Who can think of Charles Gounod without thinking of Faust, one of the most successful operas of the entire nineteenth century? And yet it looked for a while like its London premiere would be a dismal failure. Impresario James Henry Mapleson learned a few days before it was scheduled that only 30 pounds worth of seats had been sold. The cashier told him that there was no sense in performing it four successive nights as scheduled, because it had attracted no interest from the public.
Mapleson had another idea. No tickets to the first three performances would be offered for sale. The few people who had already bought tickets would come, of course, but he collected all remaining tickets, took them home, and mailed them all over London and its suburbs. That is, he made sure that the audience for the first three nights would be full, and since the tickets weren’t selling, he gave most of them away.
At the same time, he placed an advertisement in the Times. It said that Faust had excited so much interest that the first three performances had been sold out, but that because of a death in the family, two stalls for the first performance had been made available and were on sale from a jeweler and a stationer in Cockspur Street. He quietly promised the proprietors of those stores free tickets if they managed to sell what he gave them. Meanwhile, of course, the box office had nothing.
Meanwhile, everyone who tried to get a ticket there was naturally told that all the tickets were gone, not only for the premiere, but for the next two nights as well. They told their friends, who also inquired at the box office and learned that it was quite impossible to obtain tickets until the fourth evening.
The first performance drew an appreciative, but not particularly enthusiastic response, but Mapleson made sure Gounod appeared for multiple curtain calls. The second night got a better response from the audience, and the third night better still. On the fourth night, the people who had waited so long to get a chance at this new sensation loved it. Of course, Mapleson had no choice but to offer Faust for more than the advertised four nights, due to popular demand.
Thus, at least, according to Mapleson’s own memoirs, as excerpted in The Book of Musical Anecdotes by Norman Lebrecht.