Let’s start with a definition. According to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, a claque (from the French verb claquer: to clap) is ‘a band of hired applauders in a theatre’.

The origin of both the term and the practice is generally agreed to be French: theatres in eighteenth- and nineteenth-century Paris, whether in the spoken theatre, opera or ballet, would pay organised groups to bolster success for a production with their applause.

A well-drilled claque could ensure a positive reception for a performer, or indeed an entire show, engendering in audiences not only a feeling of enthusiasm they might not otherwise have experienced, but also helping them to register the unusual success of a particular artist or an individual aria.

An undoubted heyday of the claque was at the Paris Opéra in the first half of nineteenth century – at that time the most highly regarded and best subsidised opera house in the world – which relied on producing a sequence of blockbuster historical epics: the classics of the genre included Rossini’s Guillaume Tell (1829) and Halévy’s La Juive (1835), as well as Meyerbeer’s Les Huguenots (1836) and Le Prophète (1849).

The highly influential leader of the official claque for much of this period was Auguste Levasseur, who was given a substantial number of tickets to pass on to his troops, stationed at various points around the auditorium to ensure that the resulting applause and shouts of ‘Bravo!’ would sound suitably spontaneous.

Auguste (as he was invariably known) marshalled his troops like an army, aided by his knowledge of the work itself: he studied the libretto, the score and the production, and even, with the management’s full approval, attended rehearsals.

On occasion, he would also suggest improvements to a new piece – and wise composers and managements would listen to his point of view. Even Berlioz acknowledged his importance, writing that ‘one has often admired the marvellous talent with which Auguste directs the great works of the modern repertory, and the excellent advice that he gives on many occasions to the authors’.

Always colourfully dressed to allow his assistants to see him more easily and thereby follow his lead, Auguste would arrive early to distribute his tickets amongst his acolytes, placing them where their interventions would make maximum effect; then he would instruct them exactly when and how to demonstrate their approval, devising a scheme that would ensure growing enthusiasm throughout the evening until an ecstatic climax would be reached at the final curtain calls.

Auguste himself did very well out of this system. Not only the management, but individual artists would pay him to ensure continued success: his annual income was said to equal those of the Opéra’s own star performers.

Another place where the use of claque took firm hold (and apparently continues to this day) is Italy. In his autobiography Foreign Parts, Sir Thomas Allen describes a menacing encounter during rehearsals at the Teatro Comunale in Florence.

One day, two gentlemen previously noticed by the baritone around the theatre entered his dressing room and complimented him on his singing. ‘We lead the applause’, one of them explained, ‘so the singer traditionally pays for us to have dinner or drinks. And for this clapping you pay.’

‘What a strange custom’, responded Sir Thomas. ‘When in England I can get people to clap me for free. Thank you for coming. Arriverderci’. He wasn’t bothered by these blackmailers again and survived without their assistance; but other singers – notably at La Scala — have been less fortunate. One well- known international tenor told me that he had refused to pay and was therefore booed by a group in the La Scala audience: he will not be returning to the theatre.

Similar practices have existed in the USA too. When Rudolf Bing – Glyndebourne’s first administrator, and co-founder of the Edinburgh Festival – moved to New York’s Metropolitan Opera in 1950, he discovered that amongst the fixtures and fittings he had inherited was a claque.

Deploring this, he made efforts to have it shut down, but even Bing’s determination proved unequal to the task. ‘I came finally to the opinion’, he laments in his autobiography, 5000 Nights at the Opera, ‘that so long as a house has Italian artists there is no way to eradicate the claque; the artist receives someone at home, that someone buys standing room tickets, people present themselves at the door with valid tickets. The worst offender in my time at the Metropolitan held occasional parties at her apartment for the claque, and even sang a song or two for them. She called them “my children”.’

But a claque hired to applaud one performer sometimes took to booing others, and so Bing ‘hired a private detective to join the line waiting to buy standing room, issued various threats, even announced (but then did not enforce) the cancellation of standing room at the house’. Eventually, it seems, he gave up.

Perhaps the most endearing and certainly the most detailed account of the workings of a claque – and from the inside – comes in Looking for a Bluebird, the picaresque memoirs of Joseph Wechsberg, who later (amongst many other things) became a distinguished opera critic, but who in the 1920s was a music student in Vienna: most of the members of the Viennese claque were, in fact, conservatoire students, and all had to audition for the claque’s leader, Schostal.

