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When I was young I liked to go to bars, especially bars where bands were playing. But when I got there, I often didn't listen very carefully. And in truth, I wasn't there to see the band; I was there to "make the scene," which is to say see and be seen by my peers. As Jennifer Hall-Witt explains in her fascinating book Fashionable Acts: Opera and Elite Culture in London, 1780-1880 (University of New Hampshire Press, 2007), that's apparently why English notables went to the opera in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century. They dressed up, went out, and "made the scene." All the while there was an opera being performed, but it doesn't seem anyone was paying close attention to it. They milled about, traded glances, visited each other's boxes, talked, joked and generally had a good time. That all changed in the second half of the century. Most significantly, people began to watch and listen to the opera instead of each other. Jennifer tells us why.
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