February 14, 1920
Page 33
Like the poor, the Claque Has Always Been with Us—Originated by Nero, Developed by France, Adopted by Italy and Transported to America—Scientifically Conducted in Paris to Provide Appropriate Reactions for All Sorts of Operatic Situations—Experiences of American Debutantes
Sketches by Viafora

CHICAGO’S discovery that its opera has a claque scarcely startled America. Revelations growing out of the Baklanoff imbroglio, though sufficiently malodorous, did not make a very malignant monster of its traditional and much denounced operatic appendage, which Italy acquired from France and then passed on to America. Of more concern as involving the good name of opera were admissions said to have been made regarding the “shaking down” of artists by lesser employees of the opera house in ways not connected with paid applause. In Chicago, -as in New York, the claque seems to have been a more or less harmless nuisance from which the individual’s graft was relatively small, and the results nil, as far as making or breaking the career of an artist, good or bad. Its toleration, in any degree or state, is the thing that offends American audiences.
Like the poor, the claque has always been with us. Suetonius affirms that Nero had five thousand soldiers present to see him act and to chant an encomium. Whether there was a claque to applaud Nero’s fiddling as Rome burned Suetonius does not state. The Greek classic dramatists doubtless saw to it that their friends were present when their plays were performed. What the friends did, in return, can be left to any logical man’s conjecture. It is not probable that they hissed.
There is no more common error with regard to the claque than assailing it as an Italian institution. The very word is French and had to be introduced into the Italian language. The institution, as an institution, was unknown in Italy even so late as the early Rossini operas. Doubtless there was paid applause, as there had been in Greece and Imperial Rome; but it is to Paris that the prying eye must turn to find the establishment of the institutional claque as the world has known it for the last hundred years.
The operatic claque, it is fair to say, belongs by right of birth and nurture to the Paris Opéra as truly as the ballet and the grand manner. lt can no more be divorced from the history of that famous pulpitum of song than the operas of Meyerbeer. It was in the Meyerbeerian era that the claque came to be, and it was· as logically a part of its age as orchestral shivers and trumpet calls, bobbing ballerinas with their thirty-two fouettes, and opera books that dealt with kings and things and burning oil.
Historic Claque of Paris Opéra
Numerous authorities give the birth of the institutional claque as the year 1820. ‘They credit one Sauton (also spelled Santon) with being the master mind, aided and abetted by one Porcher. They hung out their shingle, for they were in a regular business, the business of assuring dramatic success—“L’Assurance des Succés Dramatique.” By 1830 the claque was. a full-bloom “Chef de Claque” institution, collecting by day and applauding by night, all in the honest open. It was the custom for the management of the theater to send a request for any given number of claqueurs, under a suitable chef de claque.
Victor Hugo in “Les Miserables” took note of the institution when he wrote, “The claque at the Grand Opera is very select,” and again, “We will go to the Opera. We will go in with the claque.”
In the Paris claque, as it flourished in the days of Meyerbeer and the grand manner, each claqueur had his special role allotted him, according to his talents, and the assignment list reads like a comic opera cast. There was the rieur, “Rieur” officially so styled. His business was to laugh at the comic sallies, and he was picked as a rieur because he had an infectious laugh. There was the pleureur, who wept through the pathetic passages. The pleureur or pleureuse , usually was a feminine claqueur, copiously armed with handkerchiefs, sometimes laden with tear-compelling lotions which offended the olfactory organs of nasute persons in adjacent seats.. There was the bisseur, whose task it was to shout “bis” and “encore,” and an individual variously styled but most often referred to as “the tickler,” who was an expert in keeping his neighbors in good humor, passing about bonbons, theater bills and spicy stories. Of appropriate dignity and importance were the commissaires, who learned the opera or play by heart and who, by conversation or otherwise, learnedly called its good points to the attention of less enlightened folk. All were under the direction of a chef de claque, who frequently was an excellent musician and who considered himself somewhat superior to the critics.
All this grew out of Sauton’s Assurance des Succés Dramatiques. Sauton is said to have derived his idea from Jean Daurat, a sixteenth century French poet, who, reading of Nero’s methods of gaming the public’s plaudits, distributed tickets for one of his own plays in return for promises of applause. It seems probable that even Sauton had no idea of such an elaborate institution as resulted from his scheme.
Chefs de claque attended final rehearsals in order to study the opera and work out a system of applause. There was something of conscientious art in their study. Often their assistants were merely picked up, and the chef de claque then had to instruct, even drill, his helpers. The claqueurs of Paris were called “chevaliers du lustre,” because the main body of them sat near the middle of the parterre, beneath the grand chandelier. Others were distributed throughout the house. Apparently the Paris claque not only was more aristocratic, but much more comfortably looked after than the crowd that stands around the rail at the Metropolitan!
