by JOSEPH WECHSBERG
THE claque at the Vienna Staatsopor was an exclusive group of forty innocent opera lovers with uncompromising ideas about good music and good singing. Joseph Schostal, the claque chef, a dignified man with black sideburns, high-toned principles, and great authority, who gave us free standing room admissions in the fourth gallery in return for applause, never failed to remind us of the claque’s “classical tradition.” I became a full-fledged member of the illustrious body in the twenties, when I studied music at the Vienna Conservatory. Every once in a while, Schostal called a meeting at his permanent headquarters, the back room of the Peterskeller, a traditionless beer cellar across from the Staatsoper, and over foam crowns of Gösserbräu reminisced about the history of the claque.
The founder of the noble institution was the Great Schoentag, who commanded a social position in Kaiser Franz Josef’s Vienna before the turn of the century. Schoentag went out riding in the Prater in the luxurious equipage of Ernest Marie Van Dyck, the great Belgian Wagnertenor — “best Parsifal they ever had in Bayreuth,” Schostal said; “studied the part under Mottl” — and played whist with Hans Richter, director of the Hofoper, as it was called in those feudal days. Once the Kronprinz Rudolf honored the claque chef by inviting him to supper at the Hotel Sacher and letting him pay the bill. The Kronprinz was a great patron of the claque before he became the Hero of the Mayerling Saga. Some lesser members of the imperial household exercised their cordial relations with the claque to promote subtly the artistic futures of the blue-eyed, slim-ankled coryphées of the ballet.
Schoentag’s successor was a man by the name of Wessely, who, like almost all prominent Viennese, hailed from the fertile plains of Moravia. Wessely lived the life of a grand seigneur, was called “my dear friend” by Lilli Lehmann, had a son in a Kaiserliches Husaren-Regiment, and owned a house in Hietzing, a swank suburban district. He died of a broken heart when Hofoperndirektor Gustav Mahler, in a temperamental whim, abolished the claque.
“Then came the horrible, the claqueless interregnum,” Schostal said. “ It was a wild, chaotic time, with several hand-clapping outlaws operating inside the Opera. Then there was Freudenberger.”
We knew the sad tale of old Freudenberger. We saw him in the fourth gallery every time Fidelio was given. He would slip in through a side door, carrying a half-torn, battered score of Beethoven’s opera. He shuffled along the wall, trying not to look at people, his lips silently moving the ghostly appearance of a white-bearded patriarch. As claque chef, he had been a close friend of the Austrian playwright and novelist Hermann Bahr and his wife, the great dramatic soprano Anna von Mildenburg. Later Freudenberger’s artistic judgment became somewhat dimmed by the demon alcohol. The claque operates ‘way up in the fourth gallery, and after too many seidels of Schwechater beer, Freudenberger was unable to climb up the two-hundred-odd stairs leading to the “Fourth.” He would spend the evening in a Beisel, the local equivalent of a beer joint, leaving the conduct of applause to his incapable underlings. Soon plain anarchy reigned in the fourth gallery, and the artists who had paid cash to Freudenberger and didn’t get the proper applause were in a rebellious frame of mind.
“This proves what lack of leadership will do,” Schostal would say. “I am a true democrat in my political convictions, but in the fourth gallery I firmly believe in the authoritative system.”
In the twilight era of Freudenberger, Schostal, then a youthful music student, all but slept at the Opera. He was there every evening and during the daytime hung around the stage doorsthere were separate entrances for singers (male), singers (female), orchestra members, chorus, ballet, stagehands, executives — and when one of his idols went by, he would take off his hat and meekly exclaim, “Hoch!” One night before a performance of Samson et Dalila, the prima ballerina, Jammerich, a temperamental lady, refused to go out on the stage unless the Freudenberger gang was silenced and “that nice young man Schostal” was called in to organize the applause for her. “I want him to come here right away,” she said to the horrified Hofoper executives. “I zih mi net aus — I won’t undress.”And to prove that she really meant business, she didn’t undress.
A runner was dispatched to the fourth gallery and in no time Schostal, dumfounded and trembling, found himself sitting in the prim a ballerina’s private dressing room. The dancer explained that she wanted special applause after the ballet in the first, act, “something that makes their rear ends jerk up from their seats.”
“ I agreed to give all I had and the prima ballerina smiled and began to gel out of her many petticoats,”Schostal said. “I remember well, hirst a purple taffeta one with ruflles, then a light-purple one made of fine silk, with Brussels laces, then a pinkish one of tulle, sort of shirred, and then a beautiful petticoat of ethereal white batiste.”When he got to this point of his story, Schostal took out a handkerchief and mopped his brow in nostalgic exeit ement. “ She was a great dancer,” he said, with a deep sigh, and there was finality in his voice.
