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20.8.11

À mon chevet: Apollo's Angels

À mon chevet is a series of posts featuring a quote from whatever book is on my nightstand at the moment.

book cover
[Empress] Maria Theresa's son Joseph had become co-regent and taken charge of theatrical life in the capital city. Joseph was upright and serious, even severe, and he scorned the etiquette and trappings of the monarchy and aristocracy. He despised the ceremony and obligatory social activities of his mother's court, preferring instead the rigors of military discipline and the intimacy of a private domestic existence. Determined to reform the empire in the interests of his people, he hoped to create an accessible German-language theater -- a people's theater -- free of aristocratic control. He thus had little but disdain for [Jean-Georges] Noverre and his "French" ballets.

[Wenzel Anton] Kaunitz argued tirelessly for continued royal support for the French Burgtheater, but Joseph cut its funding, explaining that the state regarded its productions as "trifles." The theater limped along on the patronage of high-ranking aristocrats but could not recover. Kaunitz protested angrily at Joseph's callous treatment of Noverre, to no effect, and in 1774 the ballet master finally accepted a new position in Milan. A noisy group of supporters gathered at the theater to protest his departure, and although Noverre returned briefly two years later with a troupe of dancers, Joseph remained unmoved. That same year, he turned the Burgtheater into a national theater devoted to performances in the (German) vernacular. Noverre was thus cast out from Vienna for the same reason he had originally been brought there: because he was French. As one observer later noted, Joseph "will certainly employ no Frenchman until German plays are performed in Versailles."

* * *

The opera house lay at the heart of Milan's social life and the city's elite gathered there almost nightly. [...] There was another attraction too: gambling. The opera house held a monopoly on all gambling in the city, and the income from its tables largely financed the performances. Maria Theresa disapproved on moral grounds, but she grudgingly allowed the games to continue as a way of appeasing the urban elite (the lower classes were not permitted to play). Tables were placed at various locations throughout the theater, including one on the fourth tier in the auditorium, where merchants were encouraged to play while they watched the performance. This was not as distracting as it might seem. Because opera was a nightly affair, audiences quickly became familiar with a production and felt free to pick and choose their favorite parts, turning their attention to the stage between meals, games, and visiting. This did not mean they were not attentive, however, and the Milanese freely expressed their opinions, shouting and chanting at the stage, and the artistry of each performance was vigorously discussed and debated.

-- Jennifer Homans, Apollo's Angels: A History of Ballet, pp. 88-90
Just as government support of the arts has always been a part of history, the political views of government leaders have also been known to interfere with what artists are trying to do. Perhaps history can also provide a lesson for arts organizations today, struggling with the matter of finding enough revenue to stay afloat -- gambling. Can't you see a small, elegant casino on the top floor of the Kennedy Center, with some blackjack, poker, and baccarat tables? Slot machines at the Meyerhoff or roulette at the Kimmel Center? Perhaps Mobtown Modern could partner up with Pimlico? I am only half-joking.

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