. . . nobody in our time had such a nose for a profit, nor such greyhound speed at running it down.
—Mémoires, Philarète chasles
Winning the war, they say, is easier than winning the peace. Although the Académie Royale de Musique—the Paris Opéra—somehow survived the French Revolution and its bloody aftermath, the first years of the Bourbon Restoration posed a different type of threat. The Opéra was one of France’s most famous institutions, but generations of financial mismanagement and institutional politicking had produced their usual consequences. It was, in Ernest Newman’s phrase, “hoary with iniquities, cynical with long experiences of human cupidity and folly.”
Not that it was lacking in resources—from 1826 it had plenty of good singers, dancers, stage designers, and orchestral players. It had one of Europe’s best conductors and the extraordinary danseuse Marie Taglioni. There were even a few big successes—but nothing seemed to jell. Although dependent on government subsidies almost since its inception, its losses were eye-wateringly large. Though it had the most expensive tickets in Paris, a performance schedule that required other theaters to close when the Opéra was open, and two large subsidies, the Opéra still lost over a million francs in 1830 when the average unskilled worker earned a little over 300 francs and an orchestral musician 1,200 francs. A profit at the Opéra was the rarest of things—since its founding in 1669, only one of its forty-three directors had ever made it into the black.
Its losses were tolerated because the Opéra was seen as a potent symbol of French culture and power: “the Opéra represents Parisian civilization on its greatest days,” said Voltaire. It was chartered by Louis Quatorze—the “Sun King” himself—almost a decade before construction started on the Hall of Mirrors in Versailles. Even Napoleon, neither monarchist nor sentimentalist, nor particularly musical (“What is this ‘Don Juan’ that they want to give at the Opéra . . . ?” he wrote to Fouché, his chief of secret police), thought that “of all the fine arts, music is . . . the one that a legislator should encourage the most”—and kept the subsidies flowing.
A profit at the Opéra was the rarest of things—since its founding in 1669, only one of its forty-three directors had ever made it into the black.
After Napoleon’s fall, Louis XVIII and his successor Charles X continued supporting the Opéra, but its place on the political spectrum had shifted. While still a totem of French culture, the Opéra’s reputation, repertory, and audiences were linked in the public’s mind to the ancien régime. That grated against the political realities of the July Revolution in 1830 that brought Louis-Philippe, the self-styled “citizen king,” to power.
The Opéra’s post-subsidy losses were supposed to be met by Louis-Philippe’s household budget. Shocked at the size and political implications of its gigantic and increasing shortfalls and aware of its dismal financial history, entrenched and méchant labor force, and bumbling management—and realizing that more losses were in store if something were not done promptly—Louis-Philippe tried to have it both ways: the government would still subsidize the Opéra, but only to a point. Henceforth, the Opéra would be leased to a concessionaire who would manage it at his own risk and for his own reward.
The terms of the concession would be onerous: The concessionaire had to mount a number of different ballets and operas, satisfy production specifications and staffing levels, as well as meet a number of other expensive requirements. He would be supervised by a Commission de Surveillance on the lookout for any failure to meet the concession’s terms. Failure could result in sizeable fines or even the termination of the concession. Judging by the size of the performance bond demanded by the Commission, the government appeared skeptical about the concessionaire’s chances for success.
By contrast, the successful applicant, a former doctor named Louis-Désiré Véron, was not at all pessimistic. He was an evangelist for the new middle class. He believed that the July Revolution was the start of a period of relative political calm in France and that France’s emerging middle class was as eager for entertainment as the aristocratic one that it was replacing, and more likely to pay. As he pitched it to the Comte de Montalivet, the Minister of the Interior, when he interviewed for the job,
The July Revolution represents the victory of the middle class: this victorious bourgeoisie wants to hold court and amuse itself. The Opéra will become its Versailles, it will run there en masse. . . . [F]oreigners will be drawn to Paris by the Opéra’s musical masterpieces and they will find the boxes filled with une société élégante et rassurée.
