Imagine you are in the Paris Opera House, circa 1831. Take a look at the crowd. They look like regular opera-goers, just like you, but some of them are not as they appear. See that row of men clapping wildly in the front row, and crying “Encore, encore?” They’re actually employees of the theater, just like the musicians. That woman dabbing tears from her eyes? By day, she’s a professional mourner; by night she brings her talents to the opera house, in order to increase the impact of the melodramatic scenes.
The directors of the Paris Opera saw no reason to leave the success of their performances up to the whims of an unpredictable audience. To guarantee acclaim, they employed the services of an organized body of professional applauders, commonly known as the “claque.” These claqueurs were tucked away throughout the audience, disguised as members of the public.
Their leader was August Levasseur, a larger-than-life figure whose followers commonly compared him to a brilliant military tactician. “He lived—indeed, he could only live at the Opera,” wrote one of Levasseur’s contemporaries, “Large, robust, a veritable Hercules in size, and gifted with an extraordinary pair of hands, he was created and put into the world to be a claqueur.”
In exchange for his work, Levasseur received a number of free tickets to every performance. Some he gave away in exchange for participation in the claque; the rest he sold for a tidy profit. His claque filed in before the rest of the audience, taking up strategic positions throughout the opera hall. They fixed their eyes on Levasseur, who guided them through the performance like a second conductor, giving signals for when to clap, when to cheer, when to laugh, and when to weep.
“Many people have claimed that the art of the claque was purely manual: what a paradox! Might as well say that the art of war is only the art of making sword-thrusts,” one anonymous claqueur wrote. Indeed, there was a great deal of strategy behind the applause. Levasseur pored over the script before each performance, consulting with the director about which moments needed help from the claqueurs and which could stand on their own. As Claude Trevor recounts:
I will give an example of an artfully arranged ruse played upon the gang by a celebrated tenor at the Carlo Felice Theatre, Genoa, on the occasion of his singing there some years ago in ‘Cavalleria Rusticana.’ He was well known to be past-master of long breaths, but his success on the occasion referred to was beyond expectation, particularly in the Brindisi. In his famous high note with which he ended, after holding it for many seconds (naturally already arranged), part of the claque began applauding while another part hushed it down, giving the singer time to take fresh breath and go on with the note, never, to the ordinary listener, having relinquished his hold on it. Only the initiated saw through the trick ; but it succeeded admirably, and I have rarely experienced such a scene of delirium that it called forth.
Sometimes the claque took a darker turn, shaking down actors for applause. Louis-Désiré Véron, the director of the Paris Opera from 1831-1835, used it to put an over-confident dancer in her place:
The mother of the dancer Mlle Duvernay was not lacking in demands on behalf of her daughter. Once, while asking me for an orchestra seat for the evening’s performance, she announced to me majestically, “My daughter’s talent does not need anyone’s protection.” Her outburst was answered that evening when I gave the chief of the claque the order not to allow his men to applaud Mlle Durvernay’s contribution even once. Expecting the usual salvo of bravos on the part of the claque, Mlle Duvernay, after finishing her pirouette, smiled graciously at the audience as if already thanking them for the applause that she anticipated. Throughout the house there reigned the most profound silence. The young dancer was embarrassed and disappointed, and her mother furious and outraged. “This will not happen as a rule,” I said to her, “but you can surely see that your daughter’s talent has need of boosting.”
Many singers slipped Levasseur extra cash in exchange for thrown bouquets and shouts of “Encore!”
But how did the claque become such an institution? To understand its origins, we have to go back in time, to the opera as it was before the French Revolution. In the early to mid 1700s, the opera was a highly aristocratic matter. Nobles were granted the best seats by the King himself. The boxes reserved for the most prestigious guests—princes, foreign dignitaries, and the King’s inner circle—were actually placed on the stage. Although the glare from the oil lamps made it almost impossible to see the action, it was the perfect place to be admired by the rest of the audience.
To the aristocrats, paying close attention to the performance was a serious faux pas. Oh, you want to hear the music? How very bourgeois. The real spectacle was people-watching. The opera hall was laid out in a flattened horseshoe, ensuring that the people in the boxes had a fabulous view—not of the stage, but of the boxes across the theater. The glittering chandeliers were kept at a full blaze throughout the performance, so that you could make eye contact with your friends or rivals on the other side of the hall.
Throughout the show, the audience chatted, snacked, came and went, and even sang along to their favorite numbers. The most important people invariably arrived late, so that the show would be interrupted by applause for their entrances.
But by the 1830s, the opera demographic had shifted. Although the Bourbon Restoration had brought monarchy back to France, it could not reverse the slow waning of the aristocracy’s power. The bourgeoisie was on the rise, and they had a monarch to match: King Louis Philippe I, the “citizen king,” who supplanted his cousin Charles X in the July Revolution.
Gone were the days of nobles lounging in the boxes and chatting through the show, careful not to listen too closely. The rising bourgeois class of opera-goers were anxious to prove their cultural bona fides, but they lacked the easy confidence of the aristocracy. They weren’t quite sure what they were supposed to like.
Enter the claque. As theater historian Nicolas Till argues, the development of the claque mirrors the rise of music criticism, which began around the same time:
As the social status of opera audiences expanded to include the wealthier middle classes attendance at the opera became less exclusively the preserve of the aristocratic elite… As Terry Eagleton has explained, public criticism serves to create a critical consensus of taste and judgement, but to some extent it only becomes necessary when the grounds for making such judgements are no longer certain; when the aristocratic assumption that good breeding and aesthetic taste go together gives way to a more contested set of values. Like the claque, public criticism served to give confidence to an increasingly middle-class audience who needed to be told what to attend, and what to think about what they experienced.
Although they seem like opposites, the critic and the claque were shaped for the same purpose: to mold the tastes of an uncertain audience.
Editor’s note: An earlier version of this story misstated the author of the passage about “Cavalleria Rusticana.”