Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Putting the Claque in its Proper Perspective

I have been meaning to read William L. Crosten’s book, French Grand Opera: An Art and a Business, for some time. Since this month marks the beginning of my subscription to the San Francisco Opera, it seemed like a good time to start the book. Reading it has been highly informative, as well as pleasant; and it is nice to come across someone who is willing to take a business approach to a major artistic endeavor.

The “hero” of the book is Louis Véron, a medical doctor whose sense of publicity and advertising seems to have exceeded his medical knowledge. As a result he became a great financial success through the sale of patent medicine, thus becoming the model of bourgeois prosperity under the reign of Louis-Philippe. Between his connections, his gift for self-promotion, and investment of his capital, he managed to get the appointment of Director of the Opéra in Paris, thus becoming the first manager to provide that institution with a series of financially successful seasons. If many (most?) of his productions no longer have a firm place in the repertoire (or, for that matter, are remembered), he still deserves recognition for his business sense in his own times (the 1830s).

Crosten devotes an entire section of his book to an institution of opera life about which I knew a bit but far too little, the claque. We think of the claque today as a not particularly honorable technique for eliciting approval from the general public. If “the right people” applaud approvingly, then the general public will follow them as sheep follow a sheepdog.

Hiring an effective claque was clearly part of his business plan. In Auguste Levasseur he found the ideal claque manager. Levasseur would study each production and present Véron with an “applause strategy” that would satisfy the manager’s desired general reception. However, Véron saw Levasseur as more than a conductor cuing audience response. In his memoir Véron recalled the instructions he gave to Levasseur:
You must put an end to all quarrels, come to the succor of the weaker and defend them against the stronger, give an example of politeness and good conduct, and stop by all means the unjust coalitions against the artists on the stage or against the works presented.
In other words Véron saw the claque as guiding not only approval but also proper decorum while attending an opera performance.

Crosten applies a valuable reality check to Véron’s words, however:
Véron's statement is enlightening provided we discount on his part any philanthropic zeal or intention. He used the claque because he thought it profitable. He undoubtedly wanted his audiences to be well-mannered, but not merely for their own good. His interest in the public's deportment was motivated by a realization that cabals in the theater can very easily wreck the best-laid plans of a director. Theatrical feuds and public disturbances over the relative merits of artists or compositions perhaps indicate a lively concern with art, but they are not always an aid to the box office. Véron, whose expressed object was to make the Opéra the delight of the bourgeoisie, saw clearly that to do this he could not afford the dubious luxury of allowing his theater to become a battleground. For that reason, use was made of the claque and every precaution was taken to reduce to a minimum the hazard of a militantly divided audience.
In other words good manners made for good business.

The claque is now a thing of the past. Considering the way some audiences behave, this is not necessarily a good thing. It is hard to imagine Diaghilev taking advice from a latter-day Levasseur. Still, while we remember “The Rite of Spring” for the riot it provoked, one wonders if someone like Levasseur might have helped promote the virtues of both music and dance with a bit more tact; and, given how many places civility seems to have evaporated to less than a faint memory, even a trace of it inside the concert hall might make for a welcome change in the status quo.

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