A mere thirty-four years old when appointed to the Opéra, Docteur Véron was already well on the way to being, in the words of one contemporary, “as much part and parcel of the history of Paris during the first half of the nineteenth century as was Napoleon I of the history of France.” But he is little remembered today, even in France.
In his lengthy, and sanitized, autobiography, Mémoires d’un Bourgeois de Paris, Véron tells us that he was born in 1798 on the Rive Gauche. His father, a mildly prosperous stationer-bookseller, wanted his son to take over the family business but nevertheless sent him to a good school, the Lycée Louis-le-Grand, where he was a classmate of Eugène Delacroix. The young Véron entertained literary aspirations and—when he could get time away from stocking shelves and chatting with customers—worked as a stand-in secretary at the Académie des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Française and was befriended by a number of journalists whom he regularly treated to dinner on his father’s account.
Louis-Désiré hoped that his father would support his start as a writer, but this idea came to a bad end when, after reciting his poetry (“des couplets saugrenus”—preposterous couplets—as one contemporary sniffed) at a literary dinner, he was immediately and nightmarishly upstaged by the next reader, the young Victor Hugo. As far as his father was concerned, that was the end of his son’s literary career, and Louis-Désiré was sent back to the stockroom to learn more of the secrets of stationery retail. That misery lasted for a year until 1816 when his exasperated father allowed him to attend the nearby Ecole de Médecine on two conditions: no more poetry and no more expensive dinners with his journalist friends.
He did well in his coursework, studying with some of the most distinguished academic practitioners (their medical eponyms survive today) in Paris. He did not, however, shake off his journalist friends nor keep his promise not to expensively entertain. To keep himself in funds, he started a lucrative skeleton supply business. “The big thing for me,” he wrote about his daily routine, “was to arrive at the hospital before the cart that carried all the unclaimed cadavers.” He tells us that he also liked to play cards at the Palais Royale, then a hive of drinking dens, gaming houses, prostitution, and other light entertainment, and when his luck turned bad he was nearly ruined. Despite his fleshly weaknesses (including the seduction of a young nun who was shipped off to a leper colony when the affair was discovered), he ranked at the top of his class and was pursuing a career in academic medicine. But in 1824, in a competitive examination for an assistant professorship, he stumbled. (To give a sense of the competition, the two candidates who finished above him would, respectively, pioneer the field of hematology and describe the symptoms and origins of rheumatoid endocarditis). Though encouraged by his examiners to sit again the following year, the results seemed to throw him into a depression. In the words of one biographer, he “turned his back on the Faculty, making the sign of the cross on the way out.” So complete was his estrangement from the Ecole de Médecine, that in 1824 he moved across the Seine to the Rive Droite, where he lived for the rest of his life.
He set up as a sole practitioner in the Rue Caumartin (these days close to the Printemps department store) and remained there for three years, but found it difficult to establish himself against settled competition. He used his medical connections to have himself appointed as an honorary physician to one of the royal regiments and as a physician to The National Museums (another unkind writer claimed that he merely repaired damaged statuary there). In retirement, he admitted with weary humor that he may have lacked a bedside manner: When an elderly aristocratic lady called him in to be bled, he had difficulty finding an obliging vein. Several painful stabs later, she threw him out, oozing but undrained, furiously shouting that she would tell the entire quartier about his incompetence.
To get to the directorship of the Opéra, Véron would need money, a reputation, and friends.
But things then began to turn his way. “I must say,” he later wrote, “how happy my life has been as the result of unexpected developments leading to lucky opportunities”—which he helped along by certain expediencies. To while away his patient-free hours, he joined a conservative Catholic literary and educational group called the Société Royale des Bonnes Lettres and was asked to deliver a series of lectures on medical topics. These were sufficiently well received that he was asked to start contributing to La Quotidienne, a small Parisian paper. At first, he wrote exclusively on medical ills but soon turned to politics and from there began insinuating himself into Paris’s influential journalistic and political circles. In 1828, he began writing theatrical and musical criticism for another journal, Le Messager des Chambres, some of it quite telling.
