Louis Véron and the Paris Opéra
By Sarah Hixon
At the end of the 18th century, the French Revolution not only brought about social reforms and a reordering of class structure, but a new dance audience. With theaters being controlled by the new republican government, theater doors were opened to even the most impoverished members of society. These uneducated audiences were not interested in abstract symbolism and stories about noble gods and legends, but rather in believable human characters and spectacle. Boulevard theaters throughout Paris became increasingly popular for such entertainment which catered to the tastes of the growing bourgeoisie (Cohen 65). The success of ballets centered around peasant life such as La Fille Mal Gardée and the popularity of virtuoso performers like Auguste Vestris clearly showed that tastes were changing.
By the first few decades of the 19th century, the middle classes had grown exponentially, along with an increase in general education. This period saw the dawning of a new movement, not only in art but in intellectual thought. Romanticism, largely a reaction against the Age of Reason, emphasized human emotions and desires, the importance and depth of the individual,
the irrational and supernatural, beauty in the wildness of nature, and the creative spirit. Music and painting saw a rejection of Classicism, and the new Romantic style was largely championed by literary figures. The works of such authors and poets as Scott, Byron, Keats, Goethe, and Heine were highly influential. Ballet was not untouched by these new trends, and major changes at the Paris Opéra began under the direction of Dr. Louis Véron.
Véron became director of the Paris Opéra in 1831, shortly after the Révolution de Juillet. He was ambitious from the start of his career as director, planning to dedicate the Opéra to “the victorious bourgeoisie to whom it will be Versailles; they will throng to fill its seats in place of the Lords and the Court in exile” (Robin-Challan 20). To attract audiences, he began to implement new technological innovations in the theater, the greatest one being the use of oil or gas lighting. This created an eerie or mysterious effect on stage, ideal for the new fanciful images of supernatural creatures or exotic places to be found in ballet libretti. Also, the use of hidden wires, pulleys, water, naturalistic set designs, and other spectacular effects would enthrall audiences (Jowitt 32). The theater-going experience was also enhanced by the lowering of the house lights during the acts of a ballet, and the closing of a grand curtain to hide set changes. Audience members were also expected to remain quiet and seated throughout the stage action (Cohen 67).
To peak interest in the ballet, and also in box office receipts, Véron began to give certain ballerinas highly publicized “star” status. These dancers were often foreign, ostensibly more “exotic” to audiences. For example, Véron gave Marie Taglioni étoile status above the already accomplished French ballerinas of the Opéra (Robin-Challan 18). Audiences and critics alike were delighted with the beautiful and often scantily clad ballerinas and their new technique of dancing on toe. Yet to further public interest, Véron would begin to champion a new star ballerina. In 1836, Véron hired Fanny Essler, famous for her sensual Spanish styled dances. He publicized her as a rival to Taglioni, firing new enthusiasm among balletomanes and critics (Robin-Challan 25).
Cohen, Selma Jeanne, ed. Dance as a Theatre Art: Source Readings in Dance History from 1581 to the Present. 2nd ed. Princeton: Dance Horizons, 1992.
Garafola, Lynn, ed. Rethinking the Sylph: New Perspectives on the Romantic Ballet. Hanover: Wesleyan University Press, 1997.
Jowitt, Deborah. Time and the Dancing Image. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988.
Robin-Challan, Louise. “Social Conditions of Ballet Dancers at the Paris Opera in the 19th Century.” Choreography and Dance. 2.1 (1992): 17-28.