spin—for the premiere in 1951. Closer to home, John Crosby programmed the work in the inaugural year of the Santa Fe Opera in 1957, even persuading Stravinsky to visit Santa Fe a number of times. For the Glyndebourne production in 1975, the British artist David Hockney created an influential opera production which incorporated grotesque figures and large scale hatchings inspired by the engravings.
This opera, called The Rake’s Progress, is one of my personal favorites, as Stravinsky brilliantly employs a re-imagined “classical” compositional style and incorporates 18th-century narrative themes while remaining thoroughly contemporary. Auden’s libretto—written in English, of course—is elegant, crisp and precise. It harmonizes perfectly with Stravinsky’s neo-classical compositional idiom, producing a work of great emotional depth. Who in the audience cannot feel moved when Anne Truelove sings “No word from Tom / Has love no voice, can love not keep / A Maytime vow in cities?” after Tom Rakewell has abandoned her?
More recently, the young British composer Iain Bell has been preparing for the world premiere of his new opera based on Hogarth’s The Harlot’s Progress. I had the privilege of reading the libretto by Peter Ackroyd a couple of years ago, which captures the sense of despair depicted in the engravings, as well as a distinctive 18th-century bluntness about lust, sex and STDs. The premiere will take place in Vienna on October 13, featuring Diana Damrau and Nathan Gunn, among others, with Donald Runnicles conducting. This will be an important premiere of a major new opera, and I am looking forward very much to attending. The composer’s choice of subject shows the power of the Hogarth engravings to intrigue and provoke us nearly 300 years after their publication.
Hogarth created other series later in his career. In Marriage à-la-mode (1743-1745), he satirized the British upper classes, depicting an arranged marriage for financial gain, infidelity by the husband, cheating by the wife, the murder of the wife’s husband by her lover, reports of the hanging of the lover, and the wife’s suicide—all in six paintings. He also planned a series entitled “The Happy Marriage,” but stalled out and never completed the work. Perhaps Hogarth, like Dante, found the narrative possibilities of sin and punishment to be far richer source material than domestic contentment or salvation. A few years later, Hogarth moved from social satire to political satire, completing a four-painting series entitled An Election, also owned by the Sir John Soane Museum. In these paintings, he skewers British politicians in his unsparing depictions of pervasive bribery, corruption, and immoral behavior.
As Hogarth aged, he became increasingly distraught about the negative artistic, social and political forces he witnessed in his world. While these issues were omnipresent in London, and of great concern to him personally, I have to wonder if the artist focused a bit too much on humanity’s evils. One of my favorite plays is Tom Stoppard’s Jumpers, which tackles potentially arcane issues of moral philosophy in a provocative and entertaining way. I am reminded of the lines that the character Archie declaims at the very end of the play: “Do not despair—many are happy much of the time; more eat than starve, more are healthy than sick, more curable than dying; not so many dying as dead; and one of the thieves was saved.” In the midst of all of the negative societal forces swirling around Hogarth, I am confident that there was goodness to be discovered, as well. Opera, being somewhat addicted to the tragic—as described in an earlier Off the Cuff—seems destined to feel the pull of Hogarth’s downbeat vision for a long time to come. Yet, even in such lurid scenes as these, we sense the flawed humanity that connects you and me on our worst days with Hogarth’s anti-heroes on their best—and we thank our lucky stars that most of us scraped through.
◊ Keith Cerny is the General Director and CEO of The Dallas Opera. His column OFF THE CUFF appears every month in TheaterJones.com. Below this photo is a list of previous columns:
- January 2012 "A Scheme of Delight"
- February 2012 "Visiting Wagner's Bayreuth"
- March 2012 "Commissioning a Successful Opera"
- April 2012 "The New Opera Audience"
- May 2012 "Rivers and Deltas of Musical Time"
- June 2012 "Operatic Blockbusters"
- July 2012 "Maximizing Dallas Opera's Community Footprint"
- August 2012 "The Santa Fe Festival Model"
- September 2012 "Postcard from Glyndebourne"
- October 2012 "Verdi's Egypt: Cracking the Code"
- November 2012 "It's Not Just Contemporary Anymore"
- December 2012 "Singing the Blues"
- January 2013 "Puccini's Golden Dozen"
- February 2013 "Opera and Popular Culture"
- March 2013 "A Dangerous Experiment"
- April 2013 "The Case of the Jealous Mezzo"
- May 2013 "Winning the Red Queen's Race"
- June 2013 "Managing the Opera Company of the Future"