We seem to have arrived at a time of artistic reawakening. The Opéra itself seems to have abandoned its old-fashioned powdered wigs. . . . [Daniel Auber’s opera] La Muette changed everything. We don’t mind telling the Opéra’s new management that change is pressing and absolutely necessary.
He began to develop influential contacts. By twenty-nine, he already had an impressive list of dinner companions including his lifelong patron and nemesis, the journalist and future French prime minister Adolphe Thiers, Jules Janin (the editor of the Journal des Débats), and Daniel Auber and Gioachino Rossini, the two most famous composers in Europe. But although these sorts of contacts and political abilities were necessary, they were not by themselves sufficient to get Véron to the directorship of the Opéra. He would need money, a reputation, and friends.
He had one of these already, and was working hard on acquiring the others.
Before her exile to the leper colony, Véron’s young nun told him, “You were born under a lucky star,” and that star never shone more brightly than the evening he left his cabinet in the Rue Caumartin and walked down the street to the local drugstore.
Louis Regnauld, “Pharmacist to His Royal Highness, the Crown Prince,” took a shine to the younger man. During their frequent chats in the Pharmacie Regnauld, Véron noticed the unceasing stream of sneezing and coughing customers asking for la spécialité de la maison, a cough drop or chest paste called the pâte pectoral balsamique. Regnauld told Véron that the product was very profitable—and indeed would be a gold mine but for the cash needed to expand production. Véron quickly offered Regnauld the remaining portion of his father’s inheritance and they went into business. When Regnauld unexpectedly died a few months later, his widow sold the formula for the pâte Regnauld to Véron and a partner for 17,000 francs.
In the mid-1820s French newspapers contained little advertising, as we now know it, their revenues being derived from sales. Some small journals did, however, publish short notices about new religious and philosophical books, generally under the news, reviews, and stories of the royal family. Véron’s columns in La Quotidienne appeared just above these notices and it did not take long for him to inquire whether the editor would accept paid notices for the pâte Regnauld. After a few issues, the brief notice blossomed into the archetype of the modern blurb complete with unctuous language, claims of efficacy, endorsements by celebrities, and availability “wherever fine goods are sold.” Reading them today, Véron’s advertisements seem stilted, but at the time they were hugely effective as he largely pioneered consumer advertising in France. Until his death in 1867, Véron earned 40,000 francs a year from the pâte Regnauld.
Véron was a perceptive man, if not necessarily of patients and their illnesses, certainly of changing tastes and enthusiasms. In late 1829, he realized that while French book publishing was going through a bad patch, the popular press was increasing in fame and importance. France’s improving economic situation, its increasingly literate society, and its periodic crackdowns on the political press all contributed to the growth of literary and commercial journalism. Influenced by the English and German press, he decided to launch a French literary journal. The required seed money gave him pause until he persuaded the rich and influential Alexandre Aguado (friend of Rossini, banker to Spain, and owner of Château Margaux) to take a small stake in the new Revue de Paris, thereby prompting other investors to dive in after him.
They need not have worried, for the Revue was an immediate success. In its first issue were contributions from Sainte-Beuve, Walter Scott, Casimir Delavigne, and Charles Nodier with subsequent issues containing pieces by some of the soon-to-be great, but then unknown, names in French literature. Though he edited the Revue for just two years, it gained him entrée to Paris’s intelligentsia. Some later took a more jaundiced view. Balzac, for example, wrote that in his ascent to the Opéra, the doctor used the Revue and kicked it aside, “like you push a ladder away after you’ve used it to climb a wall.”
In the five years before the July Revolution, the Opéra’s finances were particularly awful. One problem was its high fixed costs. Another was the fiercely defended right of the production departments to contract with favored suppliers. A third was the number of unpaid admissions due to free tickets and the unwillingness of the house staff to restrict the well-dressed from entering. “[T]he aristocracy treated the Opéra as their salon,” one wrote, “. . . they made themselves comfortable and strutted about as if they were at Court. Every evening, people of rank occupied the boxes and balconies without paying.”