When Rachel Took the Claque to Task
An old letter that has been preserved is a delicious commentary on the times and perhaps a bit pathetic in showing how seriously the chef de claque regarded his mission. Mme. Rachel, it seems, once complained to a claque master that whereas she had been uproariously greeted at the first performance of a particular work there was very much less enthusiasm at its repetition a few days later. The scolded applause leader replied with a letter containing the following:
“I cannot remain under the obloquy of a reproach from such lips as yours! At the first representation I led the attack in person thirty-three times. We had three acclamations, four hilarities, two thrilling movements, four renewals of applause, and two indefinite explosions.”
He then went on to say that his men were positively exhausted with fatigue had told him they could not do so much again, “so,” he wrote, “I applied the manuscript and, having profoundly studied the piece, I was obliged to make up my mind for the second representation to certain curtailments, in the interests of my men.”
Meyerbeer’s “Robert the Devil,” Halevy’s “La Juive,” Rossini’s “William Tell,” Auber’s “Dumb Girl of Portici” were the great works of the day when the claque was youthful and aristocratic. Modern opera-goers may ponder whether they would need to be told when to applaud in works of this genre.
But it is not to be supposed that the claque always had its own way with things. There have been riots in both France and Italy, if old writers recorded the facts, due to ill-timed efforts on the part of the claque to overcome popular disapproval.
From Paris the idea of an organized claque was carried into Italy. There it has fastened itself upon all the opera houses, big and small, but it never seems to have acquired the respectability of the Paris claque. Its operations have been more or less under cover and often have smacked of extortion and blackmail rather than “assuring the success” of a new work, though not to the degree of brigandage that singers say has obtained in Spain, particularly Madrid.
Italian Claque Was Patriotic
One phase of the development of the Italian claque is of historical importance. During the days of the Austrian occupation, the time of Verdi’s young manhood, the claque took on a nationalistic, patriotic character and had as its mission the baiting of the local Austrian officials. As is well known, several of Verdi’s operas had to be rewritten because the Austrians objected to scenes representing conspiracy, revolution, or irreverence toward royalty. Notable among these were “Ernani,” “Un Ballo in Maschera” and “Rigoletto.” But in their modified form a line could be found here and there that could be construed as representing Italian patriotism. It was the business of the claque leaders to know these lines and to start a demonstration whenever they were sung. In “I Lombardi” the Milanese were quick to detect a passage which, when singled out, had an anti-Austrian inference. The vogue of “Attila” at La Scala is recorded as partly due to the opportunity it afforded for patriotic demonstrations.
Grove wrote that the London opera patron could have no idea of the frenzy of an Italian audience so stirred. “The overcrowded house,” he said, “was in a perfect roar; clapping of hands, shouts, cries, screams, stamps, thumps with sticks and umbrellas, were heard from every corner, while hats, bonnets, flowers, fans, books of words and newspapers flew from the galleries and boxes to the stalls and from the stalls back to the boxes and the stage— the noise often entirely covering up the sound of both orchestra and chorus and lasting till the police could restore order or there was no breath left in the audience.”
A single sentence, such as “Cara, Patria gia madre e Regina” or “‘Avrai tu l’Universo, resti l’Italia per me” from “Ernani,” was sufficient to produce this uproar. It was the business of the leaders of the patriotic claque to act in a capacity not so very different from the college yell leader of to-day.
“Viva Verdi” became a sort of rallying cry in the Italian opera houses. The claque led it. The letters of Verdi’s name—V-E-R-D-I—represented, to the Nationalists, “Victor Emanuel Re d’ltalia,” King Victor Emanuel of Piedmont being then the hope of the Italians who dreamed of shaking off the Austrian yoke.
Of late Americans have heard more of the Italian claque than the French. Tito Schipa first became well known on this side of the Atlantic as the tenor who had defied the claque. American singers who began their careers in Italy have had many tales to tell, some of them highly humorous, of blackmailing demands made upon them—pay and be given an ovation, refuse to pay and be hissed and hooted off the stage!
It seems altogether probable that the claque came to America with the famous Italian singers of other days, since Italian opera and Italian artists have played a much greater part in shaping American operatic history than the French. The writer recalls an amusing conversation with a woman at the rail at the Metropolitan—apparently a school teacher who was intensely proud of generations of American blood and who repeatedly expressed an intense and unreasoning antipathy toward the many Latins in the crowd about her—in which she blamed Caruso for having caused America to be literally overrun with his countrymen! She seemed to think there were no Italians in America to speak of until Caruso came, and that those who were here were quite properly humble until his success gave them an utterly false idea that they really were somebody after all. One would have thought that Caruso had chartered a whole fleet of transports and had been engaged for years in colorizing New York!
Excuses for American Claque
The excuse for the claque in America—at least the one most commonly advanced—is that European artists, educated to the system of paid applause, can’t get·along without it, and, not understanding the difference of customs between Europe and America, fall an easy victim to anyone with a little blackmail game to play. The revelations made by members of the Chicago “Bisseur” company emphasized this. Certain of the foreign artists were victims of petty graft because they took it for granted they must pay, but stopped paying when the late Cleofonte Campanini, the general manager, told them it was unnecessary for them to yield petty tribute to anyone.
