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Daniel Francois Esprit Auber
27 Oct 2005

“La Muette de Portici” : a small revolt in Ghent

No opera history is complete without mentioning that Auber’s La Muette de Portici caused Belgium’s revolution against Holland in 1830. As a historian I know there are three falsehoods in that one small sentence.

The small lies are “Holland,” which in reality is not a country but the most Western and richest part of the Netherlands. Belgium didn’t exist in 1830. It was the southern part of the United Netherlands and was often called the Southern or Catholic Netherlands. Afterwards the name Belgium really came into its own and it is derived from the Latin “Belgica” which means “low or nether lands.” Therefore historical continuity was respected. And of course a lot of people in Belgium, now and then, call that revolution a separatist mutiny. But the big lie is the fact that the Brussels performance of La Muette didn’t cause the uprising.

The fifteen years between 1815 and 1830, when all the Netherlands were once more reunited after a separation of almost 250 years (remember Don Carlos), were not a very happy time due to a rather bad economic situation. The Dutch speaking part of the Southern Netherlands (nowadays Flanders) suffered a lot. Most people lived on small farms barely earning enough to survive and almost everybody produced home spun textiles for sale. With the collapse of the French empire that market was closed while on the other hand cheap British textile arrived in abundance. A lot of people fled to the cities where they started working at ever lower wages in textile plants that began to proliferate, thus eliminating all competition from home spun yard. Add to that several bad harvests and a restless Roman Catholic clergy that tirelessly preached all difficulties were God’s punishment. The Catholic Church in the South resisted Protestant equality and, in the process, incited the people against the King.

During the summer of 1830, there was one incident after another as poor people flocked to the towns to look for a job or simply to have something to eat. August was especially dangerous as the old and bad harvest had almost gone and the new one had not arrived yet and didn’t look too promising. At the Brussels Grote Markt and the Muntplein small clusters of unemployed people were causing troubles. But the bourgeoisie wasn’t very happy either. King William was interested in economics (a remarkable exception among most royal morons) and did much to stimulate the economy. But, he remained a 18th century despot. There was no liberty of press, of religion (the king controlled the appointment of bishops) or meeting. And then there was a lot of French intrigue as France had not digested the loss of the Southern Netherlands, which it had incorporated in 1794, and France detested a strong state on its northern frontier. On the 25th of August 1830 a performance of La Muette de Portici was going on at De Muntschouwburg (though at the time most called it Théatre de la Monnaie). Afterwards some spectators incited all those unemployed people hanging around the theatre to look for plunder in the houses of some collaborators of the king. The riots soon spilled over to other parts of the Southern Netherlands and even to Germany. People started smashing machines, which killed employment. The bourgeoisie didn’t like things running out of hand and started taking control of some cities. Things calmed down for a few weeks and everything would have calmed down as King William was prepared to compromise.

This, however, didn’t solve the problems of the working class as food became scarcer, as prices were steep and as bread prices rose due to a new harvest that was still partly in the fields. Unemployment rose even higher and now there went no day without incidents. The clinching event was the King’s decision not to wait for the arrival of the harvest but to send an army to calm things down by force. There was quite a battle in Brussels which was lost by the army, as the crown prince commanding it didn’t want to destroy one of his capitals (and moreover dreamed to usurp his father’s place and become king of the Southern Netherlands). The army fled and all over the South the administration collapsed.

Though there was never a general vote, it is clear that most people wanted to destroy the Union and preferred returning to the old well-known Southern Netherlands, though under the name of Belgium. Of course this was no longer the old confederation that had governed itself in the 17th and 18th century, but a strongly centralized state in the French mould. The young state came into the hands of a French speaking bourgoisie that found its strength in the French speaking part (Wallonia) where the industrial revolution was already well on its way. Agrarian Flanders was very poor and was discriminated against in all possible ways, economically and culturally — Justice was often handed out in French only and Flemings who could only speak Dutch were sometimes not allowed to defend themselves in their own language. That discrimination only ended in the 1960s when the multinationals once more made Flanders the far richest part of the country and some laws made an end to the preponderance of French over Dutch. Nevertheless some Flemings have never accepted the breaking up of the Dutch speaking peoples and they still hate every Belgian celebration even when it is an opera.