SCHOSTAL was an idealist and a businessman who managed to make a fortune out of his love of good opera. He refused to lake money from singers whom he didn’t consider worthy of the Staatsoper, and got infuriated when some Viennese newspapers, envious of the claque’s influence on matters operatic, called us eine amerikanische Gangstergruppe. Schostal had his own scientific theory of applause. “The driving power of the initial applause must overcome the inherent inertia of the audience,” he said. Many singers considered him their artistic father confessor and several times Franz Schalk, director of the Staatsoper, invited him to sit in on auditions of young artists, which Schostal rightly considered the high point of his career. Once Hans Liebstoeckl, the editor of the Extrablatt, offered him the job of music critic, but Schostal refused. It didn’t seem ethical to mix applause with criticism. Liebstoeckl said, “The claque chef of the Barcelona Opera is also the town’s leading music critic,” but Schostal said, “No, sorry.”
Schostal was anxious to keep up the high artistic standard of applause and devoted much effort to the training of new men. At the end of the 1925 season several claque members whose homes were in the “province” were called back from Vienna by their enraged families because the boys spent more time at the Staatsoper than in school. Schostal then decided to hold regular auditions for new candidates. They took place at the janitor’s box under the Karntnerstrasse arcades, in an area with walls and floors of large marble squares, where the acoustics came nearesl to applause conditions in the fourth gallery.
Schostal originally intended to hold his auditions in the “Fourth,” but the management of the Staatsoper failed to see his point. He would sit down on the large bench which was customarily reserved for Leo Slezak, Erik Schmedes, Richard Schubert, and other aging tenors, and the candidate, after a thorough examination in operatic airs, recitatives, leitmotifs, detailed knowledge of popular scores, and “general music understanding,”was ordered to produce some Probeapplaus — test applause. If a man wanted to make ihe grade, he had to produce what Schostal called den dunklen Klang — the deep, dark sound. High-pitched hand-clapping was considered girlish and strictly taboo.
Few men came up with the hollow-sounding, sepulchral applause that had the professional touch. Schostal would glance at Herr Nusterer, the janitor, a tall, mustachioed man in an admiral’s uniform, who looked on the gloomy side of things and had only two sorts of comment. A candidate would be either “bad” or “very bad.”If Schostal liked the candidate and Nusterer’s comment was “bad,”Schostal would accept the new man for a trial period. After the audition, Schostal and Nusterer would send to the Peterskeller for a Frühschoppen beer.
Schostal had a strange respect for Nusterer, who had been Portier at the Opera for over twenty-six years and had never been at a single performance. Once he had gone into the auditorium during the third act of Walküre, looking for Herr Dr. Richard Strauss, but the spectacle of eight full-bosomed ladies jumping all over the stage and screaming, “Hojotojo!! Heiaha-ha!!” had been too much of a shock. Nusterer lived in Mauer, a suburb mainly populated by grimly underpaid federal employees, and he hated Wagner because the interminable performances of Meisiersinger, Tristan, and Götterdämmerung usually made him miss the “last, blue” trolley car, which left the Operngasse at five minutes past eleven.
“If a man for twenty-six years has worked at the Opera and never heard a performance, he must be either an arch-moron or have character,” Schostal said. “Nusterer is no moron, so I have decided that he’s got character. That’s why I ask his opinion about our new candidates. Nusterer is the Voice of the People.”
Nusterer’s great ambition was to converse in the English language. The Staatsoper and the Burgtheater in Vienna were the only two theaters on earth which had no daytime box offices. The box offices were opened only half an hour before the beginning of the evening performance. There were a few agiotage peddlers, hiding behind the marble pillars and in the niches near the entrance, who had tickeix concealed in their pockets as though they were dirty postcards, but they charged innocent passers-by twice ihe official price. The only place where tickets were sold at regular prices between 9.00 A.M. and 3.00 P.M. was the Bundestheaterdirektion at the Briiunerstrasse, a ten-minute walk from the Opera.
Anglo-Saxon visitors staying at the Bristol, the Imperial, or other Ringslrasse hotels, who came to the Staatsoper for tickets, always got lost in search of the box office before they wound up at Nusterer’s lodge. It was always a great moment for the Portier when ho could tell those Valuta-Aristokraten from England and America how to get to the Braunerstrasse. He had learned English all by himself from a then popular book entitled Learning English — A Pleasure.