Staff morale was poor, with rapid turnover at the directorial level. Artistically, the overall quality was declining. Visiting Italian companies described the singing style of their French colleagues as l’urlo francese (French screaming). Although there were bright spots, the repertoire was stale. When Rossini (seconded from the Théâtre-Italien to liven things up) auditioned the Opéra’s leading singers, he dryly remarked that, “the nature of their talent was analogous to the works they presented.” It was hardly surprising that the press reported that “the glory days of the Opéra are now long past” and “it was sleeping on its subsidy.”
Others were of the same view. Prodded by Louis-Philippe to do something about the Opéra’s costs and intrigued by Véron’s confident view of a prosperous bourgeoisie ready to pay lavishly for its entertainments, the Comte de Montalivet appointed Véron to run the Opéra, first for a three-month trial period from March 1, 1831, and then, from June 1, for a six-year term. His contract required Véron to maintain and renovate the Opéra “at a level of grandeur and luxury befitting a national theater,” and to stage six new works annually including one grand opera, one grand ballet, and two smaller operas and ballets. In return for being permitted to keep the box office receipts, Véron would be responsible for production costs including scenery, décor, and costumes. The government would retain control of the pension fund. Véron would receive an annual subsidy of 800,000 francs for the first year, declining thereafter.
Although the terms of his appointment appeared to grant him considerable latitude, the Commission de Surveillance appointed to keep an eye on Véron took a different view. For the moment, however, his star still shone, even as he signed the agreement.
The violinist Niccolò Paganini, having conquered Vienna and Berlin, now had his eye on Paris. Aware, as Robert Schumann said, that “with a French public, reserve is not the way to succeed,” Paganini thought big—he would debut at the Opéra. In those pre-concert-agent days, however, merely showing up at the Opéra and asking to rent it was out of the question—especially for a foreigner in league with the Devil (the popular explanation for Paganini’s sulphurous virtuosity).
Paganini was a godsend.
Paganini would have to pull strings, and who better to do the pulling than his arch-insider friend Rossini? Just a few hours after being appointed director, Véron was listening to Rossini’s pitch.
Paganini was a godsend. Needing to make a powerful first impression, Véron engaged him for ten concerts, doubled the ticket prices, and invited the elite of Paris’s musical journalists to his first performance in five days’ time. Their delirious accounts of the performance ensured that for the next five weeks the Opéra was packed with the diplomatic corps, the Rothschilds, the Foulds, and the other société élégante that Véron had promised the Minister.
Paganini’s concerts had an even more momentous consequence. Beset with doubts about his future and sorrowing over an unhappy love affair, the young Franz Liszt was galvanized by Paganini’s playing. “[H]e suddenly became aware,” wrote Geraldine de Courcy, “of a new direction for his own gifts. No longer would he subordinate or adapt his personality to the pianoforte but would make it a medium for the display of his own powers.” What Liszt learned at the Opéra from listening to Paganini would not just shape his own life but also the Western pianistic canon.
Véron’s luck continued. Deep in planning the 1831–1832 season, Véron was summoned to the Interior Ministry and ordered to stage a new work, Robert le Diable, by a new and unproven composer, Giacomo Meyerbeer. Not having yet seen how profitable the Opéra would become under Véron, the Minister tried to ease the pain by offering him an additional 100,000 francs for the burden of staging what would turn out to be one of the runaway successes of nineteenth-century opera. During Véron’s lifetime, Robert and its successors, Les Huguenots and Le Prophète, would be staged thousands of times.
