Vedettes of the Caf’Conc’

There are two categories of women [at the café-concert]: those who pose and do not sing and those who both pose and sing. Those in the first category are chosen from beauties […], the second from here and there, graduates from the Conservatoire fallen on hard times, former milliners, castaways from provincial theatres. What is required is a voice.

– Pierre Véron, Paris s’amuse (1861).

Café-concerts from the 1850s exploited women in a decorative function: the corbeille consisted of a semi-circle of seated women, in elaborate toilette and elegant (although not necessarily modest) dress. Reproduced in paintings such as Degas’s Café-concert aux Ambassadeurs (1876–1877), the corbeille has become a signature image of the institution. But it belies the powerful position of star singers who developed and defined both the repertoire and the industry. As the café-concert’s central attraction, singers performed their most popular, current songs in the “tours de chant,” and artists with idiosyncratic musical and gestural styles created their own role types and repertoire, which became identified by their name (e.g. “genre Thérésa”). At the same time, exploitation was rampant in the industry. Debutantes were assessed on the basis of their looks, demeanor, age, and even the shape of their legs. Lower-ranking singers earned very low wages and many turned to prostitution; some café-concert owners forced them to pass the hat (faire la quête) and to persuade clients to drink using erotic means.

The path to stardom, Concetta Condemi (1992) suggests, required access to money (often via rich protectors), networks of contacts in the milieu, unique and distinctive vocal and physical qualities, and, most important, intelligent and imaginative management of one’s public image. Café-concert’s first vedette, Thérésa (1837–1913), with her plain looks and working-class background, cultivated an image as a populist singer (“cantatrice populaire”) who sang of the virtues of hard work. Conservatoire-trained Anna Judic (1849–1911), with her clear soprano voice, excelled in laughing songs, and she created the genre of the ingénue. She divided her time between operetta, comedy, and the café-concert, and, with her performance in Offenbach’s La belle Hélène at the Théâtre des Variétés in 1877, became the model for the operetta singer Rose Mignon in Zola’s Nana (1880).

The most emblematic café-concert star at the century’s end was Yvette Guilbert (1865–1944). Guilbert cultivated a distinctive visual appearance with her angular, thin figure, long gloves, and red hair, and was classified as a diseuse, using a vocal style that was more spoken than sung, accompanied by stylized gestures. She became a sensation after her appearance at Le Divan Japonais in 1890, singing chansons modernes about bourgeois hypocrisy, poverty, and a variety of risqué themes.

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