Saturday, June 19, 2010

The Claque

Success being the elusive quality that it is, the Paris Opera didn't rely entirely on its artistic merits to attract a fickle public. Like many other Parisian theaters, it employed the services of an organization known officially as La Societe d'Assurance des Succes Dramatiques, more commonly known as the claque. This was not today's informal band of enthusiastic opera buffs who applaud loudly and scream "Bravos" at the end of their favorite singer's arias. They were a strictly regimented group of forty to sixty professionals whose function, so they claimed, was to heighten the emotional impact of a performance. This could be accomplished in a negative way by hissing, booing, whispering out loud, stomping one's feet, or creating other forms of distraction. More often, though, the claque performed in a positive way by cheering, clapping, throwing bouquets (which were later collected and returned to them for the following act), weeping audibly throughout the heroine's death scene, or shrieking uproariously at the comic basso's clumsy pranks. During intermission they carried on their trade in the lobby or a nearby cafe, where they made loud remarks about the faults or merits of the performance. These members of the Opera's claque were considered masters of their art, each having his own particular specialty such as the well-timed faint or the ear-splitting whistle. The "weepers" were especially adept at their calling since many served as professional mourners during the day. Although the claqueurs' behavior was often boorish, the Parisian ones never went so far as their London colleagues, who sometimes urinated from the balconies onto the audience below.

Quite the contrary, the claqueurs at the Paris Opera were said to be "the most civilized. . . in the world." The man responsible for their model deportment was Auguste Levasseur, the city's ranking chef de claque. Considering the cultural and social status of the Opera, Auguste insisted that his claqueurs dress and behave in a suitable manner. Those who didn't conform were dismissed and forced to proffer their services to lesser institutions like the Comique or the Vaudeville. August himself purposely wore gaudy outfits so he could be spotted easily by his crew, who took their cues from him during a performance. Gloves were the one item strictly forbidden in a claqueur's dress code because they muted applause. Rumor had it, though, that Auguste's real reason for prohibiting gloves was the impossibility of finding a pair large enough to fit his enormous hands.

The efficiency of the Opera's claque was due to its excellent organization, which August structured along the lines of a Roman legion with its hierarchy of generals, brigadiers, lieutenants, sergeants, and so forth. Auguste, in fact, referred to his men as "Romans." On the day of a new performance, he met with them at a wine merchant's shop near the Opera to provide last-minute instructions on the timing and extent of their demonstrations -- for example, moderate applause for a first act entrance, a standing ovation with wild cries of delight at the end of the last act finale, noisy cheers to cover up Mme****'s shaky high C and frigid silence throughout Mlle****'s performance (because she was behind in her payments to the claque). These instructions represented weeks of preparation by August, who attended rehearsals and conferred with the composer, the librettist, the director of the house, and all the major artists. Although largely self-taught, August had gleaned enough knowledge of opera for Veron and Meyerbeer to alter a production at his suggestion.

Members of the claque, after being coached in their duties, would enter the theater around 5:00 in the afternoon and take up their positions before the audience arrived. The seats they occupied were made available through tickets given to Auguste by the management -- and often by the performers as well. Most of Auguste's income (estimated at 20,000 to 40,000 francs a year -- more than many opera singers earned) came from these tickets, some of which he distributed to his claqueurs before selling the rest for his own profit. In addition he received further "gifts" of money from singers as well as composers, especially on the night of a debut or a premiere. One prima donna paid him 50 francs a performance for the fifteen years she sang at the Opera. Others were reported to have bestowed lifetime pensions on him. Once Fanny Elssler, put off by his "fees," hired Santon, the chief claquer of the Gymnase theater, with such disastrous results that she quickly returned to Auguste's protection.

As his power grew, August exploited it to the point of trying to banish the public completely from certain performances on the grounds that its spontaneous reactions could destroy the "successes" he had programmed.

The Parisian worlds of Frederic Chopin by William G Atwood. 1999. Pages 208-10.

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