But it was not just luck that made Véron’s time at the Opéra so remarkable. He knew, instinctively, that there was something more in the air than merely an emergent bourgeoisie calling for amusement. Véron understood, almost before anyone else, that Eugène Scribe’s librettos, Duponchel and Ciceri’s sets, Marie Taglioni’s ethereal dancing, and Meyerbeer’s and Auber’s thrilling music amounted to nothing less than Romanticism’s revolutionary break from the past. As Véron saw it, these artists were doing the hard part; his job was merely to get audiences through the doors. As the saying has it, “success is often just a matter of continuing what was there in the first place.”
Unlike his predecessors, Véron showed a tireless attention to the complexities of the job. He was in his office every day for months on end, even on days when there were no performances scheduled. He met with painters, scenery designers, machinists, and other artisans to get a sense of how the Opéra planned, staged, and performed its works. He quickly adjusted the size of the orchestra and chorus and reduced salaries to both. At the same time, he inaugurated a “star system,” paying generously for the great singers and dancers of his time. When ticket sales were down, he used the advertising techniques he invented for the pâte Regnauld. He erected billboards outside the Opéra that read: “Tomorrow: The Tenth Performance of . . . Which Will Now Be Given Only Rarely,” or “Tomorrow: The Eleventh Performance by . . . Which Will No Longer Be Performed After Her Departure,” or “Tomorrow: Twelfth Performance of . . . by the Original Cast,” or “Seventeenth Performance of . . . Which Has Been So Popular But Which May Close Any Time.”
He was attentive to what his audience wanted. The Opéra already had marvelous acoustics (the composer Charles Gounod said that the old building on the Rue Le Pelletier “had the sound of a violin”), but Véron redid its interior to make it more comfortable, with smaller boxes and stalls. He repainted and regilded the grande salle as a bourgeois fantasy of what an aristocratic theater should look like. He improved the gas lighting and introduced Locatelli astrolamps (a forerunner of the spotlight) that allowed him to darken the hall and focus attention on the stage, all the better to view Duponchel’s spectacular costumes and Ciceri’s scenery. The sets he commissioned were so realistic that one critic claimed seasickness after a performance. He used megaphones to enhance the spectral effect of low male voices. To deal with the problem of his non-paying clientele, he introduced numbered tickets for the first time.
He attended almost every rehearsal, asking the firemen and ushers what they thought of a particular aria or visual effect and would not hesitate to suggest a change to the composer or set designer if he agreed. The set painter Charles Séchan tells how Véron, late one night at a dress rehearsal, noticed that a gas light important for creating a certain effect was not working properly. After rehearsal, Véron packed Séchan into his carriage and drove him across town at two in the morning to get the worker who made the light out of bed—not to berate him, but to offer a hundred francs if the worker could get the light to function in time for the first night.
The sets he commissioned were so realistic that one critic claimed seasickness after a performance.
Though his relationships with his singers and dancers were excellent, he used the theatrical press, particularly the fearsome Charles Maurice of the Courrier des Théâtres whose terse judgments (“Chaque jour . . . son journal était remplie de ces laconiques sentences de mort. C’était le couteau de la guillotine . . . rapide et sec.”) to enforce discipline when necessary. Véron invented the custom of throwing flowers onstage after a particularly well-sung aria. He taught his new audiences when to applaud through the claque, an operatic precursor of the “laugh track.” He conferred for hours with his chef de claque, the huge-handed Auguste Levasseur, about the timing and length of applause by Auguste’s army of claqueurs. Even this detailed planning could, on occasion, go awry. At one performance several years later, Auguste was meant to signal for applause at the start of the battle scene in the last act of Le Prophète, but he had dozed off before an audience member named Kruine put a pistol under his chin and blew his brains out, spraying nearby listeners with (according to the Figaro) “fragments of brain and jaw.” Woken out of a sound sleep by the gunshot and thinking that the battle scene had started, Auguste signaled for applause—the only sound in the dazed and horrified house. The Figaro made the best of it all, saying that the mistimed applause was “as much for the general’s entry as it was for Kruine’s exit.”
