Dancing with Marie Antoinette

Was that Casanova flirting with Madame Wynne? Who was that man dancing with Marie Antoinette? Who is doing what – and with whom – by the orchestra?

Western’s Don Wright Faculty of Music professor Richard Semmens knows all about the dancing, disguises and devious deeds of the Parisian opera ball of 18th century. In fact, he is an expert on it, making him first choice as advisor to a National Geographic filmmaker.

The film, Party Like the Queen of France, will broadcast in early February as part of Party Like …, a series of three one-hour National Geographic documentaries comparing historic excess with its modern equivalent.

Semmens received a call this summer from Andres Figueroa and Philip Day at Edge West Productions asking if he would help give authenticity to a documentary on the opera balls Marie Antoinette attended. They had consulted Semmens’ book, The Bals publics at the Paris Opera in the 18th century.

“Once the film is assembled, it goes through a series of checks and balances because National Geographic wants it to be accurate,” Semmens says. “At the rough-cut stage, they wanted assurance it was really so and some of their questions were answered in my book.”

But not all the questions.

So Semmens’ personal expertise was summoned by phone. He is the only person who has done an extensive study on the subject.

“They had some thoughtful questions about the opera balls of the 18th century at the opera house,” he says. “Certain presuppositions were inaccurate.”

One of those was that men had to surrender their swords at the door. “It’s true, but no one checked. There was no cloakroom. People were just smart enough to show up without a sword,” Semmens says.

Day also wanted clarification the opera balls shared the stage with the opera. “On almost every opera ball evening, there was also an opera from 5:15 to 8 p.m. Then they had to strike the set, raise the floor, decorate and be ready to go for 11:30 or midnight.”

The opera house at the Palais-Royale included a set of raked steps with benches forming an amphitheatre surrounded by loges up to four stories tall. The panterre sloped down from the amphitheatre to the orchestra pit at the foot of the stage. The stage housed a series of flats to create deep perspective.

All this had to be transformed into one large, flat space for the balls, in about three hours.

Some nights the crowds were huge, making dancing or even hearing the music impossible. Two orchestras competed on either side of the hall. “It was like an 18th-century rave,” Semmens says.

Disguises of those who attended gave them “liberty and licence to behave in a way they wouldn’t be caught dead doing otherwise. It was not true anonymity because many were recognized. It was agreed that when you were in disguise, you had licence.”

Social “mishaps’ were thus allowed.

“Misbehaviour was empowered in varying ways by the notion of disguise and the quest to unmask or catch someone,” he says.

The Duc d’Orléans, nephew of Louis XIV, was named Regent by his uncle because the king’s great great grandson was only six at the time. The free-thinking, womanizing Duc rarely appeared at Versailles, preferring life in Paris. His residence in the city was the Palais Royal, which also housed the opera theatre. D’Orléans gave his approval to the establishment of balls at the opera in early 1716. They were a vehicle for “reinvigorating and solidifying power and making it clear he was the Regent.”

However, by the time Marie Antoinette was flirting with disaster, the heyday of the balls was in decline.

“This threw a wrench into the filmmaker’s concept,” Semmens says. “They wanted to know why Marie Antoinette was disliked – was it because of her behaviour at the balls? I said I didn’t think so. If there was a reason for Paris to be suspicious, it was really her flamboyant spending. But the real reason was that she was Austrian, and the Austro-Hungarian Hapsburg families and the French Bourbon families were often at war. She was thought of as a liability – they could run into difficulty if she shared state secrets.”

As well as the music, drama and politics of the opera balls, Semmmens’ book addressed the dancing. He performs 18th century dance, and for many years he was a member of a Baroque dance troupe.