“Dös iss simpel,” Nusterer would say. “Jöst nomadize over the Operngasse and takens the firsht street for your lefft. Net right, net gradaus, böt lefft. Jöst promenade and follow your nose. Pörsue the August inerstrassen öntil the Josefsplatz. Dös iss a tulli platz, the Josefsplatz. Firsht for your right and firsht house for your lefft — and da sa ma. Seeing a blank expression on the faces of his customers, Nusterer continued, “Nachurell, today iss ausverkavft, bought out. Maybe tomorrow bought out. Böt keep smiling. Dös iss simpel. Go buy t ickets to Theater an der Wien. Gräfin Mariza, they give. Or the Ronacher girls. Gracefol and dèshabillée— bot iss all right for die gnädige Frau.”
NUSTERER entertained cordial relations with the claque chef. Schostal paid for the Frühschoppen and in return was given by Nusterer advance information on who would be on police duty at the evening performance. The Portier had his own channels to the Polizeipräsidium. Every night there were four Kriminalinspektoren, plain-clothes men, on duty inside the house, two in the parterre standing room, one in the fourth and one in the third gallery. We never understood why they had a man posted in the third gallery. No claqueur would be seen dead or alive in the “Third,” where the acoustics were deplorable; third gallery tickets were sold only to innocent travelers from the hillbilly districts of Styria, Sudetenland, the Hungarian bush, and the American Far West.
There were signs inside the Opera reading “ All e störenden Beiso wie M issfallsbezeugungen sind verboten — All Disturbing Manifestations of Apand Disap-proval Are Prohibited,” and the four Inspektoren on duty were always after offenders, most of whom naturally belonged to the claque. All policemen liked Staatsoper duty because they were paid an extra seven schilling per evening and besides received a Dienstsitz, a duty seat. They never used the seats for themselves but brought their Pupperln along. The girl friends sat down and the cops remained in the standing room. One Inspektor, an elderly man with four children, whom I’ll call Weber, brought as many as three different Pupperln in one week. I remember a Botticelli blonde who came always to Mozart and early Verdi operas, and a luscious redhead who preferred the more lascivious side of the repertoire — Thaïs, Salomé, Elektra, Schéhérazade, and the Venusberg scene from Tannhäuser.
The Botticelli blonde was on the Dienstsitz one evening when Emanuel List, today a Metropolitan Opera star, sang the Cardinal in Halevy’s La Juive. a part that in Vienna was associated with the great Richard Mayr. Mayr was one of the claque’s best clients, but List was an excellent man, and Schostal’s private ambition was to always give able people a break. He loved the challenge of a difficult assignment. Knowing what he was up against, Schostal alerted the Hohlposcher — Hollow Sound Men — a powerful task force of six master claqueurs who were alerted only on critical evenings. I remember three of them, Gold, Ritter, and Hofbauer, strong and fearless men. When they started to applaud, it was as though a regiment of heavy tanks were rumbling over a cobblestoned street at high speed.
List sang the air of the Cardinal in great style and Schostal from his command post under the first lamp on the extreme left gave his “cue,”a faint nod of his bald head. The Hollow Sound Men, strategically posted behind the marble pillars, broke into a deafening drumfire that shook the house and roused the audience into a “spontaneous” ovation. The din was so formidable that people sitting near-by put their fingers into their ears. An elderly, bald misanthrope with the face of an unhappy baboon turned around and shook his fists against us. The Hollow Sound Men ignored him coolly. They started another heavy barrage after the duet of the Cardinal and Leonora, which was even more earsplitting. All of a sudden the bald man jumped up and shouted, “ Polizei! Polizct! and ran out of the gallery. The Hohlposcher didn’t even bother to pull his leg as he ran out past them, and Schostal said, “Guess he wants to make the last train for Steinhof.” Stelnhof was Austria’s largest insane asylum.
After the second act, Kriminalinspektor Weber and his blonde Pupperl came up to our command post. Weber gave the girl ten groschen and told her to get him a glass of water, and when she had gone, he turned toward Schostal. “I’m afraid you’re in serious trouble, Herr Doktor,” he said. Schostal’s influence was known among the Force, and many coppers called the claque chef Herr Professor or Herr Doktor. “A fellow just asked me to arrest you. He says he’ll get the District Attorney to prosecute you for serious bodily injury.”
We were stunned. According to paragraph 152 of the Austrian penal code, schwere korperlichc Bescluidigung meant busting in a man’s skull or breaking his shinbones, putting him out of action “for at least twenty days,” and none of us had as much as touched the madman. Weber said, “You see, he s got some trouble with his ears, and when you started that salvo, he got ill. Himmelherrgott, that was a blast! My Greterl almost fell down from my seat. He made me write down a protocol. You will have to see Hofrat Ritzberger tomorrow morning.”