He took enormous pains in organizing the production of Robert le Diable. It was rehearsed for six months and it easily swallowed up the 100,000 francs that Véron received from the Minister for its production. On top of its virtuoso singing and Meyerbeer’s extraordinary and compelling music, Véron’s team made Robert into a highly visual work with its inventive moonlight ballet of ghostly nuns led by their debauched abbess (danced by Marie Taglioni and choreographed by her father, Filippo) and its vivid costumes and haunting scenery. Véron’s production of Robert was, effectively, an early example of what Wagner would later term Gesamtkunstwerk—the perfect operatic combination of music, dance, scenery, and story. The production’s difficulties were not helped by Meyerbeer’s terror that his work would flop. Despite, or perhaps because of, its meticulous preparation, Robert narrowly avoided three disasters on its opening night: the first when a collapsing lighting fixture narrowly missed a singer, the second when Marie Taglioni, lying on her tomb before the start of the Ballet of the Nuns, rolled off to avoid being crushed by a cloud-curtain dropping from the flies, and the third when the hero fell through a trapdoor in the last act, seemingly pursuing his satanic father down to Hell. The Gazette de France later dryly observed that for all the potential mayhem, “nobody was killed or wounded.” All these mishaps were lost on Frédéric Chopin, though, who murmured that “if ever magnificence was shown in the theatre, I doubt that it reached the level of splendor shown in Robert. . . . It is a masterpiece.”
Success followed success, even in disguise. The cholera epidemic of 1832 came close to bankrupting Véron, but he used the months when the Opéra was closed as time to rethink the repertoire. The new opera-ballet La Tentation would feature a lively parade of demons while La Révolte au Sérail was intelligent and funny. He produced Auber’s Le Serment and Gustave III, Cherubini’s Ali Baba, and Mozart’s Don Giovanni, all conducted by François Habeneck, the great French conductor of the era. Such was the excitement of the Opéra during Véron’s time, however, that even less well-attended works did well.
During the cholera, Véron cut costs by sending his performers and personnel on leave. Having set aside all of his profits from the preceding year, he created substantial goodwill by offering ticket refunds during the long period when there were no performances. When the epidemic finally abated, his grateful audiences flocked back. He commissioned La Juive (whose crowd-pleasing final act features the heroine being boiled in oil) from Fromental Halévy and La Sylphide with Marie Taglioni, a work that has never left the repertory since it was first staged. In 1834 he staged Coralli’s ballet La Tempête, with Fanny Elssler, wooing her from London after an extravagant dinner with a dessert (at least according to his Mémoires) of expensive jewelry served up on a salver. Before the première of La Tempête, Véron and Charles Maurice inflamed audiences’ imagination with an implausible—but potent—advertising campaign hinting at both the tragic love between Fanny and a mysterious consumptive Austrian prince, and the undying rivalry between Taglioni and Elssler (that even resulted in the short-lived invention of two new verbs: taglioniser—to dance like Marie—and elssleriser).
Himself a master of the casting couch, he happily appealed to his audiences’ baser tastes. He cultivated the Dandies, that extraordinary group of high-spending and indolent young men who occupied the loge infernale to the right of the stage, better to leer at the dancers. He invited subscribers to balls held in the Opéra’s cavernous backstage. Reversing the old policy of separating performers from patrons, Véron opened the dancers’ rehearsal rooms to the Dandies and lecherous old generals in what were called “meetings of the lions and the gazelles.” According to the Mémoires, the performers’ mothers were largely complicit in the seduction of their daughters, with one telling her difficult child, “if you are not going to do it for yourself, then think of me!”
“Everyone,” wrote the opera historian Charles de Boigne, “wanted his loge at the Opéra, some once, others twice, and others three times a week. Notaries, lawyers, and bankers conscious of keeping their status would go twice: on Monday with their wives and on Friday—the big day—with their mistresses.”