During the first half of the 19th century many people still knew what had really happened and there was much bitterness towards the bourgoisie. They had taken power in their hands and had reserved the vote for exactly 0.5% of the population. Almost nobody who died during the successful revolt would have gotten the vote had he lived. The new masters didn’t want to be reminded of the true origins of the revolt and they much preferred and encouraged the myth that the singing of the duet “Amour sacré de la patrie” made the revolution happen. After all, opera was their favored art and for them it made a far more interesting story than the revolt of unemployed people. The world of opera of course helped to propagate the myth. The last performances of the opera in this country were 100 years later in 1930 at De Munt with Fernand Ansseau and Ernest Tilkin-Servais. During the 22 performances the audience always rose at the singing of “Amour sacré”. Fifty years later in 1980 there would be a new performance in Brussels with José van Dam as Pietro. Everything went smoothly till the day of the performance. Then it became known that hundreds of radical Flemings had not forgotten the “separatist mutiny” and intended to demonstrate during the performance. It was cancelled.

And so to 2005. In Ghent there is a private organization run by one man, John Boeren, which performs operas no longer in the repertory as directors and general managers hate operas they cannot kill with an “innovative concept”. Boeren receives almost no subsidies and when somebody suggested that he could get some money at last by inserting a performance as a kind of celebration for 175 year of Belgium he gladly accepted the idea. Originally he wanted to perform Manon but the idea of getting a meager 2.500 Euros was enough to change his mind. That’s when this writer starts to play a role. I got an anonymous mail telling me that once more some radical Flemings were going to kill that Muette. I have a column in the biggest radical Flemish weekly — Yes, I too much prefer an independent Flemish republic — and I wondered why radical Flemings share the same stupid myth with the most backward followers of unitary Belgium. Moreover I told them to demonstrate before and after the performance but to leave the opera itself in peace, as I don’t want to be reminded of the thirties when some people in Germany disturbed opera performances conducted by Bruno Walter. The radicals were almost hysterical and deluged my (and their) weekly with mail but as their plans were now clear for everybody to see they compromised. They had bought 50 tickets and they made an agreement with the police, the mayor and John Boeren that they would interrupt for 5 minutes exactly and then leave the theatre. As could be expected they awaited the start of “Amour sacré” and then sang the Flemish national hymn, cried slogans in favor of the United Netherlands once more and left exactly as they had promised. Everyone was happy: the spectators, who remained very calm, were glad that they didn’t miss a single note; the demonstrators were on television and John Boeren for the first time got formidable free publicity (and nothing else as he didn’t receive a single promised Euro subsidy).

And, oh yes, there was a performance. La Muette was not given in the opera but in the concert auditorium of the Bijloke, a magnificent medieval abbey in the heart of Ghent. The auditorium is very well apt for a lieder recital or a chamber orchestra but in the rather small space a real orchestra sounds somewhat too noisy with the brass section especially drowning out everybody else. A pity as Jean Pierre Haeck, a conductor from Liège, really likes this repertory and succeeds in breathing life in it. The amateur chorus moreover sang as good as any professional body. John Boeren can put 30,000 Euro down for orchestra, chorus, singers, box office and hire of the auditorium. Still he succeeded well. Tenor Tiemin Wang (a member of the De Munt chorus) sang with style and a hint of steel that reminded one here and there of Tony Poncet. Young Flemish tenor Ludwig van Gyseghem has some promising material and was a very fresh voiced Alphonse who has only to strengthen his high register. Best was Liège soprano Amaryllis Grégoire: a good supple voice with excellent diction, clear bell-like high notes. Only baritone Patrick Delcour (usually a comprimario at the Liège opera) was a little too rough as Pietro. So there is quite some life left in the old war horse and many an opera house could do worse than produce La Muette de Portici. I’m sure it will make an even more stronger impression on the boards and I even put forward the heresy that it wouldn’t suffer from some updating in a brilliant director’s concept.

Jan Neckers
Keerbergen, Flanders

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