The Hofrat, chef of the police Strafsektion and a great friend of the claque chef, was already well informed about the misadventure, when Schostal came to see him. lie got up from his chair and they shook hands. The Hofrat said, “Well, well, well — what now?”
“A man with ear trouble has no business coming up in the fourth gallery,”Schostal said. “The next time he will lile a claim against the Staatsoper, the Bundestheaterverwaltung, and the entire Republic of Austria, because the bass tubas in the second act of Walküre made him sick. You remember the bass tubas when Hunding gets killed by 'Wolan, Herr Hofrat?”
Ritzberger offered Schostal a trabuco cigar and explained that legally there was a difference between the Walküre bass tubas and the salvo of our Hollow Sound Men. “A man who buys a ticket legally must anticipate the bass tubas because they are a fixture of the Opera, like curtains and lights. The claque isn’t — yet. However, I’ll add a postscript to the protocol when I send it over to the District Attorney. I hope he won’t press any charges which would get you before a jury.”Three bad weeks went by, during which the claque showed notable restraint and a certain lack of enthusiasm. Then Hofrat Ritzberger called up Schostal and told him that the D.A. had not bothered about the case. That night, at a performance ofThe Flying Dutchman with Friedrich Schorr, the claque was again in great form.
The Hollow Sound Men caused more trouble at a memorable evening ofLa Fanriulla del West, with Maria Jeritza as Minnie and Alfred Jerger as Sheriff Jack Ranee — both clients of the claque. In the second act Minnie plays her famous poker game with the Sheriff, cheats, and wins after using cards that she had hidden under the upper part of her stocking. It was a great scene and Jeritza made the best of it, and there was always a terrilic ovation for her. The girls of the Jeritza Club. an amateurish fan organization of thin-voiced sub-sub-debs under the leadership of one Herr Silberstein of the Bodenkreditanstalt, shouted like mad.
In the general bedlam, Mr. Jerger, the able baritone, was completely forgotten. Finally he couldn’t stand it any more. One evening he got in touch with Messrs. Gold and Hofbauer of the Hohlposcher and asked them, for the sake of artistic justice, to put in a few cries of “ Hoch Jerger! ” The Hollow Sound Men dutifully reported Jerger’s request to Schostal, during the roll call under the arcades, when Schostal gave out standing room admission, shortly before the performance. There was always a lot of noise and excitement during the roll call and Schostal didn’t give the matter much attention, but told the task force to go ahead on their own.
Too late the claque chef realized what he had let himself in for. At the end of the second act, the Hollow Sound Men raced down the stairs from the gallery, broke through the Parhett auditorium and ran up to the orchestra pit, where they started unisono to shout, “Hoch Jerger!” There was a magic about their booming basso profun do voices and the welldomesticated Viennese audience look up the hint immediately. Within a few seconds even old Jeritza admirers found themselves shouting, “Hoch Jerger!” many, as they later shamefacedly explained, against their better judgment. Things got so bad that Silberstein of t he Jerilza Club approached the I lollow Sound Men and meekly asked them to let his girls have “just one curtain call for Jeritza alone.” By that time a general reaction had set in; everybody was tired and hoarse, and the Jeritza ovation fell flat.
Up in the fourth gallery Schostal watched this major disaster with trembling hands. Madame Jeritza was one of the claque’s outstanding clients and there was no saying what she might do. “Mea culpa!” the claque chef murmured. “I’ll have to take a walk to Canossa. The Hollow Sound Men were sorry for what they had done, and wanted to go with the chef to apologize to Madame Jeritza. Schostal was deeply moved. “I appreciate your loyalty, men, he said. “But it was my fault and I have to face her alone.”
He told us later what happened when he accompanied Madame Jeritza from the Staatsoper to her home at Si a 11 burggasse 4. “She was furious and I can’t blame her. ‘Have you heard those hooligans?’ she said. ‘I got so mad I couldn’t even look out for them. W ho were they — morons from the province who thought this was the Sunday afternoon football game on ihe Hohe Warte?’” Schostal breathed heavily. “I told her that 1 was beside myself that it won’t happen again. And it won’t,” he added, a Boris Godunov-like expression in his fierce eyes.