For his audition Wechsberg was asked to organise ‘a short salvo’ of applause following baritone Michael Bohnen’s rendition of ‘Pari siamo’ in Act 1 of Rigoletto. ‘My heart was beating wildly and I am sure that I was far more excited than Bohnen himself. I stared down into the vast, dark auditorium, with two thousand people silently listening, and I thought I would never have the courage to clap my hands. I had the absurd feeling that everybody would turn around and look at me.’

‘My cue came and I sent a prayer to heaven, hoping that somebody else would applaud first, but nothing happened. I took a deep breath, closed my eyes, and boldly clapped my hands. Then there came response from other spots in the balcony, from the boxes and the orchestra stalls, and suddenly a cataract of applause was sweeping the house. It was the  sweetest sound I’ve ever heard’.

Schostal himself maintained high standards, and would never agree to work for a poor singer. When a wealthy manufacturer offered him 1000 schillings to arrange a good reception for his vocally ambitious wife’s debut as Tosca, he refused. ‘Sorry, but Madame is not good enough for the Staatsoper’.

Her husband nevertheless bought up hundreds of seats and distributed them to acquaintances lacking the claque’s expertise. ‘The result was disastrous. They applauded at the wrong moments and the enraged public started hissing. From his seat, his hands folded in his lap, Schostal watched the tragedy with grim satisfaction. Madame was through forever.’

In 1924, however, the management decided to tolerate the claque no longer: all of the singers were required to pledge to have nothing more to do with it – on pain of dismissal.

Schostal kept his nerve, and was soon honoured with an invitation to visit privately the leading tenor Alfred Piccaver who, receiving him in his bath, apologised profusely for the situation while claiming that there was nothing he could do about it.

But as Schostal turned to leave, Piccaver suddenly said, ‘you’ve lost something’. Schostal looked down and saw two 20 schilling notes (which happened to be Piccaver’s usual payment) under the washbasin. Schostal picked them up, said thank you, and left.

That night they played Pagliacci. There was no applause for the Prologue, nor for Nedda’s ballatella, but after Piccaver’s ‘Vesti la giubba’, Wechsberg relates, ‘we gave the tenor a dramatic ovation that shook the house’.

The other singers, however, remained cowed by the management diktat: none of them contacted Schostal before the next evening’s performance of Faust. ‘We won’t work for any of them’, he instructed his brigade. ‘But after the ballet, give them all you have.’

Faust limped indifferently along, without enthusiasm or obvious audience commendation. Then came the ballet, which was received with a deafening ovation. ‘The following morning two divas sent their husbands to renew their agreement with Schostal. The rest of the singers followed, one by one.’ And that was the end of the attempt to suppress the Viennese claque.

Let’s end with a personal memory. Back in 1982, I visited Palermo for the first time, and naturally attended the opera. At that period, the Sicilian capital’s resplendent Teatro Massimo was closed for repairs (in fact, it remained closed for 23 years: rumour had it that the money for the reconstruction was being regularly siphoned off by the Mafia). At any event, the company meanwhile transferred for the duration to the Teatro Politeama Garibaldi, the city’s second opera house.

One of the operas I saw there was Simon Boccanegra, starring the British baritone Peter Glossop (then a Covent Garden mainstay) in the title role; but right from the start of the performance I was distracted by something taking place not on stage, but in the gallery, where I was sitting.

The opera began with the orchestral prelude followed by the opening scene; but just as the singer of the role of Fiesco began the opera’s first aria, ‘Il lacerato spirito’, a group of youths, maybe 15 or 20 in all, entered the sparsely filled gallery and positioned themselves near the rail overlooking the auditorium.

When the aria finished they launched an ovation, clapping and cheering the artist concerned. Then, as the music resumed, they disappeared through the exit door, presumably to a bar, only to return to their duties towards the end of the Fiesco/Boccanegra duet – the next important number in the score.

There was not the slightest attempt to disguise their manufactured efforts, nor their absence for the bulk of the performance: what was remarkable was their ability to return towards the close of any particular number. They had been scrupulously prepared to show up and applaud precisely on cue.

Claques are rarely so blatant, and there are few records of their existence in the UK opera houses – or at least not in any obvious way. But if one day you are at a performance and you find yourself wondering if the exceptional applause for a particular artist is really commensurate with their abilities, there could be a reason why…

George Hall is a music critic and journalist who writes widely about opera and classical music for such publications as BBC Music Magazine, Opera, Opera News, Opera Now and The Stage.