Few accounts of Véron omit his appearance: his ugliness was simply extraordinary. Tall and top-hatted, with thinning yellow hair, a pointy little nose, high-pitched reedy voice, and a massive embonpoint, he wore an enormous scarf-like tie to conceal his scrofulous neck. Here is part of the reliably malicious Heinrich Heine’s description:
[H]e trundles down the street with a satisfied air surrounded by youthful admirers and the occasional literary dandy whom he regales with champagne and a few nice extras. He is the god of materialism and his glance bruises one’s spirit which I felt like a knife to the heart when I met him; many times it seemed to me that his eyes were like a crawling mass of little worms, sticky and shiny.
Daumier and Vernier, it seems, had little to exaggerate in their caricatures. Though Véron posed for the society sculptor Jean-Pierre Dantan (who rendered him as a pharmacist’s delivery boy), the result was so distressing to the famously impervious Véron that he bought up as many copies as he could and had them destroyed. But he compensated for his physique ingrat by his powers as a conversationalist, a deferential manner, and considerable charm and worldliness. An elderly subscriber once wrote to ask Véron for a small part in a performance in the forlorn hope that his young wife might not leave him; Véron quietly had him installed in armor on horseback, beaming away, in the next performance. During his Opéra years, Véron entertained loudly and lavishly at the Café des Anglais and other expensive restaurants, and rode around town in a foppish carriage pulled by horses with scarlet pom-poms on their ears.
Predictably, it ended badly. Of all his faults, his success was considered the worst. Despite his reversal of the Opéra’s fortunes and its reinstatement as one of France’s cultural treasures (Wagner and Verdi moved heaven and earth to be performed at the Opéra), he was continually harrassed and fined by the Commission de Surveillance. Literary and musical Paris turned against him. Heine spoke for many when he wrote that “Just as Véron the druggist invented an excellent remedy for coughs, Véron the Opéra director invented a remedy for music . . . his genius was to cure people by giving them such a taste for spectacle that the music no longer bothered them.”
Outraged questions were heard on the floor of the Chambre des Députés: “How is it that the director of the Opéra can make so much money in three years? Shouldn’t it take at least ten?” Confident that the Commission de Surveillance now knew how to run things, the Minister modified Véron’s concession and induced him to resign by reducing the state subsidy. By the time he left in September 1835, Véron had commissioned another blockbuster, Les Huguenots, from Meyerbeer and passed the directorship to his understudy, Henri Duponchel, who renewed the Opéra’s ancient custom of losing enormous amounts of money. Not everyone was happy about Véron’s departure. Years later, Charles de Boigne wrote, “Those were good times, the Véron years . . . [and] since Véron, though many have reigned at the Opéra, nobody else has governed.”
After his departure, Véron continued his colorful ways. He took over Le Constitutionnel, a weekly political journal that had fallen on hard times, and reversed its fortunes as quickly as he did the Opéra’s. He published Balzac, Sand, and Sainte-Beuve and popularized the serial novel by paying Eugène Sue a vast sum for the rights to Le Juif Errant, ending each weekly installment with the now-famous line, “To be continued in the next episode.” He took a long-dated revenge at his treatment by the Opéra by having Le Constitutionnel support Napoléon III over Louis-Philippe in 1849.
But then things began to turn against him. He took as his mistress the famously promiscuous tragédienne Rachel, who repeatedly and publicly cuckolded him. Napoleon III shut down Le Constitutionnel in 1852 for its criticism of the regime, and Véron was abandoned by the influential politicians and society figures that had once been so eager for his company. To keep him out of trouble, the government awarded him the Légion d’Honneur and give him a safe seat in the Chambre des Députés. When Véron died (with the Archbishop of Paris at his side), he was buried in the Cimitière Montparnasse. As might be expected from one who always wanted to be found in the very best company, he arranged to be re-interred in Père Lachaise when a grave became available. There, on top of a small rise, he keeps an eye on Rachel, just a short distance away, while his next-door neighbor, Pierre-Louis Canler, the former head of Paris’s Morals Squad, keeps an eye on him.
This article originally appeared in The New Criterion, Volume 34 Number 9, on page 18
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