THE Hollow Sound Men displayed conspicuous bravery beyond and above the call of duty in what the annals of the Viennese police call the Battle of the Claque. This took place in 1925, one night after the premiere of Richard Strauss’sIntermezzo. It was a conflict among Vienna’s cab drivers that precipitated the Battle. There were two groups of taxicabs in Vienna, the 50-groschen taxis, dilapidated vehicles of proletarian domestic origin — Steyr, Wanderer, Tatra — and the 80-groschen de luxe conveyances — early vintage Studebakers, PanhardLevassors, Fords, Lancias, and other elegantly superannuated foreign-make limousines. The 50-groschlers and the 80-groschlers both parked at the Operngasse, but the more aristocratic 80-groschen cabbies seldom spoke to the 50-groschen hoi polloi, and there was quite a feeling of class consciousness.
Schostal, who at tended to t he IVagenvertrieb around the Staatsoper, insisted that all prominent singers ride in the more dignified 80-groschen cars. After the evening performance, when the singers at the stage door were wailing for cabs, he would never let a humble 50-groschen man approach any of his clients.
“They’ve got broken windows, bad springs, and no heat,” he would say. “You can’t take a chance with them.”
Finally the 50-groschlers couldn’t stand it any longer. A deputation approached the claque chef at his Peterskeller headquarters. “We don’t care about the carfare,” the spokesman, a red-bearded exwrestler from Hernals, Vienna’s Third Avenue, said. “We’ll be happy to drive them home gratis but we want to go home and be able to tell our wives that we, too, are driving the Lehmann and the Jeritza. We are getting sick and tired of being heckled by our wives and children. ‘All day around the Opera and never one of them Kammersänger in your cab.’ they say.” The ex-wrestler paused for a last man-to-man appeal. “If you were married, Herr Doktor, you would know what a wife can do to you.
Schostal finished his beer and wiped his mouth. “I am very sorry, he said finally. “But I cannot possibly permit Frau Kammersängerin Lehmann to ride in a Steyr that may never reach her destination. She should forever ride in a Rolls-Royce, filled with Persian rugs and crystal mirrors,”he added poetically. The red-bearded spokesman muttered dark threats, and the deputation left in a rage.
A few nights later, after the sensational premiere of Intermezzo, Schostal saw to it that Madame Lehmann, who won a triumph as Christine, was taken home in the most luxurious 80-groschen car, a black Buick limousine that was called “der nobliche Booeek” around the Staatsoper. Then all members of the claque adjourned to the Peterskeller to discuss the Strauss premiere over Rindsgulasch and beer. All of a sudden the door was torn open and a mob of bloodthirsty 50-groschlers broke into the room. They were led by the red-bearded ex-wrestler, w ho seized a beer seidel — not his own, at that — and threw it against Schostal. If the claque chef hadn’t shielded his face with the brand-new score of Intermezzo, he would have been badly hit. The expensive score got wet all over with stale beer. It was this sight that infuriated us members of the claque more than the raging cabbies. Beer glasses and plates with goulash were thrown through the air, but the cab drivers outnumbered us five to one and they advanced steadily. Schostal jumped on a beer barrel, from where he directed the battle, proving that real leadership show s itself in moments of dire stress.
“We have to hold them until our 80-groschen reinforcements arrive.”he shouted. The Hollow Sound Men fought like lions. Gold took off his braces and whirled them around in a mad circle, hitting 'em right and left, while Hofbauer tore legs off a heavy table and bravely attacked the ex-wrestler. Meanwhile Immergluck, a gray-haired, fifty-year-old boy, crawled down under the tables on hands and knees, the way the Nibelungen do in the first act of Siegfried, and managed to get out on the Operngasse, where he hollered for the 80-groschen men to come to our support. Unfortunately most of the de luxe cabbies were out on rides, taking the singers home. One by one they returned, and there were also a few Nächtler, night chauffeurs, who took our side and heroically dived into the scramble, but there is no doubt that only the arrival of twenty-odd policemen saved the claque from complete annihilation.
We all, 50-groschlers, 80-groschlers, night chauffeurs, claque members, and three beer-drinking members of t he Philharmoniker, who had come to our support out of nowhere, were taken to the nearest police Wachtstube. The Hollow Sound Men looked badly beaten up, Gold’s pants were falling down because he couldn’t find his braces, and Schostal was holding the pitiful remains of the expensive Intermezzo score under his elbow. Another pitched battle Hared up in the police wagon when a 50-groschler spat at the man who had brought Madame Lehmann home in his “Booeek,” but the police officer on duty in the Wachtstube handled the matter efficiently. Schostal, well known on the police premises as a champion of Law and Order, was released at once. The members of the claque, the three Philharmoniker, the 80groschlers, and the night chauffeurs remained at the station for another hour, and were sent home with a few words of mild reprimand. The 50-groschen rowdies were held behind bars all night long and fined 20 schilling each for rioting and disturbing the peace.