At the Metropolitan claqueurs are very busy in behalf of certain artists whose operatic past had been been largely in Italy or the Latin-American countries. Their business plainly is to start the applause, even before the last high note of an aria has been finished, and to renew it the moment ·it seems to be dying down. As everyone knows, it takes only a few noisy ones to bring on a second round of enthusiasm just as the first is about to give up the ghost. I have noticed hisses from around the rail that have tended to silence the applause accorded certain singers at the Metropolitan. Because of the frequent hissing by the most respectable elements of the audience to silence untimely applause that interferes with the progress of an opera or obscures some beautiful orchestral interlude, it is difficult to say that these hisses from about the rail were directed at a singer. But they did tend to prevent just those renewals of dying applause that a burst of fresh handclapping from around the rail so often served to bring on when other artists were appearing.
American singers at the Metropolitan have told of being approached by claqueurs with requests for money in return for applause. No complaint has come to light, however, of any serious threats or of acts of hostility at a performance. As a matter of fact, the impression of these singers is that there is not one, but several so-called claques at the Metropolitan, and that they sometimes tread on each other’s toes in seeking to gain certain singers as their clients. Their activities remain matters of petty individual money-seeking, and continue by reason of the support which willingly is thrown their way by artists who seek to be sure of their applause. Whether, as gossip is wont to allege, the operatic powers-that-be are not averse to claque activities so long as they keep within decent limits, is another story. To go further and say that the opera management itself supports a claque for certain singers is advancing a charge which those who make it ought to be prepared to prove, and it is to be questioned whether any of them are in a position to do this.
Claque Defended as Stimulant
Two years ago, MUSICAL AMERICA printed an interview with the then ostensible leader of the Metropolitan claque, a man whose name was given as Margoles. He decried the brigandage which existed in some opera houses abroad, but defended the claque in America as necessary to spirited performances, saying that New York audiences are apathetic and that unless singers are applauded after they have given their very best to please they will cease to give their best.
Said Margoles: “The claque is a stimulant to opera. Great artists cannot bear monotony. No artist can pour out his heart and soul for a whole evening, unless he hears some response from the house. Even the acrobat in the circus will refuse to do ‘his turn’ unless he will be applauded after each feat, to give him courage for the next.”
“Even”—note the “even”—“a circus acrobat!” The vocal gymnastics of opera apparently are one notch lower than trapeze flying!
Reverting to Margoles: “The arias are feats and after the singer has finished one of these, he or she needs and must have encouragement to go on with the next. They are so used to applause at certain times during the course of an opera that it would throw them out entirely if they did not hear it, just as if they did not hear the orchestration. The greater the artist the more he needs the applause.”
Margoles was quoted as naming the greatest French tenor of modern times and the great French baritone whose name still stands for all that is best in modern dramatic singing as consistent clients of the claque when in New York. He told of an incident in which, according to his version of it, the great baritone decided to dispense with paid applause for a single performance and see how things went. The audience was so apathetic that the singers reacted to its dullness, with the result that the performance was an inferior one. The baritone, so the story goes, saw to it that the claque was back on the job the next time he sang.
Quite different is the story told by one of the most popular of the younger American singers at the Metropolitan. Just before her début, made in the last few years, she was approached by a polite claqueur who made his proposal in respectful terms. She had not expected such a visit, but her quickness of wit saved her from acceptance or refusal. She told her caller that as this was her first appearance, she very much desired to see just how much interest she, as a new singer, would arouse and how much applause she would receive on the merits of her work. She intimated that after she had satisfied her curiosity as to how the public would take her, she would talk business with the gentleman. Whether because her success was so complete as to make paid applause unnecessary; or whether the claque solicitor was an easygoing fellow who did not follow up his opening, she afterward was left alone.
Another young American artist at the Metropolitan, of still more recent début, was confronted in her apartment one day by a man with a similar proposition. She turned him away with an excuse that as she had not yet received her salary and had been under heavy expense she was temporarily without funds; but, to show her good will, she would give the gentleman the complimentary tickets which had been turned over to her. This she did. The demand for money does not seem to have been renewed.
These incidents tend to show there is little system to the claque at the Metropolitan and to emphasize that it largely is a matter of agreement between· individual money-hunters and individual applause-seekers.
The hopeful statement is heard from time to time that eventually there will be a preponderance of American singers at the Metropolitan and that these will rise in their wrath and clean out the “foreign” claque entirely. Before ·the cla1que is too confidently branded as a Gallic or Latin institution, it is well to recall that the most celebrated British ministers of the past have had their subservient following whose business was to applaud their speeches, and, so the old boast ran, “a British minister never turns on his friends.”
Also, before the claque is all nailed down around the corners as a thing of opera and opera’s foreign influences, it might be wise to look into the situation in the theaters where the spoken drama holds the boards. There (men in a position to know whereof they speak will tell you) certain of our most prominent “all-American” actors make it a practice to have professional applauders distributed about the house every night they appear, whether their play runs on Broadway one week or three successive seasons.


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